It didn't really begin in Hawaii, or Syracuse, or Boston. To get at the real origins of Rick Pitino's coaching career, you have go to back further, to his sophomore year of high school and the Five-Star Camp in New York City. The event is famous now, but was in its infancy then.
"It was," Pitino said, "like going to Carnegie Hall."
The young Pitino sat there as a camper and watched as the royalty -- or so it seemed to him -- got up and spoke. On his young ears, nothing was lost. He began to sample what he heard.
"I was mesmerized by these coaches, but by four in particular," Pitino said. "I was in awe of Hubie Brown's strength of voice in commanding attention and covering every detail as if the world hinged on it. I was captivated by Dick Vitale's passion and enthusiasm, and how he talked about his life. Bob Knight struck fear in every camper as he spoke. You were in fear that a basketball would come flying at your head if you dared let your eyes wander to something else -- because it would. Chuck Daly came across as if he was a CEO, someone who had every hair in place and who was in total command of what he was talking about and what he was doing. Today, I can see the influence of each of those as my career unfolded."
Rick Pitino is going into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on his own accomplishments. He was the first coach to take three different teams to the NCAA Final Four. He's the first to win national titles at two schools, Louisville and Kentucky. Among active coaches, his NCAA Tournament winning percentage of .750 (48-16) is second only to Mike Krzyzewski.
His seven Final Four trips are tied for fourth-most in history, behind John Wooden (12), Mike Krzyzewski (11), and Dean Smith (11), and tied with Roy Williams. He's fifth in NCAA Tournament active wins (48).
But he had to start somewhere. Recently, he gave a great deal of credit to those four men he watched as a high school camper.
"I took so much from Hubie Brown, from his preparation and attention to detail right down to his expressions," Pitino said. "I took some of Dick Vitale's passion and undying love of the game. I learned the importance of commanding the respect and attention of your players from Bob Knight. And I wanted to make the kind of impression that I had seen Chuck Daly make."
He took the game by storm. After serving apprenticeships in Hawaii and then at Syracuse for Jim Boeheim, he worked for five seasons at Boston University, becoming its head coach when he was only 25 years old. In his final year there, he took the program to the NCAA Tournament. From there he jumped at the chance to be Brown's assistant with the New York Knicks, but he was there for only two seasons before he was back out on his own again, at Providence College.
At every stop, he honed and sharpened. "Boston U was great, because I could work on the press and all this crazy stuff and nobody was around to scream at me when we messed up," he said.
At Providence, Pitino did something on which he would build his early reputation. The program was 12-20 when Pitino arrived. In his second season, it went to a Final Four. From there he went to the New York Knicks, a dream job for a kid from just eight blocks from Madison Square Garden, on Twenty Sixth Street. The Knicks won only 24 games the year before Pitino arrived. In his second season, the Knicks won their first Eastern Division Championship in nearly two decades.
He might've kept on, had it not been for C.M. Newton, who lured him to Kentucky, a program mired in scandal with a roster gutted by probation. "Kentucky's Shame" the cover of Sports Illustrated read when Pitino arrived. Somehow, he managed to get a handful of home-state holdouts, plus Jamal Mashburn, to claw their way to a .500 season. In his third year, Kentucky lost to Duke in overtime in what some have called the greatest game ever played, ending with Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater. In year four, the Wildcats were back to the Final Four. They won the title in his sixth season, and in his seventh went back to the title game before losing in overtime.
The time seemed right for Pitino to move on, and he became head coach and president of the Boston Celtics. But he admits, he couldn't find the right balance between coaching the team and building it. He suffered his first professional failure in Boston, and left after 3 1/2 years, midway through the 2001 season.
This time, he would have to rebuild more than a program. He'd need to rebuild his own career. He chose to do it back in Kentucky, but this time at the University of Louisville. It was another fixer-upper. Still, in five years he had the Cardinals back to the Final Four, and in his twelfth season, just last April, won his second national championship in his second straight Final Four appearance.
"Rick's the kind of guy that he knows he's good and it's okay for someone else to be good," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Pitino before their teams met in Indianapolis in the 2013 NCAA Regional Final. "And then if the other guy who's good wins, you shake his hand and you know you'll be good and you'll get another chance to be good. I like that about him. "
If the story ended there, Pitino would be a Hall of Famer. But it does not.
He didn't set out to be the greatest coaching mentor of his generation, but it happened nonetheless. A snapshot of one of his Providence staffs gives an indication. There's Pitino, then Jeff Van Gundy and Herb Sendek, along with Stu Jackson. Of course, Pitino's legacy would extend through another generation, with Billy Donovan, who played for that Providence team, becoming a two-time NCAA championship coach himself, and Pitino's son Richard, pictured in Donovan's lap quite often in those days, becoming an NCAA Division I coach and most recently named head coach at Minnesota.
At some point, it becomes difficult to keep track. In the NBA playoffs this year, Frank Vogel led the Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals. He was a video coordinator for Pitino in Kentucky after writing letter after letter to the coach asking to come join his staff and study him. He remained with Pitino into Boston. In the Finals, assisting San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, was Brett Brown, who played four years for Pitino at Boston University. Rick Carlisle, coach of the Dallas Mavericks, played for Pitino with the Celtics. Mark Jackson, who played for Pitino with the Knicks, called him, "absolutely the greatest coach I've ever had in my life, and I've played for six guys who will be in the Hall of Fame. His strength is making people believe -- in themselves and each other."
There are at least 26 former Pitino players or assistants who have become head coaches. Scotty Davenport spent time on his staff at Louisville, then went on to win an NCAA Division II national title himself at Bellarmine University in Louisville. Steve Masiello at Manhattan, Ralph Willard and his son Kevin, Herb Sendek, Travis Ford, Mick Cronin, the list continues to grow.
"The great strength he has, in my opinion, is his ability to give," Donovan said of Pitino. "He has a relentless passion to help people get better. He takes everyone to a place they didn't think they could reach."
For Pitino, it all boiled down to seeing a bridge, and helping others cross.
"I got into coaching to win games and because of my love for the game," Pitino said. "I just had to be a part of it, somehow. But part of working with players is helping them cross that bridge from being college students to successful young people. What I never expected when I launched into coaching was looking around at this point in my career and seeing so many other coaches having crossed it with me. I did not set out to be a trainer of coaches, it just seemed to happen as a byproduct of the way we did things, and of my great joy in seeing people who have worked for us go on to be successful on their own."
It hasn't always been easy. There have been bumps along the way, most of them well publicized. The two best known -- the loss of his infant son Daniel during the Big East Tournament in 1986, and the loss of his brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Pitino named a charitable foundation and a shelter in Owensboro, Kentucky, after his son. He bought the naming rights to the players dorm at the University of Louisville to name after Minardi, and plays one exempt game a year called the Billy Minardi Classic.
Rick and Joanne Pitino have been married for 37 years. They have five children, Michael, Christopher, Richard, Ryan and Jacqueline, and now five grandchildren -- Anna, Audrey, Andrew, James and Ava.
Pitino's career has run the gamut of success and emotion. But always he has finished at the top. He took programs that were broken and fixed them. He took players that were good and made them better. He battled through his own adversity and found ways to reinvent himself and his approach to the game.
When Louisville played Duke in the regional final this season, Cardinals' sophomore Kevin Ware went down with a broken leg, right in front of the coach. It was a gruesome injury. Louisville's players were distraught, some in tears, some getting sick. Pitino was trying to gather them, and talking to Ware, who, after composing himself started telling Pitino, "I'm fine. Just win the game."
He told Pitino he wanted his teammates to hear him. On the video of the game, Pitino's voice can be heard, rounding up his players to listen to their teammate. He gave them the same message, over and over. "I'm okay. Just win the game."
For just a moment, Pitino reflected. He was still thinking about it all even after the Cardinals recorded a 22-point victory to earn their second straight Final Four trip. He headed to the hospital, where he would remain with Ware. Doctors greeted him when he arrived and told him not to worry, that Ware would be all right.
"As a coach, you hope your players can handle adversity when it comes, whether it's basketball or life," Pitino said. "To see our guys handle it with love and strength and resilience, that was special. It's all you ask for as a coach, that they love each other and their teammates, that they pull together, and that they fight through it and get stronger."
It's all you ask for as a coach, and it's all Pitino has given as a coach. There are many reasons Pitino is here today. But the biggest may be his ability to keep fighting, to make much out of little, and still finish at the top.
Eric Crawford is a columnist for WDRB-TV in Louisville and, with Pitino, wrote The One-Day Contract, the coach's latest book, available in stores Oct. 1.