2 friendly foes in the chase for one title

April 01, 1996|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK -- Rick Pitino had just carried his wife over the threshold and put her down on the bed when the phone rang.

Jim Boeheim was calling to offer him a job.

"I'm a little busy right now," Pitino said. "I'm interested, but can we talk later?"

No, Boeheim said. He was just an elevator ride away, calling from a house phone in the lobby of the Americana Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The year was 1976 and Boeheim had just been hired as the basketball coach at Syracuse. He was heading out on the road to recruit. He wanted Pitino on board that night.

"I told him that, being Italian, I was going to be busy for five or six hours," Pitino recalled yesterday. "He wouldn't leave until I took the job."

Pitino finally said yes to Boeheim, got back to his wedding night and then postponed his honeymoon to go recruiting. His wife moved into Boeheim's bachelor-pad house, where a bartender and a harness racing handicapper also lived. Talk about true love.

"It was the beginning of a great friendship with Jim," Pitino said. "Our families became close. We vacationed together. We're still close."

Tonight, Pitino's Kentucky Wildcats and Boeheim's Syracuse Orangemen will play for the NCAA championship at the Meadowlands. The irony runs thick.

Neither Pitino nor Boeheim has won a national title in a combined 34 years of head coaching in the college game. Ordinarily, one would root hard for the other in a championship game, knowing how much it would mean after all these years.

But since they're playing each other, they now have to disappoint their longtime friend in order to satisfy their grandest dreams.

"I'll be very disappointed if we lose," Pitino said, "but a little part of me will be happy for the guy who wins."

Every year in the title game the coaches desperately want to win; lifelong reputations are made on such occasions. But Pitino and Boeheim need the success a little more than usual. Both bring a certain urgency to the situation for different reasons.

Boeheim's case is an open book. He has coached 20 years at Syracuse, won 482 games and taken 17 teams to the NCAA tournament, yet, fairly or not, he has long been regarded as a mediocre coach. He just wants to be respected.

"I would be very happy if people just stopped calling me a bad coach," he said yesterday.

He almost won a title that would have done the trick in 1987, but Indiana beat him when Keith Smart hit a jumper in the final seconds of the championship game.

Boeheim has never watched a tape of that game. "It hurts too much," he said.

It hurts too much to know that approval and admiration were that close, then yanked away.

He earned his less-than- flattering reputation because his teams have always found a way to lose in the NCAA tournament. Richmond, Navy, Penn, Rhode Island and Minnesota are among the teams that have knocked him out.

Though he refuses to take the credit for getting a fourth-seeded long shot to the final, winning tonight would give him the ultimate comeback to all the jokes he hears about blowing close games and big games.

Even if he loses, though, it is time to rethink the standard definition of him. He has a career .753 winning percentage. He has been to the Sweet 16 eight times. He has reached two title games. He has never had a losing season. He has won 20 games in all but one of his 20 seasons. To paraphrase Lefty Driesell, "He can coach."

No one denies that Pitino can coach, which is interesting considering that he has a lower career winning percentage than Boeheim and has been to the NCAA tournament 11 fewer times.

Still, Pitino has long been the rising star of his generation. Just ask him. He has already written two autobiographies, which is two more than the number of championships he has won.

Where Boeheim needs to win tonight to pull his reputation up to the level of his accomplishments, Pitino needs to win to pull his accomplishments up to the level of his reputation.

He can't just walk around forever and have people say he is terrific. He had never won a Final Four game until Saturday. At some point, he has to win big.

As much as he tried to deny yesterday that the pressure was on, he all but admitted it when he said, "You'd like to strike when the opportunity is there, and I don't know when we'll ever be this deep again."

Or this good.

That's the other burden on his shoulders. The deep, talented Wildcats are supposed to win the national title this year. They were supposed to win when they began practicing five months ago.

As much as Kentucky's fans have fallen in love with Pitino for restoring the glory to the Wildcats' program, it's title or bust this year.

The pressure is on. A title is within reach.

fTC And an old friend is standing in the way.

An old friend who could use the win himself.

Pub Date: 4/01/96

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