ATLANTA – Louisville’s Rick Pitino tore himself away from preparation for the national championship game Monday morning to walk across a stage in an Atlanta hotel ballroom and receive recognition for a lifetime of coaching achievement. He stood there, holding a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame jersey with the number 13 on it, as a newly elected member of the sport’s shrine.
“It’s a pretty special distraction,” Pitino said, standing next to his fellow 2013 classmates, including Bernard King, Gary Payton and Jerry Tarkanian.
But anyone in the room who had followed Pitino’s career knew he wouldn’t let it be a hindrance. In the history of college basketball, it’s quite possible no other coach has been so adept at handling distractions.
Basketball distractions, life and death distractions, just about any kind of distraction you can imagine. Lesser men might have crumbled and gone into seclusion on several occasions.
Before Monday night’s 82-76 victory over Michigan at the Georgia Dome, a few people suggested Pitino should retire if he won another national title. Win it all and walk away. Think about. If you are a basketball coach, how could you have a better day than Rick Pitino did on Monday?
“What a way to walk out of the game,” Pitino said, repeating those remarks. “I really hadn’t thought about that until everybody started saying it. But I have so many cherished moments from this Final Four.
“I’m lucky to be in the game, not to walk away from the game.”
Pitino walked directly into the history book Monday. In the end, nothing could block Pitino’s path as he led Louisville to its first national championship since 1986. When his Hall of Fame inscription goes up at center court in Springfield, Mass., this fall it will now tell the story of the first coach to direct two different schools to a national championship.
In 1996, he did it at Kentucky, in a state that bleeds Wildcat blue. Monday night, he shared the experience with the state’s one little patch of Cardinals red. In the process he picked up career victory No. 664, tying him with legendary UCLA coach John Wooden – the man with the most NCAA championship trophies of all.
“This team is one of the most together, toughest, hard-nosed teams,” Pitino said. “I’m just so amazed that they could accomplish everything that we put out there. I’m absolutely amazed as a basketball coach.
With freshman Spike Albrecht stunning a record crowd of 74,326 with 17 first-half points, Michigan led by 12 points and was still ahead 38-37 at halftime. In the 75 years of NCAA championships, a team trailing at the half has only won 16 times. And rallying from 12 down tied the second-largest come-from-behind win championship game history.
That’s why you can see Pitino’s reflection when you look in to the souls of his players. These Cardinals were a tough bunch, never rattled, never diverted from the goal they set after losing to Kentucky in the 2012 national semifinals.
A close team became even closer when reserve guard Kevin Ware suffered his gruesome broken leg in the Elite Eight win over Duke. “Win It For Ware” became the battle cry for the Cardinals and their fans. And Ware came along for the ride, joining his teammates on the victory podium as they sang “We Are The Champions” Monday night.
“It is not about me,” Ware said. “I’m not that type of guy. Our team came out here and beat a great Michigan team. These are my brothers, they go the job done and I am so proud of them. You would think we all came out of the same womb.”
Senior guard Peyton Siva, the heartbeat of this team the past two years, once talked his father out of suicide. He wears the No. 3, not to recognize 3-point shooting, but to honor the Holy Trinity. Siva sometimes babysits Pitino’s grand kids. There’s nothing phony about him. Pitino ranks Siva at the top of decent human beings he has coached,
right along with former Providence guard Billy Donovan. That’s high praise.
“I realize why I’m here,” Pitino said Monday morning after the Hall of Fame ceremony.
“Players put coaches in the Hall of Fame,” he said after winning the national championship Monday night.
And this Louisville team has championship players.
Pitino pointed out Chane Behanan’s “guts on that backboard” as one of the reasons why Louisville won. Behanan had 15 points and 12 rebounds in 28 minutes.
Transfer Luke Hancock, who has been playing to honor his gravely ill father, led the comeback late in the first half with a barrage of 3-pointers and tied his career high with 22 points on 5-for-6 shooting. He was perfect (5-for-5) from 3-point range and had three assists and two steals. Hancock is the first player since Kentucky’s Ron Mercer to score 20 points off the bench in the championship game.
Hancock, named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, had scored 20 points in the semifinal win over Wichita State. It was the first time this season he had scored 20 or more points in consecutive games.
“I tried to do whatever I could to help the team,” Hancock said. “I usually take a back seat to Russ [Smith] and Peyton, which I’m fine with since they are such great players. I just hit a few shots.”
When the good news came from the Hall of Fame a few days ago, Pitino put his cell phone on speaker so his wife could hear the conversation. The next thing he knew, a text message was coming in and he had to find his glasses to read what it said.
“Go Gophers. I got the job.”
Pitino’s son, Richard, is the new head coach at Minnesota, following in dad’s footsteps and making the family proud.
“It was pretty special,” Pitino said. “We never expected Richard to be going to Minnesota. It happened all of a sudden. To happen at the same was very eerie.”
Pitino may have been on the highest of coaching clouds Monday, but he has known the depths of despair. He and his wife, Joanne, lost another son, Daniel to congenital heart failure at the age of six months in 1987.
Joanne’s brother, Billy Minardi, who just happened to be Rick’s best friend, was working for bond trader Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower during the Sept. 11 attacks. Minardi’s death was devastating to both. Five months before that, another brother-in-law had been struck and killed by a taxi cab in downtown New York.
In 2009, Pitino was the target of an extortion attempt that resulted in lurid headlines and seedy scandal that damaged his reputation for a period of time.
Through it all, Pitino has learned to handle the pain, and the distractions – and to move on. This team from Louisville did the same thing, rising to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll in January and fighting past a three-game losing streak to finish on a 16-game winning streak.
“There’s probably no greater moment than the birth of your children,” Pitino said. “[Sunday] night I had dinner with 23 people. A lot of my nieces and nephews do not have a dad and they all share in this moment. It’s just awesome for my family. For me, it’s humbling. But I realize why I’m here. I realize why I’m here.”
That Hall of Fame jersey didn’t stay in Pitino’s possession very long. After winning the national championship Monday night, he handed it over to Billy Minardi’s widow.
”This is the most important item I have in my life,” Pitino told her. “But it’s yours now. . . . No one celebrates like the Pitinos and the Minardis. No one. We celebrate together.”