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Having a ball again

Older, wiser Pitino regroups at Louisville

ST. LOUIS -- He's 52 now. No longer the Boy Wonder of the coaching world. He has been tempered by personal tragedy, and humbled by failure for the first and perhaps only time in his coaching career, when he could not turn the Celtics back into an elite NBA franchise.

If you listen to his words, watch his actions, Rick Pitino has found his space now and seems comfortable in it. As he prepares for his fifth Final Four, he talks as much about the family coaching tree that has sprouted under his shadow as he does about the chances of winning his second national championship.

When Pitino arrives in St. Louis today for the Final Four festivities that will feature Saturday night's NCAA men's semifinal game between Pitino's Louisville team and top-ranked Illinois, he will come in with the pedigree that commands respect.

In the long and storied history of the NCAA Tournament only one man has brought three schools to the Final Four: Pitino, who did it with Providence in 1987, Kentucky in 1993, '96, and '97, and now with Louisville.

Pitino has guided the Cardinals to a school-record-tying 33 victories (against four losses) this season. That is a considerable leap forward from last season's 20-10 record.

One can hear the excitement in Pitino's voice as he talks about where he is now as opposed to that night five years ago when he left the Celtics in the middle of the season, a clear admission that what he was doing was not good enough.

But when Pitino was asked what he learned from his tenure with the Celtics, from the only real failure in a coaching career that has spiraled upward for 27 years, dating to his arrival as the young, fresh-faced coach at Boston University, he doesn't talk just about basketball.

"A lot of people thought I was humbled in Boston," said Pitino, referring to his stint with the Celtics. "And a great dose of humility is great for everyone.

"What humbled me to the point where I recognize other people is really 9/11. Age and 9/11 have not mellowed me, but just made me care about everybody other than myself. The pain of going through that and seeing so many people suffer . . . I'll never be the same person ever again."

As painful as the 2001 terrorist attacks were for all Americans, the tragic day struck close to home for Pitino. His brother-in-law and close friend, Billy Minardi, died in the World Trade Center.

Pitino's first season at Louisville would start two months later.

Not just wins and losses

He is unquestionably good at what he does, maybe as good as anyone coaching college basketball, both technically and as a motivator.

In last Saturday's Albuquerque Regional final against West Virginia, Pitino maintained the poise that his team was struggling to find as it fell 20 points behind in the first half before settling for a 13-point deficit at intermission.

"It was all motivational," said Louisville forward Larry O'Bannon. "Everything was positive coaching. I mean, he just kept telling us about different experiences that we had been in. Telling us about experiences that he had been in and just telling us to believe and just not to panic. He kept it positive the whole time, no matter what the situation was."

Pitino can do that now, because despite the high-profile nature of Louisville basketball, it is still college. It's not the NBA, where players with guaranteed contracts can shrug off the best of motivational speeches.

It is a difference Pitino recognizes.

"Pro ball is just winning and losing," he said. "Pat Riley said it best: It's winning and misery. College basketball has so many other things you can be happy about. You can see it with the players. I see them flourish so much as people and players."

He says this season has given him as much satisfaction as his success at Providence did 18 years ago, when he took an unheralded Friars team to the Final Four.

"This is just as rewarding," he said. "I think Providence and this team have been the two most rewarding experiences of my coaching life because of all the adversity we've gone through from Day One. So that is the great thing about college basketball. There are so many rewards outside of the actual win."

Job well done

There is a sense of satisfaction in Pitino about this team, which has battled injuries as much as any team he has coached.

But there is also a sense of personal satisfaction for Pitino in that he has climbed back to the top of the mountain. A feeling of pride that when he looks around him he can see coaches such as Kentucky's Tubby Smith, Florida's Billy Donovan, North Carolina State's Herb Sendek, Holy Cross's Ralph Willard, and 76ers (and former Celtics) coach Jim O'Brien, who have all emerged as head coaches after having played for or coached under Pitino.

The latest member of the Pitino family tree to move ahead is Travis Ford, a guard on Pitino's Kentucky team that advanced to the Final Four in 1993. Ford was hired by the University of Massachusetts last week to replace Steve Lappas as head coach.

Pitino isn't surprised by the success of this season's Louisville team.

"This year, I think we're the real deal," Pitino said before the tournament started. "We're a legitimate team and I haven't felt that way with any team I've coached at Louisville because we had to rebuild from the bottom. I don't think we're in the class with [North] Carolina, Illinois, or Wake [Forest], but we're one of the next 20 teams in the country."

Three weeks later, Pitino's team is one of four left standing, along with North Carolina, Illinois, and Michigan State. Louisville, which last won a national title under Denny Crum in 1986, is back.

It's been an arduous journey -- for the Cardinals and Pitino. After his acrimonious tenure ended with the Celtics, Pitino rejoined the college ranks by taking over a storied program that had foundered. Crum had lost his zest for the job and the Cardinals were a 12-19 team the season before Pitino arrived in 2001. No big deal. Pitino thrives in a situation in which he can build as well as teach.

Is there a next step?

He had done it at BU, taking a below-.500 team to 21-10 and a trip to the NCAA Tournament in five seasons. He had done it at Providence, turning an 11-20 team into an NIT club his first season in 1986 and into a 25-9 Final Four team the following season.

And he did it at the University of Kentucky, guiding the Wildcats from the murky waters of NCAA probation in 1989 to a team that was back in Final Four contention on an annual basis three years later.

Pitino probably could have stayed at Kentucky and continued to flourish for many years.

But when the challenge of putting the pride back into the Celtics appeared, Pitino took up the challenge. What could be more gratifying and ego-boosting than restoring the luster to one of the great franchises in sports?

But Pitino couldn't do it.

What had worked in his first NBA stop with the New York Knicks for two seasons in the late 1980s didn't work in Boston.

In the 10 years between NBA jobs, the game had changed. So had the money. It was more of a players' league than ever before and what Pitino had been able to sell in New York wasn't being bought in Boston.

He struggled with the decision of whether to fight it out or simply leave. After 3 1/2 tumultuous seasons, he left.

Where Pitino goes from here is uncertain. He insists he has no desire to return to the NBA, to try to touch up the one major blemish on his reputation as a coach.

He knows he is building something at Louisville that can last for years. All he will say -- and he has said on a consistent basis -- is that he likes his team, likes the feeling that he gets watching it perform what he asks it to do.

He is two wins away from his second national championship. That will be enough for now.

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