It's full circle for Pitino, Krzyzewski
On Sunday, two legends face off in the tourney for the first time since The Shot
INDIANAPOLIS -- Time has a way of clouding our memories, or worse, diluting them. Was what happened really as good as it seemed then? It's why arguments about the greatest of all time in anything -- sports, politics, music, film -- are so entertaining. It's almost impossible to separate eras, to remove sentiment and emotion from the debate.
Yet somehow college basketball has managed to keep its focus. In this, the 75th anniversary of the NCAA tournament, there have been lists upon lists made by virtually every media outlet that gives a fig about the sport. There is debate over the best player and the best team.
But there is no argument about the game's greatest moment:
March 28, 1992: Kentucky versus Duke, Elite Eight, Philadelphia.
It is the sport's eternal high-water mark, one where, if you were privileged enough to be there (as I was), you carry that badge like some historical mark of honor.
Strangely, especially in the made-for-TV Hallmark world we live in, the two main actors in college basketball's greatest game never crossed paths again for 20 years. Not until this past November, when Duke played Louisville in the Battle for Atlantis did Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino stalk the same sideline together. Not until Sunday will they have faced each other in an NCAA tournament game since that epic day at the old Spectrum.
So there is something poetic, especially in this, a season full of strange moments but no single defining one yet, that the two meet again.
It is an impossibly tall order to ask Sunday's Elite Eight game between the Blue Devils and the Cardinals to match that one. But no less an authority than Krzyzewski thinks this could be the game of the tournament.
"Elite Eight games are huge anyway, but this one, I think, it's like a national championship game," he said. "Both teams have had great years, and the two seasons of the two teams could match anybody's in the country. And to just have it work out that we're playing right now against one another, I think it's great for college basketball. I hope we both live up to the game."
Krzyzewski, as well as Pitino, knows a thing or two about the albatross of expectation. The two lug it around with them everywhere they go, their résumés stuffed with so many accomplishments that anything even resembling ordinary, or merely good as opposed to outstanding, seems disappointing.
But the two coaches, good friends and card-carrying members of a mutual admiration society, also know that with success comes opportunity.
This is an opportunity for Duke and Louisville, one not entirely different from the one in 1992, when the Blue Devils and Krzyzewski were the 1-seed and the Wildcats and Pitino the 2.
This will be the only such 1-2 matchup in this year's tournament -- a tournament that already has a 4 and 9-seed in the Final Four.
So, although Saturday's off-day news conference -- time traveling between the past and the present, remembering their moment in history and then fast-forwarding to what has to happen in their own game -- might sound a bit self-indulgent, there is here-and-now relevance.
There aren't many times you get a chance to dance with history, an opportunity to play in a game few would argue features the country's two best teams left in the field.
Duke and Louisville have that chance.
And the two coaches get it, they understand the magnitude of the opportunity and the chance to create a moment that will last in the winners' memories forever and, if we're lucky, in everyone else's too.
"Anytime you write a book about one game, it's kind of special," Pitino said.
Still, all these years later, they remember 1992 with vivid clarity -- as does anyone who was there. My memory: The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan walking into the press area afterward, proclaiming to anyone within earshot that we weren't worthy of writing the game. Two years out of college and a journalistic neophyte, I was ready to just drive home.
Krzyzewski spoke with awe, as if he was just watching it unfold in front of him, the scene after Christian Laettner's shot slipped through the nets.
"I will always remember the stark difference in emotion," he said. "Because right in front of me Richie Farmer collapsed. And I see our guys jump and him fall, and I was really more taken with Richie. And I understood looking at him -- I could never understand completely because it didn't happen to me -- but just how tough it was."
For Pitino, it could be a much more painful reminder.
Four years after his team lost in five overtimes to Syracuse in the Big East tournament, Jim Calhoun still has a hard time measuring the wonder of that game because his UConn team was on the losing end.
While the rest of the commonwealth of Kentucky still harbors more bitter resentment than warm sentimentality from the game, it took Pitino only about 24 hours to put it in its proper context.
He still regrets telling John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus not to foul Laettner, convinced that their worry about contact allowed the clean shot, but otherwise, he has no problem remembering the game fondly.
"Kentucky fans always say it was one of the worst losses," Pitino said. "To me, it's one of the best losses I've ever had. A bad loss was Providence last year by 31 points. A bad loss is something where you play terrible. It was a great loss because my guys played almost a perfect game and just had the wrong ending for us."
Time, of course, has the power to do that, too.
It can ease the sting of a painful memory as much as it can cloud the significance of a good one.
What it can't do is stand still.
It moves forward to the point that 1992 is not even a distant memory for college basketball players. It's merely a highlight clip run on a loop in March. Most of them weren't even born yet.
There's no place for nostalgia for the young, no need to look back when they have so much to look forward to -- like creating their own moment in time.
"Obviously it was one of the greatest games ever and it was a tremendous shot," Louisville's Russ Smith said. "But like Chane [Behanan] said, I wasn't even thought of, so I couldn't even really comment on the game. I just see the highlights. It's a new game, and hopefully history don't repeat itself."
Actually, Russ, in some ways at least, it would be pretty amazing if it did.
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