NCAA tournament 2012: From afar, Rick Pitino’s biggest fan cherishes Final Four berth
By Steve Yanda,
PHOENIX — Louisville Coach Rick Pitino did not climb the ladder Saturday to snip himself a piece of the net after he earned the sixth Final Four berth of his career. But he did instruct Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng to cut two pieces and give one to him.
Dieng complied and, upon descending from the ladder, handed his coach an inch-long piece of white netting. Pitino quickly slid the gift into his left pants pocket and resumed soaking in Louisville’s 72-68 win over Florida. As much as the comeback victory meant to him and his program, that piece of netting meant even more to its intended recipient.
“I think he need it, and I cut it for him,” Dieng said of Pitino. “He wanted to give it to someone.”
Roughly 1,700 miles away, in a dorm cafeteria at the University of Evansville in Indiana, sophomore Bryce Weiler had just finished listening to the game on television.
Weiler isn’t easily shocked. He’s close with Butler Coach Brad Stevens, and the Bulldogs advanced to the past two national title games. That was surprising. After Butler won its Elite Eight games to advance to the Final Four the past two years, Stevens cut down a piece of netting and gave it to Weiler. That was surprising, too. He carries those items around with him wherever he goes.
But Louisville’s win on Saturday? The Cardinals may have trailed by 11 with just more than eight minutes remaining, but Weiler said he never doubted Pitino would pull out a victory.
“I’ve listened to a lot of basketball, and with the two runs that Butler has made in the past two years, I don’t become surprised anymore,” Weiler said. “I was somewhat surprised that [Pitino] got a technical foul, but during the games when I was sitting at the Yum! Center, he kind of yells sometimes at the officials.
“But he’s definitely a different person off the floor. He’s one of the most wonderful and nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and he definitely does a lot more than what he even should do for me.”
A coaching connoisseur
Weiler was born four months early with an eye condition called retinopathy of prematurity. He is blind, and that makes following his favorite sport somewhat challenging.
While attending the Indiana School for the Blind in Indianapolis during his high school years, Weiler took summer school classes at Evansville, where he met Purple Aces men’s basketball Coach Marty Simmons in 2009. Simmons invited Weiler, who is majoring in sports management, to sit on the team’s bench during home games, and Weiler gladly accepted the offer.
In November 2009, before Evansville’s game against Butler, Weiler struck up a conversation with Andrew Smith, who then was a freshman center on the Bulldogs’ roster. Smith encouraged Weiler to get in touch with Stevens and, to Weiler’s surprise, Stevens called him three weeks later.
What began with a phone call turned into a tour of Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s historic home court in Indianapolis. For the rest of the season, Weiler got to sit courtside next to Butler’s radio broadcast team during home games. He got to attend two Butler practices during the Bulldogs’ historic run to the Final Four in March 2010.
And when Stevens gave Weiler a piece of the net from Butler’s victory over Kansas State in the Elite Eight, Weiler put it in his wallet, where it remains to this day. He did the same with the piece of netting Stevens gave him after Butler defeated Florida in the Elite Eight last season.
“This year over summer I decided that I wanted to try to meet a coach from every [Bowl Championship Series] conference so I could learn more about college basketball,” Weiler said.
So he e-mailed Jordan Sucher, the executive assistant to Rick Pitino.
An instant connection
Weiler said he chose to pursue a relationship with Pitino for two reasons. One, Louisville is roughly a three-hour drive from his home town of Claremont, Ill. As such, he was familiar with Pitino and the Cardinals because he’d often listened to the radio broadcasts of their games.
And that leads to reason No. 2: Louisville’s radio play-by-plan man, Paul Rogers, does a great job of, as Weiler said, “commentating for someone who can’t see the plays happening on the court.” So Weiler could learn more about the game as he listened to Pitino’s boys play.
Sucher arranged for Pitino to call Weiler at 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 25. And to Weiler’s surprise, his phone rang at 8:30 a.m. that day.
“He was exactly punctual,” Weiler said. “He was prompt. He wasn’t early. He wasn’t late.”
And Pitino also was descriptive, which Weiler loved. Pitino told Weiler about Louisville’s home court, the KFC Yum! Center, how it was separated into two levels and seated roughly 22,000 people.
“He said that it was a very large, expansive building and that whenever the Cardinals were coming back from being down in a game, it would get quite loud,” Weiler said. “He was very correct about that.”
Weiler met Pitino for the first time when he attended Louisville’s game against Memphis on Dec. 17. He got to shoot free throws with Tyler Miller, a Cardinals team manager who is from the same area of Illinois as Weiler, before Louisville’s game against Rutgers on Feb. 4. The Cardinals claimed a 78-66 victory and were in the midst of a six-game winning streak.
While waiting for Pitino to finish his postgame news conference that day, Sucher told Weiler that Louisville’s 2-5 stretch in late December and early January had been nothing to worry about.
“Teams that are coached by Coach P hit their stride in February and March because the offense that he runs is so complex that it takes the players time to figure it out,” Sucher told Weiler that day. “But once they figure it out, they’re going to make a long run in the postseason.”
Weiler lives in a dorm room by himself because he has so much equipment to help him through his day. His printer produces pages embossed in Braille. His calculator and his laptop speak to him in a digitized voice.
At 2:16 p.m. central time on Friday, Weiler’s computer made the “ding” sound that notifies him when an e-mail arrives. It was from Pitino.
A night earlier, Louisville had defeated top-seeded Michigan State and had advanced to the Elite Eight, where the Cardinals would face Florida. The Gators are coached by Billy Donovan, and Weiler knew how close Pitino was to Donovan, his former player and assistant.
Pitino “said he’d call me this week when he gets back to Louisville, because they’ve had a pretty hectic schedule,” Weiler said. “He said Florida was a tough team and that the Cardinals would have to be ready to face the Gators. And to be well. That’s how he always ends his e-mails: ‘Be well. Sincerely yours, Coach P.’ ”
After Saturday’s game, the Louisville fans in attendance at U.S. Airways Center screamed and cheered as Dieng climbed a ladder and cut off two pieces of netting. They were too busy cheering on the player who followed Dieng up the ladder to notice the 6-foot-11 center from Senegal hand one strand of netting to Pitino.
Weiler, who is 21, wants to do what Sucher does one day, be an executive assistant to a college basketball coach. He’s in contact with Stevens at Butler, and Travis Ford at Oklahoma State. He says he’s supposed to get a call from Billy Donovan at Florida sometime this offseason.
But if he had to choose, Weiler would prefer one day to work for a carbon copy of Pitino. Of all his interactions with the Louisville coach, the one that stands out to Weiler the most is the day he and Pitino sat for 90 minutes at a high school basketball game in Evansville and talked about a lot of things that were related to basketball, but only in a tangential sense.
“From that conversation, I figured out that the moments he likes best are moments that transcend basketball,” Weiler said. “Moments that you’ll think back on 20 to 25 years later that actually matter more than the game.”