Dealing with the pain
Pitino tries to focus while grieving for brother-in-law
By Stan Olson, Special to CNNSI.com
CHICAGO -- At other tables in the big room, basketball coaches were discussing offenses and defenses, hot-shot freshmen and why their teams will be better this season, the kind of conversation you expect at Conference USA's annual media day.
But at one table it was different. Before a thick and hushed crowd of media, first-year Louisville coach Rick Pitino was talking about losing his best friend.
Billy Minardi was also Pitino's brother-in-law. They had met in high school and remained close in the 33 years since. Until Sept. 11, when Minardi was working in his capacity as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald, in his office on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower.
The plane hit the tower, and Minardi and 700 of his co-workers did not survive.
Still hoping, Pitino and his wife Joanne caught a ride on a Louisville plane delivering blood to New York. When they got there, they found Minardi's name listed at one hospital among those in critical condition. It proved to be a mistake. Minardi had not escaped, had not been found.
Only the week before, Pitino and Minardi had been playing golf together, and Minardi had pulled out a Louisville schedule and told his friend that he would be able to attend 14 of the Cardinals' 17 home games this season. That was fitting, since he had played a big part in talking Pitino into leaving the Boston Celtics and returning to the college game.
The pair had been as inseparable as two men separated by geography can be, calling each other on the way to their jobs to talk about their New York Yankees, getting together for golf outings and vacations and holidays.
"We were talking about Billy for 10 straight hours, and I told my wife [Joanne], 'You know I always loved him more, and that's the reason I married you.'" Pitino said. I was half-kidding. And -- dead serious -- she said, 'I always knew that.'"
Following the tragedy, Pitino even told Minardi's wife Stephanie that he would take a year off of coaching to help her get through this if she wanted him to. She wouldn't hear of it; told him, in fact, that Billy would have insisted that he continue to coach.
"The toughest moment of all, was my little niece who's 5 years old, and we had to break the news," Pitino said in a soft voice. "I had to explain to her that her daddy was in heaven. She asked if we could get balloons. She wrote two different notes on the balloons, and then we all went outside and let 'em go. She wanted the balloons to get to heaven before her daddy, so he could read the notes and say goodbye."
Pitino hasn't been able to do that yet.
"My day, with individual teaching sessions, is eight hours on the court and four hours of meetings," he said. "By the time I get home I can have a glass of wine and then I pass out. My wife doesn't have that device.
"Now everything seems harder, just because there's so much pain around you because of the situation. You realize there are probably 30-something-thousand people who are feeling the same pain. So it's very difficult.
"I just think the idle time is the toughest time. I just try to fill my day with no thinking time."
He is filling his days by reshaping a Louisville team that had slipped badly under Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, sliding to 12-19 a year ago. But a Top 10 recruiting class led by guard Carlos Hurt and forward Brandon Bender should push the Cardinals back into contention in the league's American Division.
So Pitino thinks about his work, and tries not to think of the pain that again has invaded his life. It's happened before. In 1987, his six-month-old son Daniel died. Another brother-in-law died earlier this year when he was hit by a taxi.
Through his suffering, though, Pitino gained perspective.
"I will never lose my tremendous passion for the game or for winning, but I will accept losing much better than I have before," he said, his voice softer still. "I'm the type of coach to get on a player, but I make sure before they leave that I pick them back up. Now I think I might hug him before he leaves."
This season, Pitino's Cardinals will wear a red, white and blue "B" patch on their uniforms in honor of Minardi. And next year, they will name their holiday tournament after him.
Such things help the wife who lost a brother and the coach who lost a friend, but there is a limit to what they can do.
"This one," he said, "I don't think time will ever heal."
Stan Olson covers Conference USA for the Charlotte Observer. His "This Week in Conference USA" column will appear weekly during the season.