LEXINGTON, Ky. — On Shawn Perry’s 30th birthday last year, he found out his wife was having a little girl. A lifelong Kentucky basketball fan, picking a name for his daughter was the easy part: Cali Perry, naturally.
“My wife’s name is Cari, which is just one letter off, and she loves [the TV show] Grey’s Anatomy, which has a character named Callie, so she was on board right away,” Shawn said. “When I said it — Cali Perry — it just clicked. I said, ‘That’s the one!’ But I had to say it two or three times before she understood why I liked it so much.”
Which is: The Hall of Fame coach of his beloved Wildcats is named John Calipari. Or Cali-Perry. Friends and family in Prestonsburg, Ky., population 3,000-ish, loved the name, “thought it was the coolest thing that ever was.”
It fit even more after Cali was born. She arrived eight weeks early, via emergency C-section after Shawn’s wife developed a life-threatening condition called preeclampsia, and little Cali Perry was just 3 pounds, 5 ounces at birth on July 15, 2017.
“She was so tiny,” Shawn said. “While she was in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit], the nurses nicknamed her Wildcat Perry, because she had to be a fighter. That’s why people say her real name is perfect.”
The way this proud papa sees it, Cali Perry is an overachiever just like Calipari, the grandson of Italian immigrants and son of blue-collar parents who has taken three different programs to the Final Four and is angling for a fifth such trip in nine years at Kentucky.
“Cal is the type to persevere regardless of the odds put up against him,” Shawn Perry said. “Every year, the [NCAA Tournament] selection committee stacks the bracket against him. This year, it kind of backfired [the top four seeds in UK’s region lost on opening weekend], but the Harrison twins’ year, it couldn’t have been more stacked. The Brandon Knight year, it couldn’t have been more stacked.
“He just persevered and won anyway. That’s kind of how I want her to be: Regardless of the obstacles put in front of you, keep going forward.”
Coach and child have not yet met — although the parents are dying to know what he thinks of the name — but the man who led Kentucky to the 2012 national championship did somehow get wind of this ultimate tribute and sent along an autographed photo.
To: Cali Perry. From: Calipari.
Ask the obvious question here and Shawn laughs nervously. So … what if Calipari pulls a Rick Pitino and leaves Lexington for, say, rival Louisville one day? Would you regret naming your only child after him?
“Cari actually asked me about that one day,” he said. “As long as Cal doesn’t get us on probation, I’ll be all right.”
The family already included a 6-year-old boy cousin on Cari’s side named Keightley — after “Mr. Wildcat” Bill Keightley, the late, legendary team manager — “so she has relatives just as nutty as I am, I guess.” They’re all hoping Cali Perry’s first season of Kentucky basketball brings Calipari’s second national title and the program’s ninth.
“As soon as Arizona lost [to 13th-seeded Buffalo] in the first round, I said, ‘Oh, this is a legit possibility,’” Shawn Perry said.
The Cats, seeded fifth in the South Region, have cruised into the Sweet 16 as No. 1 seed Virginia, No. 2 seed Cincinnati, No. 3 seed Tennessee and No. 4 seed Arizona all got upset. The only hurdles left between now and the Final Four are No. 9 seed Kansas State and the 7/11 winner between Nevada and Loyola-Chicago.
“I would be ecstatic,” Perry said. “It would be a storybook ending.”
Should Kentucky go all the way, cut down the nets in San Antonio, Cali Harper Perry and John Vincent Calipari always would be able to look back on the summer of 2017 and know that’s when something special started.
Not easy in those first months, mind you, a fight from Day 1, but pretty perfect in the end.
“After the year we’ve had,” Shawn’s wife Cari hollered through the phone from across the room Sunday, “that would just be the cherry on top.”
NCAA TOURNAMENT COVERAGE OF THE CATS
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- Hamidou Diallo had all but faded away — and then he came soaring back.
- Shhhhhhhweet 16! Gilgeous-Alexander silences crowd, punches Cats’ ticket.
- You’ve heard about SGA’s 7 a.m. workouts. Here is the story behind them.
- Death Bracket implodes and now it’s a Yellow Brick Road to the Final Four.
- Good Cal, Bad Cal: Cats share when they made their coach maddest, proudest.
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