TO: A. RUPP
Kentucky Bluegrass Heaven
Dear Adolph...stop...Brace ya'self...stop...New coach a Yankee...stop...Says he'll be playing walk-ons, turning Wildcat Lodge into weight room—or museum—and scheduling Murray State...stop...In debut he wore blue shirt with white collar and cuffs!...stop...Folks in the audience put on masks so they all looked like him...stop...Players introduced with rock music...stop...Cats pressed and trapped all over court, shot threes out their ears, dressed up in spandex under-tights!...stop...Destroyed Ohio U 76-73...stop...Oh, yeah, in second game Big Blue got outshot, outrebounded by Indiana, let Hoosiers score 16 straight points and was getting its rear end run out of the Hoosier Dome by a score of 70-60 with 4:50 left...stop...Still, Cats rallied, had last shot to pull off upset...stop...Kentucky lost 71-69...stop...Something you might remember is back, called attitude, desire, "try"...top...So don't turn over yet, Baron...stop...We sure do like this guy!
Like him? When the announcer fairly bellowed, "The Rick Pitino era at the University of Kentucky is about to begin! Let's give a great welcome to Riiiick Pitinoooo!" just before the opening tip against Ohio on Nov. 28 in Lexington, the more than 23,000 Kentuckiacs wearing Rick Pitino cardboard face masks—they had been standing in ovation from the moment the savior himself made his first official entrance onto the Rupp Arena floor—gave ample evidence that the occasion inaugurated far more than just a fine romance.
Pitino had not ordered the masks, of course—credit a local grocery chain—nor did he know he was about to make an Elvis-inspired entrance until seconds before he went on. This should have been paradise for the 37-year-old Pitino, a coaching prodigy whose ego is boundless enough that it has been said he wouldn't have minded at all if his last team had changed its name to the New York Ricks. Yet, as he strode past the multitudes who were wearing his face and clapping for him, he appeared uncomfortable, even slightly embarrassed. "I didn't know what to do," he said later.
So Pitino marched right over to the visiting team's bench and shook hands with Ohio coach Larry Hunter. No big deal. That's what they do in the NBA, too.
The problems came later when, among other things, Pitino 1) started to give the signal for a 20-second time-out—there is no such animal in college basketball; 2) caught himself searching his bench for Patrick Ewing, only to find a skinny, bespectacled scholar named Johnathan Davis among his NCAA-probation-depleted squad loaded with high school-sized players; and 3) nearly forgot to shake Hunter's hand at the end of what may turn out to be—in this season at least—a rare and joyous Kentucky victory.
"It was just like early in my first year back from Providence with the Knicks," Pitino said. "That time I was screaming, 'Five, Five! Five!' for a five-second call that doesn't even exist in pro ball. Everybody was looking at me like I was crazy. Then, against Ohio, we're in a drought, and I start to call for a 20-second timeout. Lucky my assistants stopped me. Unbelievable."
Pitino could be excused for confusing the subtleties of the pro and college games, because he has switched coaching venues back and forth from campus to the NBA five times in the last seven years. One cynical journalist once called him "Larry Brown with training wheels." But, hey, when a coach with Pitino's brilliant résumé even hints that he might become available, any administrator in his right mind would stand below Pitino's balcony singing, "Ricky, don't lose my number."
Kentucky's new athletic director, C.M. Newton, who was charged with putting the Wildcats' house back in order following the scandal-plagued years of coaches Joe B. Hall and Eddie Sutton, figured he needed Pitino to handle the peculiar pressures and hardships of Kentucky basketball. NCAA penalties have taken the Wildcats off live television for a year, barred them from the NCAA tournament for two seasons—Kentucky can't even play in its own Southeastern Conference tournament—and limited their scholarships to three a year for the next two seasons.