On one of those rare occasions when he was alone, unbothered, in his office, the coach sat listening to Pavarotti. Interrupted then, he reluctantly turned off the music. "Love songs," he said wistfully to the interloper. "All the best love songs come from Naples." This is one of those, of a sort.
East of Naples, in the mountains, in the province of Avellino, sit two small villages. One of them is so small, in fact, that it is almost impossible to find, hidden as it is in the Calore valley, surrounded by vineyards, watched over by its patron saint, San Marciano. It is called Taurasi.
Forty years ago a five-year-old named Mario Taurasi left the hamlet of his name. His parents took him to Argentina, where he grew up, and then, in 1980, he took his wife to California. Their daughter, Diana Lurena, was born shortly thereafter, and a few years later, in the fourth grade, she took up basketball. It was immediately apparent that the kid had a facility for the game.
About 30 miles from Taurasi, due east of Vesuvius, up in the Picentini range, is the town of Montella. At the highest point in the village is the Holy Saviour, sister church to one of the same name in Norristown, Pa., a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. One day in November 1961 Marsiella Auriemma and her three children left Montella for Norristown, where Marsiella's husband, Donate, was already settled, laboring in a candy factory for 15 to 20 bucks a week. Their oldest child, Luigi, who was called Geno, was seven. The ride from his village to the port in Naples was the first time he had ever been in a car. He had never had so much as a coin in his pocket. He could not speak a word of English.
In Norristown, at the parochial school, St. Francis, the nun who taught second grade explained to Geno, through an interpreter, the way things worked there. At the end of the school year, she said, the boys who passed went on to third grade. Those who didn't stayed back in second. There would be no remedial help, no English-as-a-second-language class. Pick it up on your own.
In June little Geno went up to third grade. It was obvious right off that, in any language, the kid had a way with words.
Four Octobers ago, Diana Taurasi was a senior at Don Lugo High in Chino, Calif. She had become the best girls' basketball player in the country, and she was boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Hartford to visit the campus of the University of Connecticut, where Geno Auriemma was the coach of the second most eminent women's basketball program in the country. Tennessee was still first, but Auriemma had the Lady Vols in his sights. He had grown up slick and ambitious, driven as much to chase down the big time as to outrun the nebulous fears that dogged him. "I don't know—all the obvious ones," he says. "I'm the oldest, immigrant family, couldn't speak English. I'm Italian, Catholic—hey, that's enough guilt. What more do you need? I felt inferior. I grew up scared of everybody."
No one would ever imagine this, of course. To the women coaches who despise him and to their teams' furious fans who see him on the court, Geno—just Geno—is an arrogant little dandy. Worse, he's one good-looking guy. The azure eyes, the perfect head of swept-back curly hair: Finally, we know what became of Frankie Avalon after Beach Blanket Bingo. Worse: the cock-of-the-walk gait. "Geno's natural walk is a strut," says Rebecca Lobo, the star of his first championship team, in 1995. Sometimes he even snaps his fingers when he struts, daddy-o style. But then, it's enough that Geno just stands there at the side of the court, hands on his hips, as if he is simply not going to put up with these stupid broads anymore. Then there's the stylish tie that's always undone—perfectly undone, as if he has a valet just to perfectly undo his stylish ties. Come on, this cocksure, suave little s.o.b. is running scared?
"The worst fear of all is fear of failure," Geno says. "The year Jen Rizzotti was a sophomore, she was a chem-bio major, and she had to get a four-oh. Had to. I asked her one day what drove her. I hate to lose, she said. Well, then, I told her, you're my point guard, so we'll get to the final eight, maybe the Final Four, but we'll never win till you replace that I hate to lose with I wanna win. And eventually Jen did, and then we won." He pauses. "But me, I'm still motivated by fear of failure."
Because you've got no coach who can change that in you?