SI Vault
William Nack
February 26, 1996
The Kentucky Wildcats' relentless attack reflects the ferocious drive of their coach, RICK PITINO, who left the NBA to rescue the Roman Empire of college basketball
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February 26, 1996

Full-court Pressure

The Kentucky Wildcats' relentless attack reflects the ferocious drive of their coach, RICK PITINO, who left the NBA to rescue the Roman Empire of college basketball

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Many years later in Kentucky, after Joanne gave birth to their fifth son, Ryan, in June 1990, Rick pleaded with her to have a sixth child. All her pregnancies had been difficult, and she dreaded going through another. Daniel had died three years earlier, and his death had left almost eight years between Ryan and Richard, the next oldest boy, and Rick shivered at the thought of Ryan growing up alone. "He'll always have us," Joanne protested.

"You don't understand," Rick said. "You just do not understand." She yielded again, of course, and two years later they had Jaclyn, their only daughter.

As a boy, Rick had found in basketball his anodyne, his escape from loneliness, and he had spent hours on the courts of Queens, losing himself in the game. "I dreamt day and night about sports, almost in a fantasy league of my own," he says. By 1966 his family had moved out to Bayville, on Long Island's north shore, and Rick was a 14-year-old gym mouse for whom the game had evolved into an obsession. "A coach's dream," says Patrick McGunnigle, Rick's coach at St. Dominic's High School. "A 12-7-10 kid: 12 months a year, seven days a week, 10 hours a day."

Rick dreamed of playing pro ball and wanted desperately to win a basketball scholarship. He wouldn't be able to go to college any other way, so he dedicated himself to the game. By the time he was 16, when he started dating Joanne Minardi, the boy in him had all but vanished. "I always thought of him as a man-child," says Joanne. "It was like he was never a child. He was sooo responsible." She used to beg him to take her to Jones Beach, her favorite place, but he set the terms of the courtship.

So she often ended up watching him play pickup games on a playground or retrieving his free throws in the deserted gym at C.W. Post College. He promised her they would go to the beach if he hit 100 free throws in a row, telling her, "If I miss, we have to start all over again." They never made it to the beach. Second prize was the Carvel ice-cream stand. "Every day I would get my butterscotch sundae and Rick his double banana barge," she says. "Our whole courtship was not a courtship."

His whole life, by then, was a romance with basketball, his way to seize the future. He was not a naturally gifted athlete—only six feet tall and a tad slow—but in high school he made himself into a good player, wringing every scintilla of ability from his scrawny frame. "He was a one-on-one scoring machine with 176 moves," says Howard Garfinkel, Rick's coaching guru al the Five Star basketball camp in the Catskills. "He had a game." By his senior year he was known as Rifle Rick and was on the first team of the Long Island Catholic High School All-Stars. He averaged 28 points and 10 assists a game for St. Dominic's. "A phenomenal passer and ball handler," McGunnigle says. "He was responsible for 50 points a game."

UMass assistant coach Ray Wilson came to a St. Dominic's game to scout another player and saw Pitino on a night when he was on. "He was shooting the lights out yet moving the ball around," Wilson says. "He'd come down that center lane, and you could see he was watching the whole court. He was like a little coach out there."

So the man-child reached his goal and got a full ride at UMass. Before it ended, however, the ride would become one of the most painful experiences of Pitino's basketball life. Going into his sophomore year, the first year of varsity eligibility in those days, Pitino was chesty and full of himself, boasting that he would take the starting job at point guard from the team's captain, senior Mike Pagliara. "He was very vocal about that," recalls the other senior guard, John Betancourt. When head coach Jack Leaman chose to go with Pagliara, Pitino resented it, and the rivalry between the two players heated up through the fall and winter—until, at a practice in January, they got into a scrap in which Pagliara broke a finger. According to the next day's Springfield Union, Leaman announced that Pagliara had been injured and Pitino had been "dropped from the squad for the season."

Pitino thought about transferring, but Wilson talked him out of it and admonished him: "You need to grow up." When Pitino came back his junior year, he apologized to Iranian, who told him, "O.K., but you're the last man on the team. You've got to earn your way back." Amherst became Pitino's gulag for the next two months. Given his history, he could have suffered no worse a fate than to be treated as though he did not exist, and that is what he suffered under Leaman. Pitino was always last in line—to eat, to board the bus, to run the mile—and he was ignored by the coach.

"He didn't speak to me," Pitino recalls. "I felt like crying a hundred times." Behind Pitino, Wilson kept whispering, "He's testing you. Hang in there."

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