Kentucky basketball players step up to help flood victims. ‘We gotta do something here.’

·6-min read

Sitting in his car and scrolling through his phone, CJ Fredrick looked at the heartbreaking photos of the eastern Kentucky flooding and the devastation it has wreaked upon the region.

One, in particular — a picture of an elderly woman, her entire home flooded, huddled in a seated position to stay above the water — struck him.

“It just kind of broke me down,” Fredrick said Monday. “And that’s when I just said, ‘Man, we gotta do something here.’”

The University of Kentucky basketball player spoke less than a week after catastrophic flooding hit the eastern part of the state, and on the eve of his team’s efforts to help. Fredrick was joined at the podium by UK Coach John Calipari and teammates Oscar Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin.

Calipari paused for a moment as he spoke about the story of the four children who were swept away from their parents and died in the flooding. Toppin’s eyes watered and he choked up as he recalled a photo of a woman holding her dog on a roof, the floodwater around them.

“I was devastated for her. For her family,” he said. “It can happen to anybody. It could happen to us. And it’s just by the grace of God that it’s not happening to us. So we have to be grateful for that. But we also have to keep these people in our prayers and pray for them. And just stick with them and make sure we can do anything we can to help them get through this.”

What the UK basketball team will do is host a telethon and open practice at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the American Red Cross to benefit Kentuckians affected by the flooding.

Calipari is no stranger to such events. He’s helped organize several telethons in his 13 years as Kentucky’s head coach.

In 2010 — a few months into his first season with the Wildcats — the program used a telethon to raise more than $1 million for Haiti earthquake victims. UK basketball has also hosted telethons to aid victims of Superstorm Sandy (2012), Hurricane Harvey (2017) and the tornadoes in western Kentucky in December.

The fundraising for western Kentucky tornado relief is ongoing. Calipari and several UK players visited five Kroger stores last month as part of those continued efforts, and the program says it has raised more than $5 million so far.

In the past, Calipari’s players have eagerly joined in the process. But, this time, the UK coach has touted the “player-driven” approach to the fundraising efforts.

“They always would want to know, ‘What are you doing, Coach?’ Because they knew I would do something,” he said of similar events in the past. “... This was totally different. This kind of got me.”

This time, the players came to him.

Toppin gave Fredrick credit for getting the ball rolling with the team’s flood relief initiative. Fredrick acknowledged that he was the first Wildcat to mention it, but he said his teammates were quick to jump in with their own ideas, and — by the time they went to Calipari with the plan — it had become a team effort.

Fredrick is from Cincinnati but played his high school ball at Covington Catholic, so he knows better than most what the UK basketball brand is capable of in times like these.

“And the first thing that just came into my head was, ‘What can we do to help?’ Because the brand of Kentucky — it’s a huge brand,” he said. “And I knew that we could make an immediate impact. And you think of what Cal does in his leadership — this is what he teaches us.

“I just thought it would be a great way to get the fans involved. … It would be a great thing for everybody just to get together right now. And I think that’s what everyone needed.”

Kentucky Flood Relief telethon

Calipari spoke with pride as he stressed the “player-driven” efforts from his team.

“When you coach, you try to give the players something, and then you get to see it on the court and you see them succeed — and it puts a smile on their face. Nothing feels better,” he said. “Except off the court, when you’re trying to give them stuff that they can live with the rest of their lives. …

“When they came to me — this is servant leadership in action. And that’s why I said, ‘This is a big deal.’”

Calipari wants to give the Kentucky fans who show up to Rupp on Tuesday night a good show.

The UK women’s basketball team will be there. There will be poster giveaways. T-shirts with caricatures of the current UK men’s players are being printed, and some will be handed out at the open practice. The rest will be sold online, with the proceeds going to flood relief. The team has already collectively signed 100 basketballs — two of which were on display at Monday’s press conference — and those will be sold to benefit the efforts.

Calipari also teased “a really big-time announcement” that he said would be revealed at some point during the telethon.

He knows much of the region is still without cell service and electricity, much more important things than basketball on their minds right now. If anyone affected by the flooding can tune in, the hope is they’ll feel a sense of solidarity.

“What I would hope is, they turn on the TV and see Rupp Arena. And they’re like, ‘Wow, these people care.’ And this state is that way,” Calipari said. “… Our state always comes through.”

As of Monday afternoon, there were 35 confirmed deaths from the eastern Kentucky flooding. Rescue and recovery efforts are still underway. More storms are expected in the region later this week.

The Kentucky Flood Relief telethon will air from 5-8 p.m. on WLEX-18, with UK players and coaches taking calls for the first hour or so of the broadcast. At 6:30 p.m., the open practice at Rupp will begin. Doors to the arena open at 5 p.m., admission and parking — in the High Street lot — will be free, and fans are encouraged to donate to the flood relief efforts.

Donations at the practice will be accepted at the entrances to Rupp Arena.

“Just come. Have a ball with this team,” Calipari said. “Enjoy what they’re trying to do. Let’s give what we can give. … I can’t predict how it’s going to turn out. All I can tell you is, you’re doing it for the right reasons.”

Those who would like to donate to the flood relief efforts don’t have to wait until the telethon Tuesday night to do so. Donations are being accepted at RedCross.org. People can also donate by mailing a check to American Red Cross Bluegrass Chapter (Attn: Kentucky Floods), 1450 Newtown Pike, Lexington, KY 40511; or by calling (859) 787-0909.

UK players and coaches have all signed basketballs that will be sold to raise funds for eastern Kentucky flood relief.
UK players and coaches have all signed basketballs that will be sold to raise funds for eastern Kentucky flood relief.