And there's always the chance he will move on, leaving Kentuckians behind. The rumors coursing through the Final Four only underscored that fact. The New Jersey Nets, tenants of the very building in which the Wildcats won their sixth national title, were said to be preparing a Pat Rileyesque offer to make Pitino their coach, general manager and part owner. No, the Boston Celtics would be hiring him. No, no, it would be the Knicks, bringing him back for a second term.
Back in his hometown of New York he presided over final lour weekend as if he were the protagonist of his favorite movie, The Godfather. Everything at the Meadowlands could, it seemed, be traced back to this capo di tutti capi, even if it was, in fact, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim who gave Pitino his first big-time job, as an assistant, 20 years ago. In 1988 Pitino sat on the search committee at Massachusetts that recommended the hiring of John Calipari, whose Minutemen lost to the Wildcats 81-74 in the semifinals last Saturday. And it was during a trip to visit Pitino for the Kentucky Derby two years ago that Boeheim met his current girlfriend, Juli Greene, a Kentucky graduate who has had much to do, according to those close to Boeheim, with his sunnier disposition of late. It appeared as if all Pitino has to do is rasp out a wish, Corleone like, for it to be someone else's command.
Last Thursday night, after a Rockette-powered salute to the Final Four coaches at Radio City Music Hall, Pitino repaired to Bravo Gianni, an Italian restaurant on Manhattan's tony East Side. There his party of 18 engaged in such fevered ring-kissing and glass-raising, all under the beaming gaze of proprietor Gianni Garavelli, that another diner, JFK Jr., sat ignored in a nearby booth.
Four years earlier Pitino had shared an Italian meal with legendary Kentucky broadcaster Cawood Ledford before an NCAA East Regional game against the Minutemen, and the two had enjoyed a laugh at the expense of the UMass coach. "Boy," Ledford had said, "that fried calipari was good."
Fried Calipari is just about the right way to describe the Massachusetts coach after last Saturday's semifinal. Exhausted, too, was Calipari's point guard Edgar Padilla, who gamely tried to solve Kentucky's pressure. From his seat in the stands, lawyer Robert Shapiro must have looked on admiringly at Kentucky's un-apologetic defense. The game was like a Wagnerian opera. It was never quite over. Five times in the second half UMass pared Kentucky leads of 10 points or more back, to single digits, and that was testament to a magnificently courageous team.
Last fall skeptics had pointed to Kentucky's glut of talent and questioned the Wildcats' team chemistry. Those concerns, it turns out, were misplaced. The relevant discipline for anyone studying this Kentucky team was biology: It's physically impossible to go more than 35 minutes in so demanding a system, and anyone playing it properly must have been grateful for a blow.
For a team that was supposed to fall apart because of competing egos and clashing agendas, the season unfolded almost perfectly. A November loss to UMass removed the Cats from the No. 1 spot in the polls and relieved them of any burdens that come with that position. The rest of the regular season showcased Kentucky's virtuosity, from the 96-32 rout of Morehead State, in which the Cats threw down more dunks (11) than the Eagles scored baskets (nine); to the 86-point first half at LSU; to the game with Vanderbilt, in which the score had stood at 13-0 before the Commodores had so much as hit the rim; to the supposed showdown in Starkville with Mississippi State on Jan. 9, in which the Bulldogs lost 74-56, coughing up the ball 20 times (and prefiguring State's 77-69 loss to Syracuse in last Saturday's semifinals, when the Bulldogs committed 21 turnovers).
Whenever ennui threatened to set in, the kvetchers on the talk shows in bluegrass country found something with which to occupy themselves. First there was the refashioning of the sacred vestments of Kentucky basketball in—hellfire!—blue denim that looked dangerously like the shade popular at North Carolina (whose Tar Heels the Cats moved past during these NCAAs, into first place on the alltime NCAA victory list). Next up was the rendering of Pitino as "a man possessed" in the pages of this magazine. Someone even suggested that all the easy winning might not be such a good thing. "It's like you're having a great time in your life and someone asks, 'Any concerns that you're going to die someday?' " said an exasperated Pitino at one point.
Kentucky and Syracuse did not appear to be having such a great time on Monday. They combined to make such a mess of the final that, appropriately enough, water from the heavy rains outside began to drip from the arena's ceiling early in the first half. Before play began in the second half, Pitino and Boeheim huddled with the referees to assess the situation, as if they were the baseball managers in that classic Norman Rockwell painting. As swabbies mopped up moisture intermittently throughout the rest of the game, Syracuse wound up contributing 24 turnovers to the slop, and Kentucky laid on a total of 45 bricks, 13 of them from the lane, en route to the lowest shooting percentage (38.4%) for a championship-game victor in 33 years. Twice in the second half Syracuse drew within two points, but both times the Wildcats fired some combination of their many weapons—an Anderson three-pointer, a McCarty tip-in, acrobatics from rubber-legged freshman Ron Mercer, who played his most impressive game yet—to open up the gap anew. Mostly, however, it was guard Tony Delk's seven three-pointers that overcame the 29 points, 10 rebounds and headlong hustle of Syracuse star John Wallace and won for Delk the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player award.
Afterward Pitino told his players that as much as he would like to continue to call them the Professionals, it didn't seem quite right for college hoops. Instead he told them he would hereafter call them the Untouchables. Said Kentucky assistant coach Winston Bennett: "With all the pressure placed on these guys, they never let any of it touch them. Coach said over and over, 'The only pressure you've got is good pressure—the type that makes you run faster, jump higher and defend better.' "