- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Rick Pitino is not walking through that door. Not the Rick Pitino you knew. Not the bug-eyed screamer, the arrogant New York know-it-all. He has swallowed too much heartache to be that man anymore.
No, the 59-year-old Rick Pitino who walks through that door at this Final Four, the one who leads these Louisville Harry Potters into their fight with the Kentucky Voldemorts this Saturday, this Pitino is changed. He's grayer and softer and happier. He laughs. He indulges. He forgives.
"He's different just since I got back," says his son, Richard, 29, who rejoined his dad's staff in April 2011. "He's not near as hard on his guys as he used to be."
"His guys" is this loopy Cardinals team, this outfit without a single likely first-round draft choice on it, this skinny St. George that has to slay The Dragon this weekend in New Orleans while all of Kentucky tries to remember to breathe. This team gets away with stuff that would've gotten old Pitino players a hundred laps around campus.
On March 18 after a big win over New Mexico to make the Sweet 16, Pitino was doing a TV interview while his backup point guard, Russ Smith, was making rabbit ears behind his head.
Old Pitino: Half-hour on the treadmill, at 8 out of 10.
New Pitino: A shrug, a laugh and a palm to the forehead.
"He told us the other day he doesn't have that many years left," says senior swingman Kyle Kuric. "He said he's going to enjoy it. He's going to be around people he likes."
Pitino's life has more chapters than the Red Cross. He has been the whiz kid (the 1987 Final Four at Providence), the savior (at Kentucky in 1989 after Eddie Sutton left it in ruins), the goat (leaving Grant Hill unguarded in the infamous 1992 loss to Duke), the hero (the redemptive 1996 Kentucky title), the NBA answer (jumping to the pros for a second time in 1997 after two straight NCAA title games), the NBA failure (five losing seasons of six at New York and Boston), and, now, the dreamer (at Louisville, forever Robin to Kentucky's Batman).
So this moment, this Saturday, with the commonwealth of Kentucky in flames all around him, should be the close-up of his life. Yet it's not. He might be the least wound-up person in the entire state.
"I don't get into these petty things, Kentucky-Louisville," he says. "To me, it's nonsense. There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us. They've got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville."
But not Pitino. How can you be consumed by a game when life itself has nearly consumed you whole?
What did it? Was it standing with wife Joanne in 1987 in a gas-station phone booth and hearing that their 6-month-old son, Daniel, had died of heart failure?
Was it finding out on 9/11 that his best friend, Billy Minardi, Joanne's brother, had died on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower?
Was it finding out that same year that another brother-in-law had been killed by a New York City taxi?
Was it two summers ago, getting wiped face-first through a nasty blackmail attempt that followed an extramarital indiscretion?
"People don't really know the truth," he says. "I said I'd really like some people to know the truth. And the lawyer said, 'Just go on with your life.' And so I did. A lot of times the last two years, I took a lot of grief from a lot of people saying a lot of things. Some of the most ugly things I've heard, I just took it inside. And today, as I look back on it, I'm real proud that [I] could turn the other cheek."
And then into his life came this collection of future insurance salesmen and bond traders. He starts two seniors. Who even has two seniors anymore? And those two -- Kuric and Chris Smith -- gave back their scholarships so Pitino could sign more depth.
For Pitino, just seeing his happy-go-lucky center, Gorgui Dieng from Senegal, makes him smile as if he's on nitrous oxide. "I love his humility," he says.
During one huddle this season, Pitino was bawling them out for one thing or another. When he finished, Russ Smith held out his arms to him and said, "OK, Coach, now let's hug." Pitino just looked at him, fumblefluxed. Smith hugged him anyway and went back onto the floor.
"I think that's the moment," Kuric says, "when Coach just decided to accept Russ Smith."
These are days of acceptance for Pitino. Acceptance that you're Louisville, not Kentucky. That life is cruel, and then it's sweet. That basketball is part of life, not life itself.
"Whenever he's in a bad mood now," son Richard says, "the players whisper, 'Go get the grandkids.' When they're around, he just can't be mad."
Pitino said something vulnerable the other night, at the very end. He said, "My biggest disappointment isn't that I didn't put somebody on the passer in that [1992 Duke] game. It's that I didn't live humbly all those years. I try to now."
On Saturday, after Pitino beat Florida to make a Final Four he has no business being in, he was so bubbly and overjoyed that he went around and shook the hand of every cheerleader and every band member and even the giant bird mascot. Then he took the mike and told the crowd that, outside of the births of his children, "This is the happiest day of my life!"
Hey, it's not just players who rebound.
Rick Reilly takes a look a the new Rick Pitino.