Ten years later, Rick Pitino remembers
Louisville coach who lost his best friend on 9/11 recreates their last trip together
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.
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."
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.'"
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.