"I told our guys we could play a perfect game and still not beat Kentucky," said Mississippi State coach Richard Williams, whose Bulldogs were far from perfect (with 28 turnovers) in a 74-56 loss to the Wildcats in Starkville on Jan. 9.
The testimonials have been pouring in all season. Pitino may already be the most celebrated college coach in the country who has never won a national championship, but this is the year the Kentucky faithful have been waiting for.
What the man pulled off in his first few seasons in the commonwealth is as much a part of Kentucky basketball lore as anything the Baron did in all his 42 years. By the second game of Pitino's first season, in which the Wildcats nearly beat 14th-ranked Indiana, dropping a 71-69 heartbreaker, the coach had turned a gang of role players, pine jockeys and walk-ons into the woolliest, grandest, damnedest basketball show that anyone had seen in Kentucky in years. Through cajolery and flattery, praise and scorn, he had gotten his players to chase the ball like a hockey puck into all four corners, to run and to press just as his teams had done in Boston and Providence and New York. It was as though, in the darkest of days, a magic circus had come to town, and the enchantment culminated on the night of Feb. 15, 1990, when the Cats beat Shaquille O'Neal and ninth-ranked LSU 100-95, in a game that ended with a thunderous tribute from the fans in Rupp Arena.
"That first year the games ended with people just sitting there with tears running down their faces," says Anita Madden, Lexington's premier hostess and a longtime Cats watcher. "People were as proud of that team as of any that ever played for Kentucky. The coach and those boys were trying so hard that it was just touching to watch them." They ended up 14-14. A year later, with freshman Jamal Mashburn as an added starter, the Wildcats went 22-6; a year after that they were 29-7, and if Christian Laettner had missed that miraculous basket at the buzzer in the East Regional final, the shot that earned Duke a 104-103 overtime win and a trip to the Final Four, those Cats might have won Kentucky's first NCAA title since 1978 and ended up, like Secretariat, cast in bronze in a Lexington park. Instead, four of the no-name starters on Pitino's original team—Sean Woods, Deron Feldhaus, Richie Farmer and John Pelphrey—watched in wonder a week later as their jerseys rose to Rupp's rafters in retirement.
"It was unimaginable," says Pelphrey, who went from all-average to All-SEC in two years. "We won 65 games in three years! The NCAA put us on probation to make us suffer, but we never really did."
What Pitino brought to Lexington was the same unbounded passion to succeed that had always governed his life—that and an unearthly appetite for work that transformed him, as each season wore on, into a walking wraith. But even then he could take his own energy and instill it in his players till they ran at a pace that turned every game into Armageddon. And he still had that magical ability to get players to believe in themselves—in who they were and what they were doing and where they wanted to go. Where did his drive come from? And where did it all begin?
Pitino was born in Manhattan on Sept. 18, 1952, and his family moved to a house on Springfield Boulevard in Cambria Heights, Queens, when he was six. Rick was the third son of Rosario (Sal) Pitino, a building superintendent whose Sicilian-born parents owned a fruit stand in New York, and Charlotte Newman, an administrator at Bellevue Hospital. Rick's two brothers were so much older than he—Bob by 10 years, Ron by eight—that he hardly knew them. He was just a blur around their feet. "Always going 100 miles an hour," recalls Bob, a retired Long Island cop who lives in Florida.
Sal and Charlotte both commuted to work in Manhattan, leaving home early and returning late to avoid the traffic, and Rick vividly remembers his solitude as an eight-year-old. He was alone as he ate breakfast in the morning, alone as he walked to grade school in the winter, alone and frightened as he walked home in the dark to that empty house. "I had kind of a strange childhood," he says. "I got a lot of love from my family, but I was lonely. I remember being lonely. From age six on, I was coming home in the dark, and I had a little fear of the darkness, and I'd always be looking around, and I'd be by myself entering a dark house. It was scary for a kid."
He still recalls those Friday nights in the summers of his youth, just after he discovered sports, when he would lie awake in the dark in his second-floor room and listen to the rain on the roof. It thrummed out a message he could hardly bear to hear: that his Saturday-morning CYO baseball game would probably be called off, and there would be no gathering of friends and no crowds—none of the companionship for which he so keenly yearned. Of course, there was only one thing to do about that. He would go out and save the day.
So, on those rainy Saturday mornings he would rise and dress at six o'clock, while his parents were still asleep. He would scoop up an armful of his mother's towels and head out the door, grabbing a garden rake on the way. He would hike alone the seven blocks up 121st Avenue to the baseball diamonds at Colin Field. And there, in a scene right out of a Rockwell painting, the boy would race to beat the league officials who would come to check the grounds. He would swab and dry the bases with the towels. He would rake the water from the batter's box and the base paths. And finally, towels in hand, he would stoop over and sop up the last gray puddles that lay between him and his friends. Charlotte would wonder where all her linens disappeared. "I was always buying towels," she recalls. It wasn't until years later that she learned that Rick had been ditching them in the trash; bringing them home would have given away his early morning flights to Colin Field.