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Well-rounded coach didn't cut corners on way back to BostonBy Michael Madden, Globe Staff, 05/11/97
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Last Tuesday afternoon at 3 o'clock, Rick Pitino was sitting in his office that overlooks the basketball court of the University of Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum. The blinds were drawn.
In half an hour, he was expected to walk some 50 yards or so and announce whether he would be remaining in Kentucky or heading to Boston to coach the Celtics. Even then, Pitino wasn't sure; in fact, his spirits were as drawn as the blinds to his office.
So Pitino reached for the phone to speak to a friend. Pitino has many friends in many locales, but at this moment, he needed to speak to one of his closest friends, John Marinatto, the athletic director of Providence College.
``Rick seemed down,'' Marinatto recalled.
Pitino wasn't sure whether to go or not go. And if he did leave Kentucky, Pitino was torn about what to say to ease the departure for a state where he is a legend, if not an icon. Pitino still hadn't signed a contract with the Celtics.
On Sunday night, after talking to his players, he seemed reasonably certain he'd be going to Boston. Then on Monday morning came rumblings from Boston that Red Auerbach wasn't about to give up anything, and certainly not his title as president of the Celtics. ``He's just a coach,'' were the words that filtered down to Lexington from Boston.
``I don't need to fight this,'' Pitino thought. Friends in New England, though, counseled him to ignore Auerbach's words.
So Marinatto and Pitino talked as they had talked so many times. Marinatto was aching to get Pitino back to New England, and indeed, if it weren't for Marinatto's pushiness with his friend back in the first week of April, when Pitino was in New England on a book tour, nothing would have happened with Rick Pitino and the Celtics.
``Rick came up here on his book tour and he was saying, `There's no way I can come to Boston, I just can't do it,' '' recalled Marinatto. ``That's what he kept saying, that things were too much of a mess with the Celtics. `We're definitely not going to Boston,' he'd say. But I kept after him. I told him that he had promised me he'd talk to Dave Gavitt.''
So Pitino talked to Dave and Julie Gavitt, who each spoke praiseworthy words about Paul Gaston, the CEO of the Celtics. So it was then, the first week of April, that Pitino and Gaston first met.
Gaston had told Pitino in that meeting, ``Rick, you can have what you want.'' But matters simmered, Pitino seemingly on the back burner as a Celtic candidate, and all those in New England who knew Gaston and knew Pitino knew why. Pitino needed the right buttons to be pushed, and Gaston was too reserved and shy to push Pitino's buttons. ``Rick, you can have what you want,'' was not enough. Pitino had to be enticed.
More phone calls were made. Gaston was given the advice, and this time he flew down to Lexington -- ah, the proper touch -- and made his offer. Pitino knew right after that meeting 10 days ago that he was going to coach the Celtics . . . or so he thought.
``But here he was, a half-hour before his press conference, and all the media already there,'' recalled Marinatto, and Pitino was unsure. The Providence AD almost couldn't bear it, and he gave words for Pitino to say to Kentucky, that they might be losing their coach but not their friend. A few moments later, Pitino signed his Celtics contract and walked out to face the media.
Pitino's performance was smooth, very smooth, saying the right words to ease Kentucky's pain.
``He used in the press conference what I said to him about not losing a friend,'' said Marinatto with a laugh. ``Afterwards, I said to him, `Rick, at least you could have given credit to me for the line.' ''
Then, on Thursday night, after his press conference in Boston, Pitino was with his wife, Joanne, and some eight or nine friends in a Boston restaurant. Marinatto, of course, was there. All the doubts, all the hesitation, all the introspection of last Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday was gone.
``Rick was pumped,'' said Marinatto. ``He was so excited. He couldn't wait to get started with the Celtics.''
If possible, Marinatto was more excited and more pumped. That's how it is with Pitino, he has made an impression at every stop, lasting impressions on people he's touched.
Namely, Julius Erving. And Providence, the king of New England basketball then, happened to have a rather impressive point guard in-house, a Rhode Island high school legend by the name of Ernie DiGregorio.
``But Dr. J was pretty much of a legend on Long Island, where he's from,'' recalled Leaman, then the Massachusetts coach, ``and I think that's why Rick decided to come our way. He wanted to play with Dr. J.''
That never happened, other than in freshman/varsity scrimmages, because Erving left UMass for the pros the year Pitino was a sophomore in Amherst and became eligible to play varsity ball (back then, freshmen were not eligible). But Pitino became the point guard for the (then) Redmen for three seasons, and UMass had very good teams, losing to No. 1 North Carolina in one postseason, then bowing to the Pembrook Burrows-led Jacksonville team another season.
``I remember how intelligent Rick was,'' said Leaman. ``He was like another coach on the floor and he was always asking questions about why I had done this and why we didn't do that. Other coaches would come in and Rick would ask them questions, too. Then he would spend his summers down at the Five Star Basketball Camp and coaches would come in to give clinics there and Rick would be asking them all kinds of questions.''
So you knew all along that Rick Pitino would become a basketball coach?
``No, no,'' replied the UMass legend with a laugh. ``I thought Rick was going to make a lot of money, and you couldn't do that in coaching back then; the most I ever made was $60,000. Rick was very intelligent, and he majored in business and he got very good grades. I thought he was going to go into business and make a lot of money.''
Well, Leaman said, ``I guess I was right after all -- Rick's certainly making a lot of money.''
Gavitt, then the Providence coach, recalled when Pitino was down in the dumps and entertaining thoughts of transferring from Amherst to Providence.
``I asked him what he wanted to do with his life,'' recalled Gavitt, in a well-told tale, ``and he immediately said, `Coach.' So I said the best thing for him would be to stay right where he was because he was playing for an excellent coach and there would be no point in leaving UMass.''
As always, there is a delicious kicker to the story, with the Friars playing the Redmen in a frantic game before a sellout crowd in Springfield Civic Center, the contest typical of one of New England's most bitter rivalries then.
``It comes down to a 1-point game,'' Gavitt went on, ``and Rick gets fouled for a one-and-one. He misses, and Kevin Stacom hits a jumper at the buzzer. One of the few times Rick would lose a close game.''
Leaman recalled that Pitino was an excellent point guard ``although one time he got it into his head that he should score a lot of points.'' Most of the time, though, Pitino would be making the slick pass and being Leaman's alter ego on the court, calling the offenses and defenses.
``His nickname on the team was `Slick Rick,' '' recalled Leaman, for Pitino even then was smooth, very smooth off the court. ``Rick was also the social chairman of the school and he was always so mature for his years. He just had a wonderful way with people.''
Leaman, of course, was from the old-fashioned school of coaching -- all the more irony that Julius Erving, the flashiest basketball player ever, played for him at UMass -- ``and I always believed that if you were ahead, you never, ever did anything to show up an opponent. But I remember Rick's last game here, it was Senior Night . . .''
Words cannot do justice to the atmosphere that prevailed at UMass's Curry Hicks Cage, the relic of a gym that many believed predated even James Naismith, who started it all with his peach baskets at Springfield College. The Cage was the ultimate home-court advantage for college basketball teams in the US, students piling in and filling the old building an hour before the freshman game began. And the UMass students always wanted a show.
``So this time -- it's Senior Night, remember -- and I'm about to take Rick out of the game for the last time,'' recalled Leaman, ``and Rick comes down court, jumps up in the air and fires a pass between his legs to Al Skinner and Rick never stops running. He keeps on going and runs right to the bench without stopping. The place went wild. Rick was feeling pretty rambunctious, I guess.''
Hmmm, Leaman mused. Back then, as many a UMass coach before him and after him did, Leaman had begged the Boston media to make the 90-mile trip out to Amherst to see the Redmen. Even Dr. J couldn't achieve that feat.
``And just think,'' said Leaman. ``On that team, we had Al Skinner and Rick Pitino, and now they're both coaching the two most prominent basketball teams in Boston. Just imagine? Can you imagine a BU-UMass guy ever cheering for BC? But I'll be Boston College's biggest fan now that Al Skinner is coaching there. And Rick with the Celtics? It's just wonderful.''
Skinner, the new BC coach, remembered that Pitino's mates at UMass used to call him, ``The Little General,'' ``because Rick was always running things on the court. I remember that Rick not only loved to play the game, but he also liked to excite the crowds with his play.''
That UMass team, Skinner recalled, ``wasn't the most talented team, but the guys had a sense of what it took to succeed.''
Primarily, that was defense, and it was more defense than offensive skill that took UMass to an NIT win over Missouri in Pitino's junior year and then a loss to the Mitch Kupchak-Bobby Jones North Carolina team ``even though we played them close to the last seven minutes or so,'' said Skinner. ``And you've got to remember there were only 24 teams in the NCAAs then, and 16 in the NIT, so you were always playing good teams.''
Pitino had a good sense of humor, Skinner recalled, one that sometimes turned to pranks.
``You remember how we always used to run through a paper hoop and onto the court at Curry Hicks?'' related Skinner. ``Well, I was the captain and the first guy through the hoop and one night -- I think it might have been Senior Night -- I was all ready to start charging through that paper hoop.
``But I had a sense, I just had a sense that all the guys weren't right there behind me like they usually were. So I said I'd better turn around and, there they were, all of them way behind me. I was about to charge onto the court all by myself, and everybody would have had a good laugh. I always felt Rick was behind that one.''
Skinner went on to pro basketball, while Pitino didn't have the skills for the next step.
``And I'd watch Rick as he moved up in coaching,'' said his former teammate, ``and I just knew that if that was the direction Rick was going to follow, he was going to succeed. And he did each step.
``I really had doubts when he went from Providence College to the Knicks whether he could succeed in pro ball, but sure enough he did it. The Knicks had only won 23 or 24 games the year before he got there, but his second year with them, he won more than 50.''
Skinner is certain Pitino will succeed again, this time with the Celtics.
``It might take a little time,'' said Skinner, ``but I'm sure he'll do it.''
``It was a wonderful experience in a lot of ways,'' recalled Pitino, ``because the people at BU were so wonderful. People like Jack Parker and John Simpson were wonderful, wonderful people. The toughest, most frustrating thing was that nobody came to the games.''
Pitino did at BU what he would do at all his stops, turn around a derelict basketball program, create excitement and verve and enthusiasm, but at BU, and only at BU, the Pitino experience just didn't take. Parker's hockey Terriers could be playing RPI before the usual sellout while Pitino's basketball Terriers would have the usual 862 witnesses even though the team was winning games and occasionally playing national powers.
``That was very frustrating,'' said Pitino. ``We tried everything, but you just couldn't get the fans to come.''
Even worse, neighboring BC was winning games and going to NCAA tournaments under coach Tom Davis and getting all the attention. That rankled Pitino.
It would be the last time one of his teams would be ignored.
In so many ways, not just on the basketball court, Pitino's coaching of a basketball team 10 years ago might have been his best -- and worst -- experience.
``I said it then and I still say it,'' said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, ``that Rick's getting that Providence College team to the Final Four was the best coaching job I've ever seen.''
Providence had lost to Georgetown in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, and on the bus ride back to Providence the next day, Rhode Island state troopers stopped the bus on Route 95, climbed aboard, and gave the word. Not a speeding ticket, but the devastating news that Pitino's infant son, Daniel, had died at the age of six months.
For 5 1/2 months, Pitino's wife, Joanne, had traveled daily from Providence to Boston to nurse the baby, born with heart, kidney, liver, and various other ailments, as doctors waited for the infant to grow to 20 pounds before they could attempt surgery. But on that Sunday afternoon, on Route 95 in front of the entire team, Joanne and Rick Pitino were given the devastating news.
``I remember going to the funeral and how sad it all was,'' recalled Tranghese, ``and the next day Rick and the team had to go down to Birmingham, Ala., for the NCAA tournament. I just don't know how Rick was able to get through it.''
``I told the kids one thing,'' said Pitino. ``Nothing can be done about the tragedy. Nothing can be done about the grief. Time will pass on. The grief will always be there. I told them it's my personal grief.''
There was doubt that Pitino would accompany the team. Finally, he decided that hard work -- always hard work -- just might help ease some of the pain. He accompanied the Friars to Birmingham and began preparing for the game that few thought PC could win -- against the University of Alabama-Birmingham on its home court.
The Friars won that game, crushing UAB, 90-68, and when Austin Peay upset Illinois, Friar fans thought they had gotten a break. But Austin Peay led PC by 10 with five minutes left, and still the Friars came back to win in overtime. In the Southeast Regionals, PC stunned heavily favored Alabama, 103-82, and then there was a rematch with Georgetown.
``That was the Georgetown team of Reggie Williams and the little Charlie Smith -- the Charlie Smith who played on the Celtics,'' recalled Tranghese. ``And that had to be one of Rick's greatest coaching games. He totally flip-flopped his offense and went right after Georgetown and surprised them.''
``Bombs away'' had been Pitino's mantra for years, his teams firing 3-point shot after 3-point shot. But this time he disdained his pet shot, and the Friars attacked inside instead of outside. They won, 88-73, and a team that had been 11-20 two years earlier, a team with little more than talented guard Billy Donovan, had made the Final Four.
Pitino went on to win a national championship with Kentucky, but, said Tranghese, ``That game against Georgetown and that whole tournament was the best coaching I've ever seen.''
And, 10 years later, the memory of Daniel Pitino lives on. Pitino established a Daniel Pitino Foundation in 1990 and the charity, usually without media attention, gave some $2 million to needy causes in Kentucky. Recipients included hospitals, groups for the homeless, and a center for child victims of sexual abuse.
When Pitino left Kentucky last week, the Lexington Herald-Leader quoted, among others, Ernie Hatfield, the executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Bluegrass Inc., saying Pitino was the most generous coach Kentucky has ever had. It was not uncommon, said Hatfield, for Pitino to invite him to lunch and hand him a check for $20,000 for his charity.
On a personal level, Pitino himself was a Big Brother for two youths. P.G. Peeples Sr., executive director of the Urban League of Lexington, said the Daniel Pitino Foundation had donated some $70,000-$80,000 for scholarships and other causes, and always without a press conference.
``I've just been overwhelmed by the generosity,'' said the Rev. Ed Bradley, a Catholic priest and close friend of Pitino who runs the Daniel Pitino Shelter for the Homeless in Owensboro, Ky.
Gavitt told another familiar story, one that others have told after Pitino has taken over a basketball program. After Pitino had taken over at Providence, Gavitt recalled, he decided to drop into a PC practice in early November, a few weeks before the start of the season.
``I thought I had walked into the wrong gym,'' recalled Gavitt. ``I said, `Where am I?' I didn't recognize any of the players. The bodies of all the players were so different, all of them in shape. Not just Billy Donovan, but all of them.''
Ah, but there was that other side to Pitino, that feisty, fiery competitive side, one that would not be tempered until his coaching identity had been established once and for all when Kentucky beat Massachusetts and then Syracuse for the 1996 NCAA title.
``I remember a game in Boston Garden when PC was playing Boston College,'' said Gavitt. ``The game had gone down to the wire and PC had lost, and Rick thought a call wasn't made in the last seconds that should have been called. Remember how in the old Garden the teams' locker rooms were just down the hall from the officials' locker room? So Rick stood in the doorway of his locker room and -- in a very loud voice, so the officials could hear every one of his words just down the hall -- he blasted them for the call that wasn't called.''
The Big East then was trying to upgrade its officiating. Gavitt, as commissioner, had given all the Big East coaches the word that, during the upgrade, officiating might not be perfect, but there was to be no public criticism of them. But this time, said Gavitt, ``Rick had crossed the line and I took him aside and told him he had to make a public apology to the officials.''
Marinatto then was the sports information director of Providence College. After the team returned to Rhode Island, he said, ``I got a phone call from Rick -- it must have been 2 in the morning -- and Rick told me I had to put together a statement of apology that he would sign.'' But not before Pitino had blasted Marinatto ``for not stopping him from saying the things that he had said about the officials,'' recalled Marinatto with a laugh. ``But I said, `Rick, you threw me out of the locker room, too -- I couldn't stop you.' ''
Despite (or because of) the explosions, Pitino and Marinatto became fast frends. Indeed, when Marinatto became the PC athletic director, he had a standing offer for Pitino to come back and coach and ``two or three times Rick was close to taking me upon it,'' especially during Pitino's first season with the Knicks when he was being blasted by the New York media for what was seen as college basketball being played in the NBA.
And now, with Pitino back in New England -- finally -- Marinatto may be as happy as anyone. Except, of course, ``for Rick himself,'' said Marinatto. ``I can't tell you how pumped he is.''
``It's very tough to move on when you're very happy,'' said Pitino, words that he spoke again last week when he made a very similar decision. ``But the last time I did that'' -- for New York -- ``it turned out not to be a very pleasurable experience.''
Pitino did turn around the Knicks, bringing a team that had won 24 games a year before his arrival to the playoffs with 52 wins in his second year. But there was little joy in the accomplishment. Pitino and Al Bianchi, his boss, just did not get along.
``The Knicks hired me and Al Bianchi simultaneously,'' recalled Pitino, ``and he wanted to play very slow, and I wanted to play fast. I mean, Al's a very nice guy, but I wanted to play fast and it was a very bad situation.''
And enigmatic, too. Pitino had gotten Patrick Ewing to finally play up to his potential, point guard Mark Jackson was often spectacular, and Madison Square Garden was rocking with excitement. Even so, there was friction behind the scenes.
``The problem with New York wasn't necessarily the two of us,'' said Pitino of his relationship with Bianchi. ``Going back to Red Holzman and Hubie Brown and Michel Bergeron and Phil Esposito, the Garden -- it was owned by Gulf & Western at the time -- just bred a bad relationship between GM and coach.''
Gulf & Western owned the Garden and the Knicks and Rangers, ``but they were located over at 4 Penn Plaza,'' said Pitino, ``and the coaches were up in SUNY-Purchase, N.Y. And the Garden just never allowed their GMs to hire their coaches. They brought in Phil Esposito and they said, `Espo, here's your coach,' and it was Bergeron. And the same with the Knicks -- they bring in Dave DeBusschere, and the Garden -- by that I mean Sonny Werblin -- tells Dave that Hubie Brown is his coach. So that was the problem in New York.''
Pitino recalled his Knicks years this way: ``I did my thing and [Bianchi] did his thing, and ultimately that's not healthy. As a team, you have to work together.''
Pitino knew intuitively ``that it never was going to work,'' a coach foisted on a general manager by ownership, ``that if one of us goes down, the two of us are going to go down. So I said to Bianchi, `Let me leave,' and ultimately he brought in John MacLeod, his friend for life, who he wanted, and it didn't work out.''
``I remember that Dave had spoke highly of Rick to C.M. and then Dave suggested that I speak to C.M., to give another opinion,'' recalled Tranghese. ``I said to C.M., `Rick is unquestionably the best young coach in the country, period.' And I said, `He'll win right away.' And C.M. was saying how that was impossible, given the state of the program.''
Indeed, Kentucky was down to eight players in Pitino's first year, barred by the NCAA from everything except the locker room, it seemed, yet Pitino somehow fashioned a 14-14 record. For that .500 finish, Pitino was named the Southeastern Conference's Coach of the Year. A ``flashy guy with a New York accent,'' as Pitino was commonly described in Kentucky, had won over Bluegrass Country immediately with exciting basketball.
Pitino accomplished everything at Kentucky -- the national title, excitement, enthusiasm (well, almost everything; he never could beat Dean Smith and North Carolina, going 0-3) -- and grew into Kentucky's most popular person. More than a few denizens of the Bluegrass State even uttered the sacrilegious words, ``We're going to miss that New York accent.''
A local newspaper ran a 16-page special section on Pitino's departure last week, filled with advertisement after advertisement saying, ``Thank you, Rick,'' and ``Bye, bye, Ricky.'' A Lexington restaurant, The Melodeon, framed its goodbye ad this way: ``This card entitles Rick Pitino and a guest to a free meal at The Melodeon any time he's back in the Bluegrass area and craving an alternative to Beantown Cuisine.''
It was eight years of fun and excitement.
Now Pitino is back in the pros. Back in Boston. In total control. No Al Bianchis.
``The bottom line,'' said Pitino, ``is that any time you rebuild something, it is the journey, and not always the destination, that is so much fun. Really, the hard work is so much fun, because you see the rewards. You see the building process. The championship, and the raising of the banners, just emotionally drain you, but the excitement is getting there. We'll have a lot of fun.''
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