Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Louisville’s Rick Pitino Reaches Mountaintop

Rick Pitino is a perfectionist and a traditionalist. The moments of sentiment and joy were sweeping through the Georgia Dome, the high emotions were pouring out from the players, the confetti was falling from the ceiling and the fireworks display scared the heck out of Pitino. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly for Pitino and Louisville, the top-seeded team overall built on depth and talent.

By the end of the night, Peyton Siva jumped around like a 10-year-old kid, hugged his injured teammate Kevin Ware and smiled to the Louisville crowd. At the final horn, Luke Hancock, who was the star in the Final Four, unleashed his emotions with his teammates. He was seemingly an all-around player in the tournament, making nearly every big play down the stretch, to respectively become the first reserve to win Most Outstanding Player Award. Pitino’s players had climbed up a ladder to cut down the nets.

The last player to cut the nets was someone who gave his teammates inspiration and become America’s most sensational athlete after his horrific leg injury. Recovering from a surgically repaired right leg, Ware couldn’t stick to the usual ritual, and when it was finally his turn, the basket was lowered. Standing on his crutches, just as he anticipated, Ware cut the last piece of the net. The universal support from across the country inspired the Cardinals to get the job done, and certainly in the absence of Ware, Louisville survived and prevailed. With the net around his neck, he was smiling and embracing the moment, while moving around on a broken leg with crutches under his arms.

Amid a grand celebration, Pitino’s wife, Joanne, rushed onto the court and wrapped her arms around her husband as she fought back tears. The best week of his life ended on Monday night after L’ville’s 82-76 victory over Michigan in the NCAA national championship. The best week of his life ended when he lifted the trophy and celebrated an enjoyable moment with his players and family. It had been a long time since Pitino been to a place he hadn’t been to in 16 years, finally winning his second national title, the first coach to win national titles at two different schools — winning those trophies in a state in love with basketball.

It’s a game he’ll talk about for years to come, a moment he’ll never forget. He’ll remember the dramatic comebacks, as Pitino was fortunate to guide his most talented and toughest squad ever. It was Louisville that lived up to a moment far more remarkable than most schools, surviving a field of 68 teams and recapturing bragging rights in the Bluegrass State, proving to outweigh state rivals, Kentucky. Just a year ago, John Calipari won his first title as Wildcats head coach and cut down the nets. But it’s Louisville’s turn to win back the state of Kentucky, on the day that Pitino was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.



This is Louisville’s third national title in school history. This is Pitino’s first title since the much-publicized and embarrassing one-night stand he had with his mistress that turned out to be extortion. That’s why Pitino’s marriage nearly broke up five years ago when he confessed to having an extramarital affair with another woman. The media joked about him having sex at a table in a restaurant, and more than ever, the public was stunned by the allegations. Suddenly, folks had lost respect for him and felt he was immoral, and yet, his wife stood by him through the hardships.

By now Pitino, a married father of five and a devout Roman Catholic, is slowly regaining respect among citizens and a community. He’s now 60, and as the older he’s gotten, he’s learned to cast aside his sizable ego and finally shows signs of humility and willingness to become a better person and teacher of the game. It’s been a tough road, indeed, and Pitino’s life has been a roller-coaster ride. He’s won a national title in 1996 in Kentucky, but then hell broke loose when he left the University of Kentucky for an NBA coaching opportunity and spent a woeful three seasons in Boston with the Celtics. When he came back to the college level, becoming Louisville’s head coach, he took the Cardinals to a Final Four, before he was the subject of a sex scandal in the Karen Sypher case. The story was so grisly and sick, that he was embarrassed as she claimed rape and tried to extort him.

This latest championship wasn’t just about Pitino, but he was one of the reasons the Cardinals thrived to greatness. The chemistry that the Louisville men’s basketball team shared was special, and it created a growing bond that was unparalleled. These players are firm believers of brotherhood and absorbed the sense of goodwill and kinship. Brothers unite. Brothers compete. Brothers inspire. Brothers overcome struggles. Brothers are winners. It’s a team of brotherhood, and essentially these brothers had each other’s backs. This team developed trust and rode on Pitino’s confidence to complete an incredible journey that might have been one of the greatest runs for a team in tournament history.

Down by 12, with just under 4 minutes left in the first half, Hancock, an unlikely hero in the Final Four and title game, hit two free throws. The Cardinals spent much of the first half trailing — but ultimately when there’s a player making clutch plays down the stretch — it doesn’t seem far-fetched for Louisville to rally late from a double-digit deficit. This was when Hancock spotted up for a 3-pointer and made every shot, making four in a row that changed everything for Louisville.

Hancock’s hot shooting erased Michigan’s 12-point first half lead after freshman Spike Albrecht couldn’t miss from beyond the arc and scored 17 points. He scored 22 points, 14 of them coming in 2 minutes of the first half. The Cardinals 16-4 run turned a 12-point deficit into a one-point lead. As the Wolverines jumped out to a fast start with a dazzling performance from the unlikely freshman, Albrecht, they weren’t running away from Louisville. Playing with a heavy heart, Hancock’s father, Bill, is staidly ill, and while dealing with a personal issue, he was Louisville’s best scorer. His dad was watching from the front row behind the Louisville bench, the only game he’s been able to appear at and support his son.

It was hard to imagine that Siva wouldn’t bounce back from a poor 1-for-9 shooting in the semifinal game against Wichita State and not have an all-round performance in the national title game. This was the night that Siva finished 18 points, five assists and four steals, in what was the final game of his career. This was the night that Chane Behanan had a monster performance after promising his teammates and Pitino he would play his best game. Along with Hancock, he was big for Louisville in the second half and registered a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds and 11 rebounds.

But above all else, it was a total team effort and everybody had a part in Louisville’s greatest run. This was the greatest moment, the One Shining Moment for Ware and Pitino especially.