The most important day in the history of University of Louisville and University of Kentucky basketball was when Rick Pitino was trying to make up his mind whether to leave Lexington for the road that eventually led to the stratospheric altitude in which he is currently breathing.
The only other people in the room that May day in 1997 were his closest friends, some of whom also were close enough to me that they recreated for me what was said and unsaid while Pitino was trying to make up his mind on whether to get up, open his office door and walk out for the future that led to the current where the master coach resides today. He is on the threshold of guiding his Cardinals to their first national championship under his rule.
Said one of his closest friends, “We didn’t know what decision Rick was going to make until he got up and turned the doorknob to leave the room.”
Until this day, no one except readers of my book (“Calling It Like I See It: True Stories and Tall Tales about Kentucky Sports,” Butler Books, 2002) knew the angst Pitino was going through that day in Lexington when he resigned to become the president and head coach of the Boston Celtics.
And only the smartest of basketball students appreciate the coaching job that Pitino has done with his current team. Remember, Louisville’s only two national basketball championship teams were coached by Denny Crum, for whom the Yum! Center basketball court bears his signature.
I’ve been asked, “Which is the better coach, Denny or Rick?”
That’s a question that I am not qualified to answer, and wouldn’t if I could.
Just accept that both are just as good as anyone else who has ever coached the game.
All Pitino players will tell you that he has one mantra; “Thou will not be coddled and be tough or be gone.”
Pitino’s job with this team, especially with the development of Gorgui Dieng, has been masterful. The 6-foot-11 native of the African country Senegal may be the most dominant “big” in the country. His goal is to graduate and win the national championship.
The funniest thing I have heard about how Cardinal opponents feel about this team is that they think it is unfair that Louisville won’t allow the other team to get the ball to midcourt!
That takes some defensive doing by guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith (or, if you prefer, Russdiculous).
Pitino’s payday checks may be the highest in that nation. Only he and director of athletics Tom Jurich know for sure if that is true, but Pitino’s total yearly take reportedly is in the $7.5 million range.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune