It was like a scene straight out of a movie. Hundreds of kids, of all ages and sizes, swarmed the helicopters in anticipation of whom would be emerging from the cockpit.
On this day, UK coach John Calipari, along with Alltech founder Dr. Pearse Lyons, have landed on an abandoned airstrip in Ouanaminthe, a village located in the northeast corner of Haiti.
They’re here to visit one of two schools that Dr. Lyons and Alltech have invested time and money in, as part of the company's Sustainable Haiti Project.
A pickup truck and an SUV drove us down the main street to an elementary school. The street was nothing more than a dirt road, littered with rocks and mud puddles.
A sign at the entrance of the school greeted our party. "Welcome, coach John Calipari," written in English, hung on the gate. When we walked in, we were greeted by more children, dressed in their school uniforms, singing in French and waving Haitian flags.
Soon, the kids launched into "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." In English. It was an emotional moment for all of us, including coach Cal.
Cal and Dr. Lyons took a quick tour of the two-room school, but not before handing out bite-sized candy bars, a treat reserved for the kids when the Alltech folks come in for a visit.
Prior to landing in Quanaminthe, we visited the tiny village of Dondon,located in the shadows of the Citadelle. One of the most amazing structures I've ever seen, the massive fortress in the sky is such an icon that Dr. Lyons named the company‘s coffee after it.
Dondon is the home of Alltech's coffee co-op, a new business venture, which employees locals and reinvests in the local school. Currently, the school in Dondon consists only of a couple of rooms with concrete floors, a single blackboard and rudimentary desks. The school “kitchen” is a large iron kettle sitting on an open fire.
Neither school has running water or lights, so classwork is done by the light of the day. School begins shortly after the sun rises.
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and Alltech sees an opportunity to make an impact. Dr. Lyons says his company is there for the long haul.
"These people want help," Dr. Lyons told me. "We don't take jobs from Americans. That's not the issue. When you look at this poverty and you look at this yearning and you look at these little faces..." he says, his voice trailing off. "And they're all saying, 'Give me a chance. Give me a chance.'"
The places we visited are far removed from the rubble and despair of the earthquake zone. But I found myself constantly thinking, “This isn’t Africa. These people aren’t dying and suffering. This is their way of life. This is all they know. These people know nothing but poverty.”
It's day two of our trip to the Caribbean. Calipari and Dr. Lyons are fast friends and both are intrigued by the other.
"He has a pace that I like," the coach said of Lyons.
Dr. Lyons likes the coach's marketing genius.
"Bringing him down here does a couple of things," Lyons. "First of all, he sees it first hand, what he's helping us do and what he can help us do. Make a difference. Secondly, and quite frankly, he's bringing the message, as only he can do, to our folks back in Lexington."
For Calipari, that pace was whirlwind, including a trip to New York on Sunday, followed by the 6 a.m. flight out of Lexington with the Alltech group on Tuesday, and ending with Dick Vitale‘s dinner and tribute in Sarasota on Friday.
After leaving Lexington on Tuesday morning, we landed just outside Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic at 9:30 a.m. A band, along with dancers decked out in traditional dress greet us at the airport, along with a handful of Dominican media and Eduardo Najri, the general manager of the Dominican national team.
On this trip, along with Calipari, Dr. Lyons and myself, assistant coaches Orlando Antigua and Rod Strickland joined the group. Three more from Alltech rounded out the party.
We loaded into SUVs and were driven into Santo Domingo, where Calipari was introduced during a morning news conference as the new Dominican national coach. As you might expect, Cal handled it well, despite the language barrier.
But surprisingly, Antigua was given the rock star treatment. Nearly every media outlet present at the news conference wanted an interview with the UK assistant.
“Dominicans follow their countrymen,” he told me later. “It was a great, great moment.”
Antigua played for the DR national team in the 90s. He’s just as proud now to be on the coaching staff that will try to lead his country’s team to the Olympics and a world championship. He said by going after Calipari, his country is serious about winning.
The former Pitt star and Harlem Globetrotter told me Calipari carefully weighed the pros and cons of coaching the Dominicans. Cal bounced ideas off Antigua and used Antigua’s knowledge of his homeland to to assist in making the final decision to coach the national team.
“I think its a great opportunity. It spreads our brand, the Kentucky brand,“ Cal said. “It's in China strong now. We can push it down here in South America. I think it's good for everything we do.”
After the press conference, our party was given a tour of the national sports complex, had lunch at the David Crockett Steak House (yes, THAT David Crockett), then met the President of the Dominican Republic.
The Presidential Palace is located in the heart of the Santo Domingo and is heavily fortified. Armed guards ushered our vehicles onto the grounds, and when we pulled up to the entrance, a hoard of media swarmed Calipari.
One of the lighter moments of our visit came when Jorge Arias, an Alltech scientist and one of Dr. Lyons closest confidants, was mobbed by the media outside the Presidential Palace. Arias, who hails from Argentina and speaks fluent Spanish, fielded questions and never let on he wasn‘t involved with the basketball. We’re still not sure what questions were being asked in that huddle, or what Jorge’s answers were.
President Leonel Fernandez greeted us and then was given a Dominican jersey by Cal and Antigua, much like the celebration that takes place in the White House every year with our President and a championship team.
We ended a busy day with a reception, followed by a very late dinner at a small Dominican restaurant near Christopher Columbus’ house (yes, THAT Christopher Columbus).
Here to Stay
John Calipari told the Dominican national media that he would be involved in their country’s basketball long term.
“I’m in it for the long haul,” Cal said at his introductory news conference.
Like he has with the Chinese, Calipari plans to bring Dominican coaches to Kentucky, where they can watch and learn. He also has endorsed a grassroots level movement to bring outdoor courts to the DR.
“All you need in this sport is a ball and a hoop,” Cal told a group of students at the Centro Cultural Mauricio Baez, in Santo Domingo.
Cal also has noted how there are no Nike outlets in the Dominican Republic, hinting at a possible untapped market for the shoe giant. Cal and Nike are gearing up to build courts in and around the Dominican.
Coach in Waiting
Former national player Orlando Antigua will be an assistant on John Calipari’s first Dominican staff, and will be joined by Rod Strickland, John Robic and longtime NBA coach Del Harris, as well as former St. John’s star Felipe Lopez. Harris, Cal said, has coached internationally before, and Lopez is a Dominican native.
Cal told me that he’d like for Antigua someday to become the coach of the Dominican national team. Judging by the reception he received in his homeland, I’d say Antigua would be a logical choice if and when Calipari steps away.
Here Come the Serbs?
When the Dominican team convenes in Lexington for their first camp under John Calipari, they may be playing one or two exhibition games in Rupp Arena.
Cal said he’d like to play another country, if possible. Dr. Pearse Lyons, of Alltech, already has contacted the Serbian national team to guage their interest. Dr. Lyons said the response was favorable.
Calipari also said he’d like to see former UK players team up to play against his first Dominican team.
“If there’s an NBA lockout, I’d like to get a few of the guys back for a game in Lexington,” Cal said.
Cal said such a game should be televised, mentioning the possibility of his Dominican team being seen across the U.S. and in the Caribbean on TV.
Everyone a Friend
Dr. Pearse Lyons has as much bounce in his step, as much positive energy about him, as any successful entrepreneur I’ve ever met. And everyone he meets, he treats like a friend.
One of the most impressive qualities of the man who founded Alltech, which started out as an animal nutrition and health company, is that Dr. Lyons seemingly has never met a stranger.
When our group landed in Dondon and Ouanaminthe, we were besieged by locals wanting to get a glimpse of the eight strangers who were making such a grand entrance. Dr. Lyons mingled with the villagers, carried on conversations in French, even gave one little boy an Alltech hat, just to get him to smile.
Dr. Lyons’ Alltech group, you’ll recall, sponsored the World Equestrian Games, held at the Kentucky Horse Park. Dr. Lyons already is planning to sponsor more events in an effort to get the Alltech name out.
Those are the highlights of one of the most incredible trips ever... Stay tuned.