They scarcely celebrate their national championships at Kentucky. They revive them, yes, and cherish them, most certainly. But celebration comes reluctantly to the people of the Commonwealth, who so surely expect NCAA titles. And the Wildcats won their sixth, with a 76-67 victory Monday night over Syracuse in the New Jersey Meadowlands, despite the most jaunting of expectations.
Or perhaps they won because of those expectations, for over the past year Kentucky coach Rick Pitino played a masterful, drawn-out trick of psychology. "I tried to use pressure as a motivational force for my staff and my players," he said after his thoroughbreds had outrun Syracuse on a muddy track in the sloppiest championship game in recent memory. "Even if the players say it doesn't exist, every fan tells them, You've got to win it all.' "
So Pitino turned the pressure outside-in. He somehow rejiggered all that external expectation into an internal prod. In spite of the common perception of Pitino as a control-freak coach, his futility in recent NCAA tournaments has owed itself not to over-coaching but to undercoaching: to not putting a man on Grant Hill, the inbounder whose pass to Christian Laettner led to Duke's winning the East Regional final over the Wildcats in 1992; to not substituting for his star, Jamal Mashburn, who would foul out during the final minutes of overtime in the loss to Michigan in the national semis in '93; to not reining in his Cats' tendency to launch heedless three-point shots, as they did in losing to North Carolina in last season's Southeast Regional final. This year Pitino coached his way to the national crown in the most methodical, fastidious and patient way possible. The foundation of Kentucky's title was laid a year ago, after that loss to the Tar Heels, when he took his players one by one into a darkened hotel banquet room and lashed into each with personalized, 20-minute philippics so sharp that they hated him for weeks afterward. In the locker room before the tipoff of Monday's game, Pitino laid the capstone in the rebuilding of those players. He told his five starters why he would rather coach them than their Syracuse counterparts.
Pitino can spin like the best D.C. political operative. During the course of the season, he said, "The SEC is too good for us to think of a 16-0 mark," and of course Kentucky went through the league unbeaten. He said, "Our frontcourt is a little thin," when of course it was so thick with talented players that it turned other coaches the color that bluegrass isn't with envy. The prospect of losing to Mississippi State in the SEC tournament final loomed ominously—"Nothing good could come from a loss," Pitino said before tipping off against the Bulldogs—until the Wildcats actually played State and suffered an 84-73 defeat; then he said, "I was glad we lost," because it would get the players back to doing the basic things necessary for winning the NCAAs.
But Pitino's most brilliant spinmastering turned on a joke borne of the Wildcats' August trip to Italy, during which Pitino had had an audience with the pope. The joke had already begun making the rounds of the state when Pitino told it at a luncheon last fall. "When I met the pope, I leaned over and kissed his ring," was the way Pitino put it. "Then he looked at my hand to do the same, and he said, 'Oh, you don't have a ring.' " This kind of gag can become a weight unless you tell it on yourself. Brilliantly, Pitino shucked the weight by appropriating the joke.
The last time Kentucky won a title, in 1978, coach Joe B. Hall had pronounced the season one "without a celebration," because the pressure to win had been so great. Expectations were almost as high this year; several fans, upon seeing that Street & Smith's yearbook had chosen the Wildcats as its preseason No. 2, called the magazine to demand, "How can you rank us so low?" Yet this was a season of celebration. Every day Pitino asked his players to celebrate what he came to call "the precious present." And there was guard Derek Anderson on Monday night, as ready to party as he could possibly be. "I don't drink," Anderson said, "but I may buy myself a bottle of wine and just stare at it."
The New York City area, to which the Final Four returned for the first time since the point-shaving scandals came to light in 1951, recurs unpleasantly in the history of Kentucky basketball. New York was home base for the wiseguys who plied several star Wildcats with cash in exchange for controlling the spread in certain games. It's where Saul Streit, the judge presiding over the point-shaving hearings, issued an opinion in which he lacerated basketball at Kentucky before the school shut the program down for the '52-53 season. And it's where, one day in the early '60s, Jimmy Breslin, then a young clerk on the sports desk of the New York Journal-American, took a phone call from Wildcats coach Adolph Rupp during which the Kentucky coach asked if the paper would kindly indicate "colored" high school players with asterisks so Rupp would know where not to bother to send his recruiters.
Forty-five years after the scandals broke and 30 years after a Texas Western team with five black starters defeated an all-white Kentucky club for the national title in what has since become known as the Brown v. Board of Education of college basketball, a Manhattan-born Italian-American orchestrated the final expunging of Ruppism. No great whoopee has been made of it, but this season marks the first in which the Wildcats have regularly started five black players. Over the past few years both Spike Lee and Muhammad Ali have sat on the Kentucky bench, and proceeds from a Wildcats' preseason game have been donated to the Urban League. And while wounds from the Rupp era haven't completely healed—in 1993 the grandparents of Jason Osborne, a black high school star who wound up staying home and playing at Louisville, told Pitino that no grandchild of theirs would set foot on the campus of Rupp's university—guard Derek Anderson has become the first black player from the state's largest city to suit up for the Wildcats in eight years. According to the Pitino philosophy, neither race nor province figures. All that matters is how good you are and how hard you play.
With his every inflection Pitino reminds Kentuckians of his New York City pedigree, and almost as regularly he alludes to his time there with the Knicks—two years as an assistant and two as the coach. Pitino has transplanted almost whole the NBA model from New York to Lexington. Wildcats are redshirted as if they were being placed on extended injured reserve, and this season Pitino added a sort of mini-CBA, a jayvee team. His continuing criticism of the five-year-old NCAA rule limiting practice time to 20 hours a week is a professionalist's gripe. And with his incessant pickups from the "waiver wire" of transfers (on this championship team, Anderson was a refugee from Ohio State and center Mark Pope came from the University of Washington) and his arranging of soft landings elsewhere for recruits who don't pan out (in just the last four years, Carlos Toomer at St. Louis, Aminu Timberlake at Southern Illinois and Rodrick Rhodes at USC), Pitino essentially swings off-season "trades." All year long Pitino's affectionate nickname for his team, the latest in a line that includes Rupp's Runts and the Fiddlin' Five, was the Professionals.
Listen to Pitino, and again and again you'll hear the patois of the pros: Wake Forest, Kentucky's victim in the East Regional final, plays "like the Houston Rockets." To Syracuse point guard Lazarus Sims, distraught after Monday's final, Pitino said, "Keep your head up, you've got a great future in the league next year." Of course this invocation of the NBA resonates with recruits hoping to end up in the pros. But it's also effective in scaling back the outsized expectations of the Kentucky faithful. Subtly but stubbornly Pitino reminds Wildcats fans that there is something bigger than Big Blue basketball. Last week he told of an overnight letter, sent from a doctor just before Kentucky left for the Meadowlands, containing strategic suggestions for the Cats. "Thanks for your help," Pitino wrote back. "After the season I want to sit down with you and have a serious talk about how you're conducting surgery." As someone who has voluntarily descended from a higher level of the game, Pitino can challenge the fans' obsessions in a way that his predecessors, Hall and Eddie Sutton, never could.