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NCAA title adds to Pitino's great run

Coach Rick Pitino celebrates after Louisville rallies past Michigan in the title game.

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Coach Rick Pitino celebrates after Louisville rallies past Michigan in the title game.

ATLANTA — In the charmed, heaven-blessed life of Rick Pitino, it is raining lottery tickets.

Has anyone ever had it so good? Every day is a holiday, every meal is a banquet and every hotel room is a palace. At age 60, life loves Pitino, and Pitino loves it right back.

Monday, he went into the Hall of Fame.

Last weekend, his horse — Goldencents — won the Santa Anita Derby and is headed to the Kentucky Derby.

His son Richard is the new head coach at Minnesota.

And now … there are these nets to cut, and the bonus to cash, and the enhanced legacy to consider. Oh, the bother of it all.

Pitino became the first coach in NCAA history to win titles at two different schools when his Louisville team beat Michigan on Monday night. Pitino had to overcome a hot Michigan team, and a slow Russ Smith, and another early deficit. But in a week such as this, Pitino was bound to win. Who else owned the moment?

So add this to the riches of Pitino. He won it all, and he won it again, and he thoroughly depressed everyone in Lexington, Ky. Also, his suit looked good.

Some guys, fate embraces. Some guys, it transforms. Some, it grants a little humility late in life.

Once, he was Slick Rick Pitino, master of the universe. He was New York cocky, and college basketball had never quite seen anything like him. In those days, Pitino was good, and he would tell you he was good.

These days, Pitino is wiser, more patient, more humble. Add those, too, to the gifts bestowed on a man approaching the autumn of his career.

"It took me a long time to gain humility," Pitino says softly. "If I had one regret in life, it wouldn't be what you think. It's that I wasn't more humble at an earlier age. I tell my son all the time, 'don't make the same mistakes I did when I was your age.'

"I wasn't humble enough. I didn't realize why we won. I've never scored a bucket in my life at the collegiate level as a basketball coach. I think the Boston Celtics changed me the most. I don't think I've changed as far as what we teach and the values we have as a team. But personally, you always change as you get older."

Life will teach you things. Sometimes, it takes 661 wins, and seven Final Fours, and the chance to be the first man to win titles at two different schools. But it will turn a cocky man into a calm one, and a driven man into a wise one.

Pitino was always well spoken, but these days, there is a tinge of savvy when he speaks. He has become an elder statesman. Oh, he still wants to win. But he no longer seems, well, consumed.

"You know, when you win, so many opportunities chase after you as if it's part of your shadow," he says. "When you put yourself in a losing situation, everything goes away. Pat Riley said it in such a profound way about the NBA. 'There's winning and misery and nothing in between.' "

He lost his best friend in the Sept. 11 attacks. He lost an infant son. He survived the Karen Sypher scandal. He made a mistake and left Kentucky for the Celtics. Yeah, Pitino has had some hard days, too.

Once, he agreed to be the coach at Michigan before his wife talked him out of it: "I love Las Vegas. My wife doesn't like Las Vegas. She said we had young kids, and she didn't want to go out west.

"So I took the Michigan job. My wife came up, and I'm on the third floor, putting together all the things with the Michigan contract. She had a book. There was an expression in the book, 'I'd rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb.' She didn't want to go to Michigan because I had never visited there, didn't know anybody there. She wanted to go back to Kentucky where she saw the family so happy for eight years.

"I said to her, 'You don't understand. The Kentucky coach can't coach at Louisville.' She said 'It's one game every year, and every other year, you have to visit. What's the big deal?'

"She said, 'You know that line you're always using? I'd rather live one day as a lion than a thousand as a lamb? You're an f-ing lamb.' I said 'Think about it. There's a half-million Kentucky fans in our town. It's not like living in Lexington, where if you wear red, you get shot. It doesn't work that way.' "

So Pitino surrendered and became Traitor Rick. He left a phone message for the Michigan AD, and he became a Cardinal.

Pitino won there, too. But he gained something else. You can call it wisdom.

He was watching the late-Friday night news conference when Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim blew a gasket when asked if he'd be back. "You all have to realize," Pitino said. "It wasn't that he was upset that you were asking him whether he'd step down. What you're basically telling him is 'You're getting old.' Inside, that's what bothers us. We all want to be Peter Pan and stay young."

The way things are going for Pitino, that may be possible, too.

Everything else is going his way, after all.

And if not youth, he might settle for his latest set of net cords.

NCAA title adds to Pitino's great run 04/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 12:53am]
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