LEXINGTON, KY — LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It's Friday night, and Bravo Pitino's is hopping as usual. Downstairs, former New York Knicks coach Stu Jackson shares a laugh with a few gentlemen. Moments later, LSU center Shaquille O'Neal very noticeably walks through the door.
Upstairs, another former Knicks coach, the one for which the restaurant is named, sits at a table in the middle on the floor, the easier to see and be seen.
Patrons begin clapping as the violinists from the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra break out in a soothing rendition of the University of Kentucky fight song. Pitino, never missing a moment to entertain, leaps to his feet and motions for scores of other people to stand and clap. They do.
There probably isn't much that basketball fans in the Bluegrass State -- practically everybody -- would not do for Pitino. He rescued their program from ruins, reversed embarrassment to pride. And most important, he is winning big much sooner than anyone anticipated. There is a feeling throughout the state that Pitino is loved.
"Love is probably a good word," said Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton, who hired Pitino from the Knicks on June 1, 1989. "Everybody has strong feelings."
Few thought it was possible for anyone to right a program that had gone wrong so quickly. Eddie Sutton's last Kentucky team, in 1988-89, finished with the school's first losing record in Southeastern Conference play and its first overall losing record since 1926-27. The depleted roster Pitino inherited was picked to finish near or at the bottom of the SEC.
"I told Rick that if he won 10 games, he should be national coach of the year," said Cawood Ledford, in his 38th year broadcasting Wildcats games.
The same fans who once expected nothing less than a conference championship were thrilled when Pitino's first Kentucky team went 14-14, including 10-8 in the SEC and undefeated at 23,000-seat Rupp Arena.
If any doubts remained hidden in the Bluegrass about Pitino, 38, they were quickly dispelled.
"I'm the type of guy who likes to make cloudy days into sunny ones," he said.
Kentucky fans are smiling even more this season. The Wildcats are 11-2 overall, 3-0 in the SEC and rank ninth in the nation.
"I told Rick the first year, 'If you can just get the fun back into Kentucky basketball and let everybody understand the program's going to be run right. . . . ,' " Newton said. "He accomplished a whole lot more than that.
"We've still got a long way to go to get back to where we want to be, but it's happening sooner than I thought it would."
For a guy who grew up 10 blocks from Madison Square Garden and wears Armani suits, coaching the Knicks would seem to be the ideal job. That's what Pitino had in 1987, returning to the team he had once served as an assistant under Hubie Brown. Pitino inherited a 24-game winner and produced a division champion two seasons later.
But Pitino said his coaching style of running and pressure defense conflicted with general manager Al Bianchi's philosophy. Pitino was ready to make a move.
"I did not feel wanted," he said. "It wasn't Kentucky so much as I had to get out of New York."
So Pitino returned to the college ranks, in which he had made his name. By age 25, he was head coach at Boston University, where people said he could not win because it was a hockey school. Four years later, Pitino coached the Terriers to their first NCAA Tournament berth in 24 years.
After two years under Brown with the Knicks, Pitino was named coach at Providence in the prestigious Big East Conference. Two years later, the Friars turned heads by knocking off Georgetown and making the Final Four. Then, it was back to the Knicks as head coach. At each stop, the common denominator was success.
"There are people who coach with great talent and don't get it done," said Bob Brown, Boston University's coach and a former Pitino assistant. "And there are people who coach with good talent and get it done.
"And there are people whose teams always play better than their talent. That's what Rick's teams have done from Day One."
Kentuckians often consider spring the best time of the year. The university's basketball team is usually trying to win a national championship. The first weekend in May brings the Kentucky Derby to Churchill Downs in Louisville.
The spring of 1989 wasn't so pleasant a time. In March, Sutton went on television to announce his resignation, ending his fight to clear his name amid allegations of NCAA wrongdoing.
The NCAA suspense ended May 19, when Kentucky learned of sanctions that included a three-year probation, a two-year ban from the NCAA Tournament and a one-year ban from live television. Two of the Wildcats' best players, sophomore guard Eric Manuel and freshman forward Chris Mills, were forced off the team for breaking NCAA rules.