I coach for the names on the backs of the jerseys—not just the front. My players. They are sent to me by their fathers, their mothers, their grandmothers, their aunts—whoever in this world raised them and loves them. Others look at their NBA bodies and consider them lucky. Future millionaires, just stopping through before they cash in. That’s not what I see. They’re kids, some of them as young as seventeen years old. They all need me in a different way. Some want my affection, others my approval. It’s a burden to be responsible for other people’s children, sometimes a heavy burden.
I go to Mass every morning. It’s how I start my day and it’s my moment of peace, almost meditation. If I’m struggling with a player, it’s where I ask myself: How would I want my own son treated?
But I’m also a sinner, as we all are. If you come after one of my players, I come after you twice as hard. If you kill one of mine, I burn your village. It’s the Italian in me. I’m not proud of that, but it’s who I am.
My credo is “Players First.” It drives everything I do as a coach. Notice that it’s plural, not singular. Players First. We reach our personal goals by striving together toward collective goals. During the season it’s all about team. After the season it’s about the individual.
I made this promise on the day I became the Kentucky coach, at the press conference. I had not even sat down with my team yet. It was not a recruiting ploy, but a statement of purpose. “As a basketball coach, I don’t make a whole lot of promises. I never have,” I said that day. “But we make commitments. The commitment being, this will be about players first. I know how big this program is. But it’s only big because of the players who have gone through here. This program will be about players first. All of our staff, we’re here to serve them.” The fact is, that’s the way I had always coached. Even in the NBA. I just had not put a name on it.
Anybody who watches me on the sideline can see how much I want to win. But I try to remember what my real job is. The Kentucky basketball program will go on and on, long after I’m gone. A hundred years from now, they’ll still be playing and somebody will be coaching. One season’s win-loss record won’t matter. It’ll be forgotten. But a year in a young man’s life is not forgotten by him or his family, and it may set the trajectory for the rest of his life.