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‘Rebounding from Sandy’ telethon raises hundreds of thousands for relief effort

With 48 hours before the official start of Kentucky’s national title defense against Maryland, the places you would expect to find John Calipari’s Wildcats would have been resting in their beds, the practice gym or the film room.

Instead, they took a 15-minute drive down Winchester Road to the WKYT television studios for something that could not be further removed from their daily routines.

Members of the UK men’s basketball team participated in the “Rebounding from Sandy” telethon on Wednesday, raising money for victims of the superstorm that ravaged the Northeast last week. With Coach Cal spending most of the two-hour broadcast encouraging donations on air, his players sat behind him alongside American Red Cross volunteers taking phone calls from members of the Big Blue Nation who accepted the challenge to help.

Over the course of the telethon, players and volunteers fielded approximately 2,500 phone calls, or more than 10 per minute.

“My back hurts,” Calipari said. “I stood there for more than two hours, but you know what, it was all worth it. I’m trying to prepare my team for a tough game. We didn’t have a whole lot of time (to prepare for this), but you had to make time when you think about what’s going on. Another storm is coming in there. The American Red Cross is not out there rebuilding homes; what they’re doing is feeding people, giving them water, food, shelter.”

In spite of the fact that initial plans for the event were announced just three days ago, approximately $500,000 was raised from phoned-in pledges and a group called “The Founders” that matched donations. As it all came together, Calipari called on the select group of businesses and individuals knowing they would be willing to help.

The players answered phone calls with American Red Cross volunteers during the telethon. (photo by Michael Reaves, UK Athletics)

“When you’re the head coach at Kentucky and you’re the head coach of basketball, you have an ability to move people throughout the state and fans throughout the country that make up the Big Blue Nation,” Calipari said. “Rallying them and keeping them involved and active is part of what your job is.”

That dollar amount doesn’t include funds raised in the auction of 30 signed pieces of the national championship floor, two tickets to the Barnstable Brown Derby Party and a signed Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

“I think it’s definitely our fan base that allows to use our popularity to reach out and affect and touch the thousands that have been affected by the devastation,” assistant coach Orlando Antigua said. “We are fortunate and blessed to be put into the position with the American Red Cross and people who are willing and excited to have this opportunity to give back.”

With Papa John’s founder and CEO John Schnatter’s commitment to donate a dollar for each pizza sold at Papa John’s 3,000 stores nationwide, a few hundred thousand dollars more is expected to be added to that total. The million-dollar mark is not out of the question.

For the American Red Cross, the staggering amount of money raised means food, clothing and shelter for suffering families, but what strikes Winn Stephens, director of development for the Bluegrass Chapter of the American Red Cross, was the willingness to help of Coach Cal and his team.

“For someone like Coach Cal to take time out during the season to think about others, to raise money to help us fulfill our mission of alleviating the suffering that is going on from Hurricane Sandy, it is inspiring,” Stephens said. “It is the kind of thing that gets us up and gets us to the office. We just can’t thank UK Athletics, WKYT and all the supporters who have helped us with this enough.”

The Founders

The Founders is a group of individuals and businesses John Calipari rounded up to match the funds raised during Wednesday’s telethon. Coach Cal would like to recognize them for their generosity: 

Royce, Tomi Anne, Mia and Maggie Pulliam | Gray Construction Company | Wildcat Ford | McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland Lawfirm | Darby and Charlotte Turner and all partners at Bingham Greenbaum | Bruce Drake | Brian McCarty | Brad Nolan | Setzer Family | Central Bank | RJ Corman Railroad Group | John and Ellen Calipari | Xerox | Pearse Lyons | The Arington Foundation | Members of the UK Board of Trustees

As the telethon went on and they interacted with fans over the phone and realized the difference they were making simply by donating their time, the players became more and more excited about being a part of a special event.

“It gives them a bigger picture for what life is really about,” Antigua said. “Sports are great but there are people that are dealing with life-and-death situations, people that are trying to eat, trying to stay warm, trying to stay sheltered.”