SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In the summer of 1986, Rick Pitino was conducting a clinic at the famous Five-Star camp, held then in the old gym at Robert Morris University outside Pittsburgh.
Pitino’s subject that day was how to run the secondary fast break. Up and down went the counselors — all Division I college players — whom Pitino was using as examples.
As the three players came downcourt, the ball went to the left wing and one of the players pulled up for an 18-foot jumper. As it swished, Pitino screamed, “Stop!”
The gym went silent.
“As of this fall,” Pitino said, “that is the worst shot in college basketball. If you take the shot from a step farther back, it’s worth three points. If you take it from there, it’s only worth two. Don’t ever shoot from inside the line unless you are going all the way to the basket.”
Before anyone had taken a three-point shot under the new rule, Pitino had seen the future of the college game. The following spring, he took an unlikely Providence team to the Final Four, led by three players — Billy Donovan, Delray Brooks and Ernie “Pop” Lewis — who went from ordinary players to stars thanks to the three-point shot and Pitino’s focus on it.
While many other coaches were still fighting the notion that the three had become basketball’s most dangerous offensive weapon, Pitino was using it to win games. He was then — as now — a step ahead.
On Friday night, Pitino didn’t use any special magic. He used a gut feeling. And that feeling propelled Louisville to Sunday’s East Region final — Pitino’s 12th trip to this stage with three different schools. The Cardinals pulled away from North Carolina State in the final minutes for a 75-65 win and will face Michigan State for a Final Four berth.
“This is why I still love to coach, this time of year,” Pitino said after the game. “I love March Madness. I love everything about it. I really do.”
He loves it at least in part because he has been so successful. Pitino won national championships at Kentucky and Louisville and has been to seven Final Fours. About the only thing that slowed him down were dalliances with the NBA, first in 1987 when he left Providence to coach the New York Knicks, then in 1997 when he went to Boston to coach the Celtics despite being a God-like figure in Kentucky.
His team appeared to be in trouble Friday when Wayne Blackshear picked up his fourth foul with 8 minutes 31 seconds to go. Not long afterward, the Wolfpack took a 54-53 lead on a three-point shot by Trevor Lacey. That was when Pitino went with his gut. He put Anton Gill into the game, passing on freshman Shaqquan Aaron, who is bigger than Gill and — generally — more of an offensive threat.
Gill hadn’t scored a point in March. He had played a total of two minutes in Louisville’s two victories last weekend. He was averaging 2.4 points for the season. Pitino went with him.
“In 1987, a very improbable Providence team went to the Final Four,” he said. “That team taught me to dream that anything was possible. The other day I had a talk with Anton. I knew he’d been in a funk, and I told him he shouldn’t feel badly about not playing more because he’s playing behind Terry Rozier, who is a great player. I told him his time would come.
“I was going to put Shaqquan into the game, but then I thought about a player on that Providence team, Darryl Wright. He had been in a funk a lot like Anton. We got to the regionals and really needed him off the bench. He ended up being the outstanding player of the regional after we beat Georgetown. I thought about Darryl and decided to put Anton into the game.”
Gill, behaving like anything but a player who hadn’t scored in almost a month, drove to the basket and made a short jumper for a 55-54 lead. Then he hit a three from the wing out of a timeout to extend the lead to 58-54. A minute later, he again drove the lane and hit a short jumper for a 62-57 lead. N.C. State never got that close again.
“I just thought if Coach had confidence in me to go out there, I should have confidence in myself,” Gill said. “I thought the shots were good ones, and they went in.”
The funny thing is that Gill is from Raleigh, N.C., and initially was recruited by N.C. State. Wolfpack Coach Mark Gottfried later got involved with Lacey, and Gill ended up at Louisville where, before Friday, he had been little-used — averaging nine minutes a game and less than that recently.
Pitino has been through a lot of ups and downs since that Final Four in New Orleans 28 years ago, when he lost in the national semifinals to Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, the coach who hired him as an assistant shortly after he got the Syracuse job. The two men remain close friends. Pitino had dinner Thursday night with Boeheim, who was reduced to spectating this March because his team is on a self-imposed postseason probation.
At 62, Pitino has done everything there is to do as a coach. He is in the Hall of Fame. He has come back from the public humiliation he suffered in 2009 when he was blackmailed by a woman with whom he had had a brief fling in a Louisville restaurant. But he isn’t walking away soon.
“I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t coach,” he said. “A lot of my older coaching friends have told me, ‘You of all people can’t stop. You’d be lost.’ So I keep doing it, and I’m lucky that I still get as energized as I do this time of year.”
He smiled. “Of course, given all my losses, I’ll probably have to keep going until I’m 80.”
Most of his losses came in the NBA — 220 in six years — as opposed to 253 (and 722 wins) in 29 years as a college coach. He’s one step from the Final Four again with a team that lost its point guard in February and looked lost.
One thing about Rick Pitino: When all seems lost, he is at his most dangerous. And he’s almost always a step ahead.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.