Calipari accepts offer to coach Dominican Republic team

John Calipari, who led the Dominican Republic National Team to its best finish in international play last summer, has accepted an offer to coach the Dominican Republic at the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

“I’m really honored that the Dominican federation and Eduardo Najri and Jose Miguel Bonetti  have once again asked me to coach their national team,” Calipari said. “It was a wonderful learning experience last time that turned out successful for both the Dominican Republic and my staff.”

Calipari will attempt to guide the Caribbean nation to its first-ever Olympics after leading the Dominican Republic to the doorstep last summer.

“This country is very excited to have Coach Cal back,” said Najri, general manager of the Dominican Republic National Team. “We were following closely during the NCAA Tournament and he had 10 million followers rooting for him in the Dominican Republic. The fact that he’s going to join us again is a great honor and we look forward to finishing what we started last year in Argentina.”

“To have a coach of Coach Cal’s experience is a luxury for our country, said Rafael Uribe, the Dominican Basketball Federation president.

With Coach Cal at the helm last summer, the Dominicans captured the bronze medal at the FIBA Americas Championship in Mar del Plata, Argentina. While clinching an automatic berth to this summer’s Olympics qualifier, the Dominican Republic defeated archrival Puerto Rico and world power Brazil.

“Our goal was to become the best team we could be and in turn reach the Olympics,” Calipari said. “Our team had the best finish in the history of the country and we felt like we became the best team we could be, but we fell just short of qualifying for the Olympics. I think all of us, as a staff and a team, feel like we have some unfinished business.”

The Dominican Republic will train at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington at the beginning of June before heading to Puerto Rico for eight days to participate in the FIBA CentroBasket tournament. Coach Cal will not be with the team during its trip to Puerto Rico while he conducts his duties as the head coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team, but he will rejoin the Dominican Republic team in Venezuela at the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament.  Del Harris and Orlando Antigua will coach the team in Puerto Rico.

The last-chance qualifier, which features 12 national teams, takes place July 2-8. The top three teams earn a spot in the 2012 Olympics in London.

The bulk of Calipari’s record-setting 2011 Dominican Republic team is expected to return for this year’s run, including leading performers Al Horford (Atlanta Hawks) and Jack Michael Martinez. Calipari will retain the same staff from last year, including Antigua, Harris, Rod Stickland and Billy Bayno. The coaching staff will also have Jose Mercedes assisting. Mercedes won the Dominican Basketball League Championship with the Leones of Santo Domingo Basketball Club.

“Last year, we, as a staff, kind of went in blind not knowing the players, not knowing exactly how we were going to have to play,” Coach Cal said. “It kind of developed over time as we marched through the tournament in South America. This year we will have a head start because we know how we want to play and we know, for the most part, who our personnel will be.”

The 2012 Summer Olympics begin July 27 in London. Regardless of the Dominicans’ outcome in Venezuela, Coach Cal’s Dominican squad will play the U.S. National Team in an exhibition game on July 12 at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.