Another gut check for Pitino

Updated: January 28, 2004, 5:09 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

If you want to know about Rick Pitino in his latest incarnation as a college coach, know this: He laid the foundation for the current success that is the Louisville basketball program while real life was crumbling around him. He added to that construction while dealing, however temporarily, with his mortality as a man.

And he has brought the Cardinals to their recent pinnacle, a No. 4 ranking in the Associated Press poll and a 15-game win streak, in the face of enough collective tragedy -- and, now, personal concern -- to bring others to their knees.

Immortal? Not even close, as Pitino proved this week by taking himself out of circulation at least long enough to find out what it is that has sent driving pain through him for months now.

But tough enough?

By at least half. And we're probably being conservative.

Pitino's announcement that he hopes to be back on the court with his Louisville team by this weekend probably ought to send shivers of worry through those who love and support him. If anything, this would appear on the surface to be one of those instances in which time away -- away from basketball, from pressure, from questions -- could do almost nothing but good.

But to understand why Pitino will force himself back into action as quickly as medical advice will allow is to understand that, basically, it is what the coach has been doing more or less constantly since coming to Louisville in 2001. At this point, you can't blame Pitino if he sees this as simply one more rock on the pile.

It's amazing, the confluence of success and tragedy that has met Pitino over the past three years. It is as though a dark cloud has rested just off to the side of Pitino since he arrived for his second go-round as a college basketball coach in Kentucky, not always precisely overhead, but always there. Hovering, you'd say.

Pitino assumed the reins with the Cardinals in March 2001. It was the same month in which his brother-in-law was struck and killed by a car in Manhattan. The coach delivered the eulogy at the funeral, saying at the time that it was the hardest thing he'd ever done. Absurdly, perhaps even cruelly, it was but a prelude.

Pitino entered his first fall with his first Louisville team in September 2001. It was the same month that the Pitinos joined thousands of other American families in being touched by the Twin Towers tragedy, Pitino's wife Joanne losing her brother, Billy Minardi, who was working in one of the upper floors of the north tower on the morning of Sept. 11.

He stepped away from his program for 36 uncertain hours in January 2002, saying he needed to undergo tests related to a throat ailment.

He stepped off the golf course in the summer of 2003, saying he had a pain in his side that he couldn't shake. It was the pain that eventually forced Pitino away from the Louisville program this week. And it was, as this bizarre season began to unfold, only one of the many times of pain Pitino and his family would endure.

It has been a Tilt-a-Whirl of bad news since last fall, a flashing blur of brutal images, some of them related to the Louisville program, some of them set out strictly for the Pitino family to deal with. On the court, the Cardinals began winning and kept on doing it. Away from it, Pitino and his players dealt with unspeakable difficulties: The murder of sophomore Francisco Garcia's brother; the death of redshirt senior Ellis Myles' father.

Pitino received news of the death of a former player. He was informed that his mother's longtime caretaker had passed away. Earlier this month, the Pitinos were told that the 3-month-old son of their former nanny had died.

"He might work miracles on the court, but he's not superhuman," Pitino's friend Ron Carmicle told the Louisville Courier-Journal the other day.

What Pitino is, of course, is a coach. Coaches work. Work is what got Pitino through the long fall of 2001, when the basketball court and the consuming demands of a Division I program gave him a place to be and something to do at a time when doing almost anything felt inadequate.

"That's my only escape," Pitino said at the time. "I wish my wife had that escape."

It remains the escape, basketball. Basketball is players and schemes and breakdowns and rallies, and it is played almost entirely in a vacuum, just about impervious to anything else that happens in the world during the few hours it takes the stage. You can be inside a basketball arena and almost unaware that the world has changed outside -- from day to night, from ordinary to extraordinary. Sports are useful that way.

And basketball may become useful to Rick Pitino yet again, this weekend, as he rushes back from a diagnosis and, presumably, a prescribed treatment about which the coach may never elect to fully inform the people wondering from a distance. It's medical, it isn't life-threatening, let's move on: That seems to be Pitino's message now, and perhaps it will remain so for a while.

He'll come to a Louisville program that, with due respect to the seriousness of his health and with all the support and love and good wishes duly noted. He will come back onto the floor of a basketball court, the protected area, the place where no decent coach can ever really afford to think about anything other than winning the next game and developing the team in front of him.

He will do it because the alternatives are all so massively unappealing, because there's no future in sitting around waiting to feel better. He'll do it because it beats the hell out of his other options.

And Pitino will come back to basketball, maybe, because it moves him away from the edge of that dark cloud, the weirdly persistent one that has been hovering for three years. Maybe the best idea, in the end, is to keep moving.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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