Rick Pitino: His defining moments
September, 4, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesRick Pitino's rise and eventual redemption will include this weekend's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.Editor's note: Three legendary college basketball coaches -- Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino and Guy Lewis -- take center stage this weekend as the trio is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. We'll be devoting a day to each as we examine what made them HOF-worthy. Here is Tuesday's tribute to Tarkanian.
By the time his career is over -- and in some ways this is already the case -- Rick Pitino will be mentioned among the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. What separates him is how winding his path has been. The coaches we maintain as the game's greatest almost universally built their legacies on decadeslong, storied tenures at blue-blooded schools. They become institutions synonymous with their programs.
John Wooden at UCLA, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Bob Knight at Indiana, Dean Smith at North Carolina, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Jim Calhoun at Connecticut -- these are men who, as I wrote already Wednesday morning, built their basketball Valhallas in their own image and settled in for a lifetime. Pitino left his own Valhalla -- Kentucky -- in 1997, at the height of his powers -- only the most memorable and notable fork in a career full of them.
Here is a look at some of Pitino's defining moments -- some good, some bad, all of a piece with his story.
1. "The Untouchables": For all the twists and turns that would come before, and all the strange and florid detours that would follow, Rick Pitino's defining moment as a coach will always be the 1995-96 season, when he achieved something like Pitino Basketball Nirvana. After the better part of a decade spent resurrecting Kentucky's proud but bruised program in the wake of the post-Eddie Sutton sanctions, Pitino's beautiful Wildcats machine morphed into its ideal form in 1995-96, when Pitino led a team that eventually would send 11 players to the NBA draft to a 34-2 season, a national title and a place at any "best college basketball team of all time" table.
That season wasn't special just because the Wildcats were so talented. That was part of it, sure, but only the baseline. It was the fact that Pitino managed to unleash that many future NBA players within a style -- his up-tempo, high-pressure, defensively masterful style -- he had been working toward his entire career. He realized it fully, with a team deep enough and balanced enough to utterly dominate with it, in one of those just-about-perfect seasons every coach sees when he closes his eyes at night. Imagine how it must have felt. I'll use the phrase again: In 1995-96, Pitino achieved Basketball Nirvana. It was beautiful to watch.
Also, it happened in these uniforms. Which is pretty great, as bonuses go.
2. The Redeem Team: The decades since Pitino descended from Valhalla were less kind. By the late 2000s, Pitino's personal and professional reputation had been thoroughly bruised, while his old personal rival, Kentucky coach John Calipari, was rapidly turning Pitino's former program into a constant national title contender perennially stocked with the type of pro talent few programs in history have been able to boast. But in 2011-12, Pitino's Louisville group made a surprise run to the Final Four, and all of a sudden a seemingly mediocre team had the look of a national title contender. In 2012-13, that batch of seemingly ragtag guys -- a barely recruited guard best known for biting his nails and no-no-YES shot-selection, a Senegalese center who didn't understand why everyone took basketball so seriously, a point guard who couldn't shoot, an undersized sophomore power forward, and a slow, tweener George Mason transfer -- morphed into a dominant two-way force, a modern update of Pitino's old pressing style capable of seamlessly shifting into any tune their emphatic sideline conductor demanded.
After Luke Hancock, Peyton Siva, & Co. outlasted Michigan in a classic finale, Pitino became the first man in college basketball history to win national titles at two different programs. In April, the lasting shot -- of Pitino and his family drenched in confetti on the Georgia Dome floor, of Louisville's players staring in awe at a cheesy old tradition -- marked Pitino's redemption after years of personal and professional struggle.
3. And everything that went with it: How far had the karmic balance swung back in Pitino's favor this spring? Not only did he win a national title -- which surely would have been more than enough -- within a handful of days at the Final Four, he also 1) congratulated his 30-year-old son on being hired as the head coach at Minnesota, 2) was informed that his horse had won the Santa Anita Derby and qualified to run in the Kentucky Derby, and 3) learned he was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A few weeks later, he reveled in simultaneous horse and hoops heaven at the Kentucky Derby -- unofficial king of all he surveyed. Forget coaches; from March to September, few people anywhere had quite as much fun as Pitino. Even fewer changed the tone of their public-facing lives quite so jubilantly.
4. The Shot: Before Pitino really got his Kentucky machine humming, he had to reform UK out of the rubble of the late-'80s sanctions. That process appeared to come to a symbolic head in 1992 when Sean Woods led the Wildcats to what appeared to be a win over a star-studded Duke team -- just 2.1 seconds before Christian Laettner made the most famous shot in college basketball history. This past March, in advance of Pitino's Elite Eight rematch with Duke, both Pitino and Krzyzewski explained their shared membership in the rarest, most unlikely club. "I think when the basketball gods deem you worthy enough to put you in a great moment, sometimes you're placed in that moment as a winner, and sometimes you lose," Coach K said. "But sometimes the loser shines more than the winner. I thought how [Pitino] reacted and has reacted since made him shine."
5. But it would have been awesome if he had: As in 1992, not all of Pitino's defining moments have been positive, and when the final accounting is taken -- when Pitino one day retires, and the prepared highlight package is rolled out -- it will have to include perhaps his most notorious moment as a coach. "Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans" is the line everyone remembers, but it was part of a longer monologue:
Boston University AthleticsIn his storied career, Pitino has guided three schools to the Final Four.
"Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hardworking, and we're going to improve. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off. I wish we had $90 million under the salary cap. I wish we could buy the world. We can't; the only thing we can do is work hard, and all the negativity that's in this town sucks. I've been around when Jim Rice was booed. I've been around when Yastrzemski was booed. And it stinks. It makes the greatest town, greatest city in the world, lousy. The only thing that will turn this around is being upbeat and positive like we are in that locker room ... and if you think I'm going to succumb to negativity, you're wrong. You've got the wrong guy leading this team."
Had Pitino turned his struggling Celtics teams around, that March 1, 2000, speech might have gone down as a turning point. At worst, it would have been forgotten. (Landing Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft after a league-worst 15-67 season would have helped, too.) Instead, as Celtics head coach, GM, CEO and president of basketball operations, Pitino's failure in Boston was total, and the "Fellowship of the Miserable," Pitino's name for the Celtics' infamously intense fans, quickly turned.
If there was one bright spot (besides "Fellowship of the Miserable," which is amazing), it was when Pitino gave Sports Illustrated the definitive Kenny Anderson quote: "Celtics coach, after hearing that point guard Kenny Anderson has hired a track coach to improve his speed and conditioning: 'Who's he going to hire to run for him?'"
6. Say hello to Billy the Kid: Before the New York Knicks, Kentucky, Boston and Louisville, Rick Pitino earned his national reputation as an upstart coach who turned Providence around from an 11-20 outfit the year before his arrival to a Final Four team in a matter of two seasons. He did so in large part thanks to the arrival of Billy Donovan. Then better known as "Billy the Kid," thanks to Pitino's shameless marketing savvy (Pitino made Donovan dress up like a cowboy on the cover of the Providence season program), he transformed from an overweight, unused sophomore reserve to a star. In 1986-87, Donovan's senior year and the first with a collegiate 3-point line, the Kid posted arguably the most statistically impressive individual season (20.6 points, 7.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game, and 41 percent from 3) of any Pitino player while leading the Friars to the program's second Final Four. It would be the first of Pitino's seven trips -- and counting.
7. Sept. 11, 2001: One of the most profound tragedies in American history was a personal nightmare for Pitino and his family. Pitino's brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, was working as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north World Trade Center tower when the planes hit. Processing that senseless loss has taken Pitino and his family years, and the coach has talked (and written) openly about that struggle -- and the familial bonds it forged.
8. Karen Cunagin Sypher: A decade later, those bonds were tested in the most public way possible. In early 2009, Pitino announced that he was the victim of an extortion attempt, and a week later Karen Cunagin Sypher, the wife of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher, was arraigned in federal court on charges of extortion and lying to federal agents. The details of the case -- in which Pitino admitted he had sexual relations with Sypher in a Louisville restaurant, and that he paid Sypher $3,000 when she said she did not have health insurance for an abortion -- were not only embarrassing, they drew Pitino, an avowed family man and devoted Catholic, in a dismal light.
9. The tattoo: Save the family portrait moment at the Final Four in April, perhaps the sharpest contrast to that ugly period in Pitino's life came a few weeks later, in a downtown Louisville tattoo parlor. After his team won the national title, Pitino revealed that, after Feb. 9's five-OT loss at Notre Dame, he had promised his players that if they won the national title, he would get a tattoo. His players proved giddy about the idea (no surprise there) and held up their end of the bargain. Which is essentially how a 60-year-old multimillionaire with a horse-racing hobby and suits that make Sinatra look like a hobo came to stroll into a place called Tattoo Salvation in downtown Louisville, where he obtained his first-ever tattoo.
10. And now, the Hall of Fame: It takes a special career to earn Hall of Fame induction by the age of 60, and Pitino's, for better or worse, has most certainly been that. Now that he seems to be having more fun than ever, how much longer will Pitino coach? How many more games -- how many more titles -- can he win? Whatever the final number, the journey will be just as interesting as the destination. That much is a guarantee.