By then Mashburn had already chosen Kentucky, for reasons that suggest advanced self-awareness. For a time he had flirted with Syracuse, a program that was attractive to him because of its loosey-goosey style, its tradition of signing New York City stars like Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, even its iridescent orange uniforms. "We let you be your own person," the Syracuse recruiting pitch went. But that's when it occurred to Mashburn that his own person was exactly what he didn't want to be. "I knew the kind of person I was," he says. "I'm laid-back. Let me be my own person, and I'm going to be a laid-back ballplayer."
Upon hearing that a player who had so clearly left his potential unplumbed was going to play for a coach who is known for converting the very last measure of potential into achievement, one coach in the Catholic league instantly sensed what would happen. "I said at the time it was like giving an atomic bomb to a terrorist," says Christ the King coach Bob Oliva. "Jamal and Rick have made me a prophet."
Mashburn hadn't been named to the McDonald's or Dapper Dan high school all-star games, so it was hardly a jaded young man who came to play basketball for Kentucky. He didn't have boundless self-esteem, either. When Pitino administered a battery of psychological tests to his team that fall, Mashburn scored lowest in those categories relating to confidence. Mystified, Pitino confronted his freshman, who confessed that, no, he probably didn't have a disposition to dominate. "It's bizarre, because you see this man's man," says his coach. "But when we got him a summer job delivering sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, he hated it. If you watch him cross the street, it takes him 10 minutes."
Now the player who chose Kentucky in part because it was on probation—"I saw it as a positive, because I could just play and make my mistakes," he says—is ready to step boldly off the curb. His new assertiveness comes in part from a sense of unfinished business about the way Kentucky's season ended last March, when a fouled-out Mashburn watched Christian Laettner's buzzer shot send Duke to the Final Four. And it has been reinforced by a productive summer, which included a turn on USA Basketball's Select Team—the scout team that helped prep the Olympic Dream Team. Chris Mullin and Charles Barkley gave him diet tips and other life-style advice, leaving Mashburn with a newfound appreciation for the responsibility of being a star. "His first year he was saying, it's [then senior] Reggie Hanson's team,' " says Pitino. "Last year he was saying, it's the seniors" team.' Now he knows it's his team."
In three years Pitino—he is "Coach Patina" in the local inflection, a felicitous pronunciation in light of the aura he has helped restore in Lexington—has healed the long-strained relations between Kentucky and New York. After a point-shaving scandal was discovered at Kentucky in 1951, former Wildcat coach Adolph Rupp blamed the wise guys who hung around the old Madison Square Garden for corrupting his players. Turning on Manhattan district attorney Frank Hogan, who prosecuted the case, and judge Saul Streit, who wrote a scathing opinion holding Rupp accountable for the program's sins, the Baron vowed that Kentucky would never go back to the city. And it didn't until the 1976 NIT, which the Wildcats won a year before Rupp's death.
So there's irony in a New Yorker's restoring the up-tempo essence of basketball on which Rupp raised several generations of Kentuckians. "One thing this program needed was a sense of basketball as entertainment," says Pitino, whose two immediate predecessors, Sutton and Joe B. Hall, insisted on squeezing only the safest shot out of each possession. "When Kentucky won in the past, the feeling was too much one of 'Oh, we escaped.' Our games aren't life and death anymore. We get the fans to put their hands up when someone shoots a three-pointer. We choreograph chaos. Our style doesn't give our players time to think negative thoughts. And we try not to give the fans time, either. Joe B. Hall was a wonderful coach and is a wonderful man. But he probably doesn't like the pregame music we play."
Among Pitino's first public utterances upon taking the job was a comment that while he loved Kentucky, it would be heaven if he could only get some good Italian food. Soon thereafter he opened a restaurant just steps from Rupp Arena, called Bravo Pitino. While many old-timers would have a hard time imagining the Baron running a joint called How 'Bout That Adolph, Pitino at least has a leavening sense of humor that neither Sutton nor Hall had. More common is grumbling that Pitino doesn't genuflect to the sacred symbols of Kentucky's past. In Full-Court Pressure, his autobiographical account of last season, Pitino notes that when Mashburn verbally committed to the school, he said only that he wanted to play for the Knicks' coach. "So much for the glorious Kentucky tradition," Pitino writes. Sportswriter Dave Kindred, in a review for the Lexington Herald-Leader, was on him in a New York minute: "The overriding sense of this book is that Pitino came to poor ol' good for nothin' Kentucky and by the power of his talent changed lead into gold."
In fact, Pitino has scrubbed away an awful lot of tarnish awfully quickly, and most of the faithful freely credit him for doing so. The more serious risk Pitino runs may be found in a passage from the Bible that Rupp liked to cite as his guiding principle in recruiting: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help." Pitino is an apostle of a radically different testament. He pledges to try to sign one player a year from the New York area. Tapping into a network of contacts that only a Manhattan-born, Queens-raised, Long Island-schooled coach could have, Pitino has been good to his word, starting with Mashburn. He followed that up last year by signing 6'9" Andre Riddick, a sophomore from Bishop Loughlin High in Brooklyn, and this year by getting 6'6" Rodrick Rhodes, a freshman from St. Anthony High in Jersey City. Yet last spring Big Blue fans saw Pitino come within a tick's tooth of the Final Four with three eastern Kentuckians, John Pelphrey, Richie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus. "Write it down," says one longtime Kentucky sportswriter. "Pitino is going to be criticized for recruiting the top prospects in the nation, especially those in the New York area, instead of going after the Pelphreys, Farmers and Feldhauses of tomorrow. That won't go down well with all those who looked at last year's team and felt as if they were back in the '40s and '50s, with Adolph winning with teams built around good ol' white boys from the Kentucky hills."
Pitino responds just as you would expect a New Yorker to: directly but shrewdly. "We'll always have a few Kentucky players as well as a few New York players," he says. "But my feeling is, if a Kentucky player isn't good enough to play here, let him go somewhere he can—because Kentucky kids love the game too much."
If Pitino hadn't added that last sentence, you might soon detect some of that Kentucky passion curdling into resentment in places like Pikeville and Pineville and Prestonsburg. But the coach understands that basketball is one thing that can cause the jaws of yawning cultural difference to close shut. As Mashburn says, "Basketball means just about the same thing in New York and Kentucky. It's just that back home there are lots of other things, and down here it's the only thing."