Pitino can go, go, go wherever he wants

March 31, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

INDIANAPOLIS -- Lute Olson celebrated Arizona's NCAA semifinal victory by dining at the renowned St. Elmo Steak House. Rick Pitino celebrated Kentucky's by watching film until 4: 45 a.m.

Don't even ask which team is going to win tonight's championship game. The only remaining mystery in this tournament concerns Pitino, and where he'll be pulling his all-nighters next season.

Oh, Arizona could win, if Ron Mercer suffers more cramps or point guard Wayne Turner turns into Tina Turner. Actually, even then you'd like Kentucky. As long as Pitino can press, you'd like Kentucky.

Sorry, but Arizona isn't North Carolina State in 1983 or Villanova in 1985. Olson's team isn't going to shoot 78.6 percent, as Villanova did against Georgetown. And, in case you haven't noticed, Pitino isn't Guy Lewis.

"Sprint! Sprint!" -- that's what Pitino screamed at his players with 1 1/2 minutes left in Kentucky's 78-69 victory over Minnesota and his team strolling to the other end of the floor for a free throw.

"If it's not broken, break it!" -- that's how he summarized his coaching philosophy yesterday, explaining that the goal is to avoid complacency, and stay one step ahead of the competition.

Pitino, 44, is college basketball's answer to Pat Riley, complete with the designer wardrobe, the hardcover vision and an illustrious resume that includes coaching the New York Knicks.

The guy is so hot, not even a loss tonight would diminish his appeal. Some NBA team will go after Pitino, perhaps two or three. It's an annual rite of spring in Kentucky.

The Pitino Derby comes first, then the Kentucky Derby. Ricky Reluctant protests, This is my eighth year in Lexington! I could never leave! But no one plays the game better, both on and off the court.

He rejected the Los Angeles Lakers two years ago, rejected a five-year, $22 million offer from the New Jersey Nets last year. Clearly, he just isn't out for money. It's too modest a goal, when your place in history is at stake.

A win tonight, and Pitino will match Adolph Rupp's greatest achievement at Kentucky, winning back-to-back NCAA titles. A win tonight, and he will improve his tournament record to an astonishing 27-6.

So, what's the next challenge for a coach who resurrected the most fabled program in college basketball?

Simple.

L To resurrect the most fabled organization in pro basketball.

To coach the Boston Celtics.

Pitino graduated from Massachusetts, coached at Boston University and Providence College. And it's not exactly a secret that the Celtics are in desperate need of his manic touch.

So, the question arose at his news conference yesterday, not about the Celtics specifically, but the NBA in general. And Ricky Reluctant put on a virtuoso performance, saying, "No way!" one moment, "Way!" the next.

"I think you're way too intelligent to believe that," he said to the media, practically winking. "You know what Kentucky is all about. What would be the motive to go somewhere else?"

Then he told of watching an ESPN special in which Lou Holtz said he would never leave Notre Dame and John Calipari said he would never leave Massachusetts.

Didn't quite work out that way, did it?

"The coaches are not being dishonest," Pitino said. "We just at times talk too much. I say what I feel. I feel I'll be coaching Kentucky for a long time. And that's this day today, how I feel. And I'm being honest."

And tomorrow is another day.

"They're going to make a run at Mike Krzyzewski and a run at Eddie Fogler or whoever, Lute Olson," Pitino said, keeping a straight face. "And I would probably say that I think NBA teams are probably too smart to make a run at me.

"It would be more advantageous to make a run at Mike or Lute or somebody else. I've been through quite a few teams, and I'm staying at Kentucky. I've been here eight years. I don't think they're going to do it."

Amazing, isn't it? Pitino dictates tempo even at his news conferences. He expects the next question as surely as he expects Kentucky to force 25 turnovers tonight.

So, Rick, if an NBA team called, would you listen?

"I would listen to anybody, and then I would say thank you very much, you have a great organization, but I'm very happy at Kentucky," Pitino said.

That quote could haunt him, but never mind.

Coaches talk too much, remember?

By now, Kentucky fans are accustomed to Pitino's ramblings, and just assume he will stay. Still, the Celtics present an ideal opportunity. Pitino has nothing left to achieve in college, other than to win the NCAA title with high school players.

Could happen, if he finds five who aren't headed to the pros.

Seriously, the Celtics are the leading contenders to draft Tim Duncan -- if the season ended today, they'd have the best chance of landing the top pick in the lottery.

They've also got Dallas' lottery pick from the Eric Montross trade. Antoine Walker, one of Pitino's stars last season, is already in Boston. By the time Michael Jordan retires, Pitino could be ready to win an NBA title.

Want a place in history?

That's a place in history.

Not that Pitino would ever consider such a thing.

"People like myself, who are still learning the game of basketball, still working at being better, should never look at a place in history," Pitino said. "All they should try to do is live in the precious present and be the best they can be."

The precious present.

It's Rick Pitino's world, and everyone else is just passing through.

In Kentucky. In Boston. Wherever he wants to be.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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