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For Pitino, Life, Death, Basketball

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page D01

Rick Pitino compared Saturday's halftime locker room scene to a "morgue." Silent and motionless, Louisville players were staring at a 13-point deficit against West Virginia, so the Cardinals coach attempted to ignite their spirits with three blunt sentences: "We will definitely win this game. I see it. I know it."

They followed his lead, earning Louisville's first Final Four berth since 1986. Pitino, 52, is not the same person who made four Final Four appearances between 1987 and 1997. He has newfound humility and perspective after losing his best friend and brother-in-law in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and at the same time, he possesses newfound resolve after a failed 3 1/2-year stint in the NBA.

Rick Pitino: "I'm too wise to ever think you're not going to fail in life." (Joe Cavaretta -- AP)

But 30 years after entering the profession, he still has what those who know him best call his ability to motivate common men to do uncommon things.

None of his previous four journeys to the Final Four had been as challenging. None, with the possible exception of the 1987 Providence team, had been as satisfying. He is grateful he is back where he feels he belongs: in college basketball, at its highest level.

"Pat Riley said it best, '[The NBA] is about winning and misery,' " Pitino said. "College basketball has so many other things you can be happy about."

Just nine years ago, Pitino was occasionally portrayed as an obsessed coach who once interviewed for a position on Syracuse's staff on his wedding night and later regularly worked his assistants almost to burnout.

At least recently, though, perception has not matched reality. After Louisville's Jan. 5 loss to Houston, Pitino told his players to hug family members and "be happy to be alive," senior Larry O'Bannon recalled. And when Pitino was asked this weekend where he ranks among elite coaches, he chuckled, saying he was only concerned about grabbing a hot dog with his former assistant and current Holy Cross Coach Ralph Willard after the season.

When Pitino returned to Louisville following Saturday's victory, a portrait of Billy Minardi, his brother-in-law who died in the World Trade Center more than three years ago, rested on a chair. Pitino's wife, Joanne, had taken it down from the wall so she could watch the game with it nearby. Joanne told her husband, "Only he could pull us through."

Pitino "has become more life-oriented because of the tragedy," O'Bannon said. "It kind of mellowed him out. He talks to us a lot more about life now and not just basketball."

Had a Ping-Pong ball bounced another way in the 1997 NBA draft lottery to give the Celtics the option of selecting Tim Duncan, Pitino acknowledges he still likely would be on the Celtics' sideline. Instead, the San Antonio Spurs drafted Duncan, and Pitino finished with a 102-146 record in Boston, the first failed stop of his career.

"I'm too wise to ever think you're not going to fail in life," Pitino said, calling losing a "fertilizer to help future things grow." The experience allowed Pitino to readopt a "P.H.D." -- what he calls being poor, hungry and driven.

Those same qualities helped him motivate a roly-poly point guard named Billy Donovan into a hard-to-defend player who led sixth-seeded Providence to the Final Four. They also helped him lead a Kentucky team on probation in 1989-90 to 14 victories after some administrators reportedly had told him he could win no more than four.

At halftime of Saturday's regional final, Louisville was certainly poor, hungry, and driven. Having played for Pitino at Kentucky from 1989 to '92, John Pelphrey knew. Watching the game on television, Pelphrey turned to his wife, Tracy, and said, "West Virginia is in trouble."

"Whenever it looks like complete chaos and despair and no hope around him," said Pelphrey, now the head coach at South Alabama, "we've seen him do it time and time again. Some may just white-flag it in similar situations, but he sees an enormous mountain as a great opportunity."

Case in point: While walking to the news conference following Kentucky's victory over Massachusetts in the 1992 round of 16, Pitino told his players: "This was the one. Now we're going to the Final Four." It didn't matter that the Wildcats still had to face defending national champion Duke in the round of eight.

"It kind of put us at ease," Pelphrey said. "He was always throwing stuff [messages] at us. It became our armor, and we were well-coated. The sweat didn't even dry yet" following the round of 16.

When he first arrived at Louisville in 2001, Pitino liked neither the team's general character nor the stories he had heard about the way some players had talked to former coach Denny Crum. During the first week, O'Bannon recounted, Pitino told players in a meeting to look around the room because half would probably be gone in a few weeks.

Former and current players say his attempts to inspire them succeed not through one speech or act, but rather over the course of a college career. They respond because they know what Pitino has achieved. Washington guard Will Conroy acknowledged it was "a little intimidating" to watch a television documentary on Pitino the day before the Huskies faced the Cardinals in the round of 16.

Pitino, who reached the Final Four in his fourth season at Kentucky, envisioned a similar scenario this year, his fourth at Louisville. He had hoped to have a pressing team bolstered by newcomers Donta Smith and Sebastian Telfair. But Smith and Telfair went pro, and then Louisville encountered a rash of injuries before the season.

When Pitino and assistants gathered before the season to discuss the team's potential, the staff was "really down," Pitino said. Matters worsened during the year when injuries cut the number of available bodies in practice to nine. The lack of depth forced Pitino to abandon his usual press in place of a zone defense. And Saturday he adjusted during the course of the game, scrapping his scouting report at halftime for the first time in his career. Yet, somehow, the Cardinals (33-4) have now won 13 consecutive games.

"This year," Pitino said, "the guys wouldn't take any losses."

Louisville players say they competed in Saturday's second half with desperation, as if there was only one acceptable outcome. If Pitino is more humbled by life, the players he molds have not softened.

Consider Kentucky's locker room on March 28, 1992, after Duke's Christian Laettner swished a last-second turnaround jumper to give the Blue Devils a 104-103 overtime victory against Kentucky in what is considered one of the greatest games ever played. "You can't judge your basketball career," Pitino pleaded, "on 2.1 seconds."

It was no use. Pitino cried; players wept.

"It was complete mayhem, an emotional wreck," Pelphrey said. "Never in the process did we think about losing."

Nothing has changed.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company