Commentary

This Pitino return felt a little different

Originally Published: January 2, 2010
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Maybe he was just cold, and that's why Rick Pitino arrived in front of the standing-room-only postgame news conference in drafty Rupp Arena with a Louisville-red scarf draped around his collar.

Or maybe he was trying to make more than a fashion statement. Maybe he wanted to make sure that every TV camera and every network feed showed him in the one color that bothers the Big Blue Nation of Kentucky basketball more than any other.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino and John Calipari
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeJohn Calipari called on the Rupp Arena crowd to treat Rick Pitino with class. For the most part, they followed orders.

Even in defeat -- and Louisville was clearly the lesser-talented team in the 71-62 loss Saturday afternoon -- Pitino was playfully defiant and vintage sarcastic. If he was affected by the pressure of this visit and the subplots surrounding it, he hid it well.

"Well, maybe some people missed seeing me, but outside of that I didn't affect the game too much," Pitino said. "I noticed three or four people wanted to see me again."

Pitino's return to this arena and against the UK program he rebuilt from the ruins of an NCAA scandal is always an event. But this time, in light of his own well-documented personal transgression, Pitino's appearance here took on mythical proportions.

For the weeks leading up to this annual fistfight of a rivalry, people wondered how the Rupp Arena crowd, especially the UK student section, would treat Pitino. Rowdy or raunchy? Creative or cruel? Merciful or merciless?

So intense was the topic of Pitino's possible treatment, that first-year UK coach John Calipari, whose career owes a sizable debt to Pitino, pleaded with Wildcats fans to be classy, not crass.

And guess what? They listened.

Pitino was a target of boos, but little else. There were homemade signs throughout the record-Rupp crowd, but the ones I saw were designed with Kentucky, not Pitino, in mind. Behind my seat on the baseline was the famed E-Rupp-tion Zone, where the students stand.

"No signs?" I said to one kid, his face and oversized glasses painted blue and white.

"There's some," he said. "But stadium security said you couldn't bring in the bad stuff."

Pitino didn't make his first appearance on the Rupp Arena floor until 106 seconds before pregame player introductions. He was greeted with boos. And then he was greeted by Calipari, who made the walk to midcourt to shake hands.

It wasn't a warm meeting, but it was professional. And in its own way, it helped diffuse some of the animosity the crowd felt -- well, almost.

A middle-aged couple, seated six rows from the floor and in the opposite corner of the Louisville bench, waved cutout faces of Pitino and of the woman with whom the coach admitted to having a sexual encounter with in 2003. The cut-outs didn't gain much traction. If anything, the UK fans seated nearby barely paid attention to the overweight bald guy and his wife.

Of course, that didn't mean Pitino isn't despised and feared here. Pitino had been part of Big Blue, but then left UK and eventually ended up at archrival Louisville. Worse yet, he started beating Kentucky not long after he got there, including victories in 2008 and 2009.

The two-game win streak ended Saturday. At one point in the first half, Louisville was 1-of-19 from the field. With less than six minutes in the half, the Cardinals had five points. Five. They trailed at intermission, 27-19.

"I didn't mind, believe it or not -- I told the guys at halftime -- the ugliness of the first half," Pitino said. "I thought it actually would help us."

It wasn't ugly; it was grotesque. You didn't know whether to cry or hang peach baskets on each end of the court.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Mark Zerof/US PresswirePitino's team shot awful in the first half, but clawed its way into the lead midway through the second.

Before long, the crowd forgot about Pitino. They were distracted by the early chippiness between the teams, the near fights and the technical fouls of the first few minutes of the game. They were thrilled by Kentucky's 13-point lead with 7:30 left in the first half. They were stunned by Louisville's second-half comeback, when the Cardinals briefly took a 42-41 lead.

"This is embarrassing," I heard someone in the E-Rupp-tion Zone say behind me.

Kentucky, with the patient and dynamic John Wall at point guard (he's just a freshman?), eventually regained control. Wall finished with 17 points and more than a few crucial baskets.

Temperamental freshman DeMarcus Cousins, who was lucky to still be in the game after a forearm shiver to Louisville's Jared Swopshire, had 18 points and 18 rebounds.

The midcourt postgame handshake with Calipari, who is off to a 15-0 start at Kentucky, was nice enough -- handshake, followed by a double pat on the back. Had Pitino kept walking he would have seen one of his former Wildcats players, Richie Farmer (now the commonwealth's agriculture commissioner), standing behind the UK bench in a Wildcats hoodie.

As Pitino made his way down the tunnel and into the Louisville locker room, you could hear the strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" being played by the UK band. This school and this program used to be Pitino's home, but no more. Now he wears red.

Pitino complimented his team for its work ethic. He complimented Wall for his cool and clutch play. He said Kentucky would get better. But so would Louisville.

"You all have a happy New Year," said Pitino, as he left the postgame news conference. "I know you were happy to see me."

And then he was out the door. A pair of security personnel walked him toward the exit, but not before a Rupp Arena usher, still wearing his Kentucky-blue sportcoat, stopped Pitino and asked for an autograph.

Pitino signed the bill of the red Louisville baseball cap, smiled, and made his way into the cold. Meanwhile, the usher saw me standing nearby.

"Shhhh," said the usher.

He showed the cap to a friend and then stuffed it into a small gym bag.

"We hide this," he said.

See? Just like Pitino said, he still has fans here.

The usher was one of the four.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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