Thursday, September 8, 2011
Ten years later, Rick Pitino remembers
By Dana O'Neil
When Rick Pitino called to make the reservations at Pebble Beach, he requested specific rooms overlooking the 18th hole, the same ones he booked over Labor Day weekend in 2001.
He secured tee times on the same courses that he played a decade ago. Afterward, he and three of his boys ate at the same restaurants he frequented on that previous trip, finishing each evening off in the Tap Room.
And after the last hole of the last round, Pitino opened a bottle of white wine, the same kind he bought after the last hole of the last round 10 years ago.
"It was absolutely perfect," Pitino said. "It was all good stories, good times, the way it should be."
There was a time when Pitino couldn't have made this trip, not with his sons, not with anyone. But time does do as it promises. It heals. Maybe not closing a wound altogether, but applying enough of a balm so that the memories are sweet instead of stinging.
Ten years can pass in a blink of an eye, yet feel like a lifetime. Some days, some moments, it's like time stood still. Pitino can recall exactly how he felt when he learned that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, recall the confusion and the terror as he tried to figure out if his brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, had been killed.
More often life flies by on the speed of the good news that a family has flourished despite unthinkable tragedy and the happy memories of a man who sprinkled joy around like pixie dust.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists took Billy Minardi's life.
They couldn't take his spirit.
"The last time we spoke, he said, 'How would you like to be back at Pebble Beach right now? I'm sitting at a computer,"' Pitino said. "We had the greatest three or four days on that trip and so I thought, what better way to celebrate Billy than to recreate it? And that's what we did. We celebrated his life."
|Rick Pitino, seen here with two of his sons just four months before 9/11, lost his brother-in-law in the attacks on the World Trade Center.|
The day Billy Minardi Jr. turned 21, his uncle chartered a plane for his friends and family, packing them all off for an unforgettable weekend at Atlantis in the Bahamas.
"My own kids, they fly Southwest," Pitino said. "For him, I got a private plane."
The sweet joys of being the indulgent uncle -- that is just one of the gifts that Billy Minardi continues to grant Pitino. In life, Minardi served as Pitino's sounding board; the man who coaxed him back into college basketball coaching after his crash-and-burn with the Celtics; the one who offered levity when the pressure became too much.
In death, Minardi has provided Pitino with the ultimate gift -- his family. Stephanie Minardi and her three children live just five doors down from the Pitinos in Louisville. Pitino convinced them to use the broad shoulders of family to rebuild their lives, promising that leaving New York would not be leaving behind Minardi's memories or those of Sept. 11.
At first reluctant, the kids instead have thrived. Billy, the most reticent about moving, has graduated from Indiana University and is working in Louisville. Robert, the spitting image of his father, attends the University of Louisville and even lives in Billy Minardi Hall, the dormitory Pitino helped raise the money for. Christine is a high school sophomore who loves nothing more than hearing stories about her dad.
Family vacations are a joint affair and Stephanie Minardi is as apt to be at a Cardinals road game as Pitino's wife, Joanne.
It is not just the Minardis, though, who have found solace in family.
"I don't think we could have survived without them," Pitino said. "My wife and I always say that life will never be as good as when Billy was alive. The void is that large for us. But with his children here, it helps so much. It doesn't make up for the loss of their dad, but we all have each other."
Those bonds of family were tested two summers ago amid the Karen Sypher scandal that scorched Pitino's reputation and sullied his name.
His own immediate family was wounded, embarrassed by the scandal and struggling with how to deal with the fallout.
It was the Minardis, Pitino said, who got them all through.
"My family was sort of just turning the other cheek, but they were on the attack," he said. "They were the fighters in this and they just said, 'We're with you.' When you have people who believe in you, especially your family, you can survive anything."
At the end of this past season, after the Cardinals won 25 games and put together an improbable run to finish tied for third in the Big East, Pitino thought hard about walking away. The year had taken a toll on him and with some offers for TV work dangling before him, Pitino was ready to check out of coaching.
"I thought honestly for the first time in my life about just stepping away," he said. "And then my wife said, 'The one rule is that when Christine graduates you can do whatever you want with your life, but not until then.' She told me I promised Christine that. Now I don't remember making that exact promise, but she made me ask Christine and it was like a rehearsal. Christine said the same thing word for word. So that's when I signed my extension."
|The Minardis stood by Pitino during the very public scandal and trial that rocked his personal life.|
In the days and weeks and months and years after her brother was killed, Joanne Pitino slowly began to fill her home with his picture. There were just a few photos at first, maybe one or two in the kitchen and a few more scattered in the family room.
Over time the collection grew to six and seven or eight in each room, 74 in all by Rick Pitino's last count.
It was too much, he thought at first. The pictures were maudlin, he said, turning his house into a prison of painful memories.
If Pitino has learned anything in the past decade, it is that memories are never painful.
So this Sunday, when he and his wife gather with family and friends for dinner in New York City for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Pitino will be the lead storyteller. He will share every anecdote he can muster, plus toss in the new tales that continue to sprout even now, a decade later.
Just last month, for example, Billy's nephew, Matt, was married. His father -- Billy's brother, Jimmy -- wore his brother's shoes and coat so "he could be there at the wedding."
"I told him, 'You do know that he would have danced to every song?'" Pitino said. "He said, 'Don't worry. I'll be out there.'"
Jimmy Minardi did dance, danced like his brother -- the life of the party, the one who never wanted to leave before last call -- would have danced.
At dinner, Pitino also will tell his family about his trip to Pebble Beach. How his sons started a fire in the hotel room fireplace as soon as they arrived, just like Billy did. How they closed the Tap Room and shared that last bottle of wine.
And how they took a picture, the four of them posed on the famous golf course with the ocean behind them, smiling in the sunlight.
Ten years ago, someone snapped a similar picture of Billy Minardi. It was part of the collection of 74 until an artist friend turned it into a painting. The painting now hangs prominently in the Pitino home.
Pitino plans to do the same with the picture of him and his sons.
It will be the perfect bookend.
From September 2001 to September 2011, so much sadness and so much change.
But life, Rick Pitino has learned, still needs to be celebrated.
|The 18th at Pebble Beach is known throughout the sports world. It's particularly special to Rick Pitino.|
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.