On this Thanksgiving, dream big beyond your surroundings

On this Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for.

I’m thankful for the loving friends and family I have. I’m thankful I’m in a position to help kids realize what they want to do for the rest of their lives and help them reach their dreams. I’m thankful to be in a seat where I can touch so many lives and help our community.

I’m also thankful for what got me here.

Today is not only Thanksgiving for me; it’s the third anniversary of my mother’s death. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her and miss her. I know my dad misses her every day.

The reason I bring that up on this Thanksgiving is I’m thankful for a message she gave me and my sisters early in my childhood that affected the course of my life and that I still carry with me today. She taught us a lot of things, but one thing that really stood out to me was: Dream big beyond your surroundings.

If you look back at where I started, there’s no way I could be where I am today without dreaming big. For me to even be the basketball coach here, I had to dream beyond my surroundings. My grandparents came through Ellis Island and did not speak a lick of English. My parents were high school educated. No one in my family was anything but a laborer. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot. Where we lived, how we dressed and what we ate wasn’t much, but we thought it was normal because we were convinced it was.

My sisters and I are the first college graduates in our family. I laugh now when I think about the fact that I’m the head coach at Kentucky. Are you kidding me? When people look back at my life 50 years from now, people are going to say, “How in the world did that happen? How did he get the Kentucky job?”

It happened because my mother told us to dream big beyond your surroundings. She said, “You’re going to get a college education. You’re going to go on from here and be whatever you want.” As a matter of fact, she always thought I was going to be the president of the United States.

That never happened, but she taught me that you don’t have to look at what you have now and think that this is what you have to be. Dream beyond this, she said. That message has helped me at every stop along my life. It’s certainly helped me in every program I’ve coached.

When I was at UMass, I said, “If Temple can be No. 1 in the country, why can’t we?” And we became the No. 1 team in the country. When I went to Memphis and the league broke up, everybody said, “Cal’s going down, that program is done. Cal will never be heard of again and neither will Memphis’ program.” We became No. 1 because we dreamed beyond what was happening around us.

Here at Kentucky, we’ve dreamed about being the gold standard. We said, “Let’s have every kid in the country wanting to come here to get an education, to be prepared for what they want to do in life and to help people reach their dreams.” And you know what? We’ve done that.

We’ve helped players reach their dreams both on the court and off. We’ve sent 17 players to the NBA over the last four years. We’ve graduated 10 players in four years. We had a 3.4 grade-point average last term. This year we have some of the nicest kids. We’re not just bringing in basketball players who don’t want to get better and don’t want to be good people. Look at John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who each donated a million dollars to charity the second they signed their new deals. It tells me that what we’re teaching here is about more than just basketball.

When I look back at where I came from, I’m so blessed that my mother gave me that message to dream big beyond my surroundings. It’s been the foundation for everything I’ve done and what’s got me here in the first place. For that, I’m thankful.

I want to wish everyone here a great Thanksgiving. I hope you get a chance to spend it with family and friends and reflect back and connect with some of the people who have helped you along the way. Happy Thanksgiving!