Commentary

Pitino's big chance in the Big Dance

Rick Pitino looks to claim John Calipari's throne after last year's Final Four exit

Updated: March 20, 2013, 11:22 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Rick Pitino did not merely lose to the Kentucky Wildcats in last year's Final Four. He lost to John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats, an entirely different deal.

Calipari was a quasi-protégé who had grown into a blood enemy, and long before he lost an NIT game to Robert Morris in a shoebox gym in Moon Township, Pa., he ended up claiming Pitino's old throne above what the Louisville coach once called "the Roman empire of college basketball."

A native New Yorker who had dared to leave the Knicks for Kentucky, Pitino knew the Wildcats were the Yankees and the Cardinals were the Mets.

Pitino also knew Calipari was capable of recruiting ready-made NBA draft choices out of high school year after year after year, something that couldn't happen in Louisville. And when their national semifinal late last March met a predictable end, Pitino's was a face and voice of long-term resignation. "I'll be pulling for you," he told the victorious Calipari. "Bring the trophy back home to Kentucky."

The reality of Anthony Davis one year, Nerlens Noel the next left Pitino to confront something of a crisis. He'd walked away (twice with hard pushes) from three of the greatest jobs in sports -- the Knicks, Kentucky, the Boston Celtics -- and here he was lost in the shadow of Calipari, a wildly successful coach he couldn't stand.

Pitino had been scarred by the scandal that was the Karen Sypher extortion case, and in 2010 he held out a little hope that his friend, Rod Thorn, whom he'd once asked to help run the Celtics, might hire him to coach the New Jersey Nets, the very franchise Pitino rebuffed more times than his agent could count. Thorn never considered it.

So Pitino appeared lost, and not nearly as relevant as he used to be. Calipari was once the young, brash UMass coach who wore a Pitino mask to a 1992 news conference before a Sweet 16 meeting with Kentucky, if only because people kept calling him a Ricky P wannabe. Calipari was once the consolation choice to coach the New York Nets in 1996, when Pitino -- fresh off his national championship in Lexington -- had rejected one of their many offers.

[+] EnlargePitino/Calipari
AP Photo/David J. PhillipUnlike the 2012 NCAA tournament, Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals won't have to face Kentucky.

When Pitino took the Louisville job, he told a close associate he wasn't thrilled with the idea of sharing Conference USA with the Memphis coach, Calipari. "It's beneath me," Pitino told the associate.

Time changes everything. Calipari found his way to the big job and the national title, and Pitino had himself a program that couldn't measure up. The Louisville coach would say more than once that he wasn't interested in recruiting one-and-done high school stars, and the Kentucky coach would dismiss the words as the laments of men incapable of landing one-and-done high school stars.

Calipari's Kentucky was going to lord over Pitino's Louisville for a long time, maybe forever, at least until this year happened. Until the Wildcats fell apart, lost Noel to injury, missed the NCAA tournament altogether, and suffered the indignity Tuesday night of going down hard at Robert Morris, where Calipari said he was humbled.

Until a 60-year-old Rick Pitino pieced together a season that could return him to the top of the sport.

Even out of the toughest corner of the draw, the Midwest bracket, Louisville is the closest thing to a favorite in an NCAA Tournament that doesn't really have one. The Cardinals have experienced and talented guards in Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, a couple of big guys who can play, and a pressing defense that reduced Syracuse to a quivering wreck in the Big East final.

Their coach can make up for a lot of lost time and opportunity here, all the way back to his days with the Knicks. Pitino needed only two seasons to turn a 24-58 team under Hubie Brown and Bob Hill in 1986-87 into a 52-30 contender that reached the Eastern conference semis, taking Michael Jordan's Bulls into the final seconds of Game 6.

Pitino coached up Mark Jackson by forever telling him he was the best point guard in the league not named Magic Johnson. To show his lesser Knicks he wasn't afraid to confront his biggest star, Patrick Ewing, Pitino would scream at Ewing during practice, but only after secretly pulling the center aside and giving him advance warning of his plan.

Twice Pitino rebuffed overtures from Kentucky after that run, but the third offer was the charm. Al Bianchi, Knicks GM, had no use for the coach or his frenetic full-court press, so when Pitino told him about the rejected Kentucky bids, the GM said, "You should keep all your options open."

Pitino had sought a new contract from Garden executives Richard Evans and Jack Diller, and had offered to include a $750,000 buyout penalty in the event he walked out early on the deal. But Pitino also wanted Bianchi stripped of his power to fire him, a condition the executives weren't willing to grant. The coach never would've left for Kentucky had he known his next-door neighbor in Bedford, Stanley Jaffe of Paramount, was on deck and waiting to take over the Garden.

Pitino would pull Kentucky from the rubble of NCAA sanctions, win his national title, and then make the mistake of leaving a loaded team in 1997 (Tubby Smith, his replacement, would win it all in Year 1) for a $50 million gamble that didn't pay off.

I'm just going to live with that (Celtics) failure forever

-- Rick Pitino

The Celtics, at 15-67, didn't much interest Pitino, who instructed his business manager to ask for an absurd $6 million wage to make his latest NBA suitors go away. Rick Avare figured they might as well ask for $7 million per, and Pitino agreed. Avare called Boston, and then he called his client. "You're never going to believe this," he told him, "but the Celtics went for it."

Some $42 million over six years to be the coach, and some $8 million over four years to be the GM. The Celtics also had two high draft picks, and the best odds of landing Tim Duncan at No. 1.

Only the ping pong balls bounced the Spurs' way, giving Gregg Popovich the dynasty in San Antonio that Pitino could've had in Boston. A trade for Scottie Pippen fell through, too, and by Year 4 so did the Pitino administration. The following year, with his former boss in Louisville, Jim O'Brien took the Celtics to the conference finals.

"I'm just going to live with that (Celtics) failure forever," Pitino would say.

He was privately devastated when denied induction into the Hall of Fame last year, a longtime friend said, although many believe Pitino will make the cut this time around. He's 656-235 as a college coach, and his eight years in the NBA (including two as a Knicks assistant) likely cost him another 200 victories.

"It would mean a lot to me and my family," Pitino recently said of the Hall of Fame, "but it really exemplifies what I've done for athletes and coaches. And if that day comes, it would mean a lot to share with them. So it's not something I think about, but it's something I would be very, very proud of."

For the record, Pitino is proud of the fact he's the only coach to have officially taken three schools (including Providence) to the Final Four; Calipari's trips with Memphis and UMass were vacated by the NCAA.

It always comes back to Calipari. Tuesday night in the NIT, his Wildcats lost in the final seconds to a school none of their recruits would ever visit. Calipari said his program "almost got hijacked" by a circle of uncooperative players, an ugly end to an ugly season.

Meanwhile, the Louisville coach was preparing for Thursday's first-round NCAA meeting with North Carolina A&T. They're scheduled to play the game in Lexington, the perfect place for Rick Pitino to begin taking back his throne.

Ian O'Connor

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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