CRAWFORD | On eve of enshrinement, Pitino promises smiles - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | On the eve of Hall enshrinement, Pitino promises smiles

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino has faced some considerable tasks in his Hall of Fame career. Summing that career up in a seven- or eight-minute speech during his official Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement moment Sunday may not offer the degree of difficulty of, say, beating Duke in the NCAA Tournament. But it poses its own challenges.

Saturday night, inside the Hall of Fame building itself, Pitino and U of L held a party. Not everyone gets to use the actual venue the night before. It helps if you become a premium sponsor, like U of L did. The gathering will be the largest reunion of Pitino's friends, former players and assistants that the coach has ever had.

One of the men who was on his way up to Springfield for that party, Earl Roop, a native of Pikeville, Ky., who lived in Fort Lauderdale, died on Saturday. Pitino says he won't be emotional when he gets up to make his speech. He says he'll use some levity to get himself into the proper mindset to say what he needs to say.

But you could tell, when he was talking about Roop, who he described as "one of my closest friends," and at other times, tears were there. When you start to think about players, coaches, people who helped you, it can get emotional, even for a guy who commands five-figure speaking fees. Still, he said that he doesn't expect to tear up at the podium on Sunday.

"I won't be emotional," Pitino said. "I've cried too much in my lifetime. I made up my mind that I will not get emotional because I want it to be a happy, great experience. I've shed too many tears for this moment. Sometimes tears of joy, but I'm going to laugh a lot, tell a couple of funny stories, and give thanks to the people who put me here."

Memories greeted Pitino around every corner on Saturday. Jerry Tarkanian, in failing health but on stage with Pitino and the rest for Saturday's Hall of Fame press conference, has been Pitino's close friend his entire career. Pitino was interim head coach at Hawaii for six games. He faced Tarkanian and UNLV twice. They never coached against each other again.

Tarkanian offered to hire Pitino after he left Hawaii, but Pitino was about to get married, and decided to stay closer to home, at Syracuse.

The Hall itself, with its members' pictures placed inside the domed roof of the Jerry Colangelo "Hall of Dreams," evokes emotions. After receiving his Hall of Fame blazer on Saturday, Pitino took his place on the podium next to NBA great Gary Payton.

Payton leaned over and asked Pitino if he could see his picture.

"I was right through a window," Pitino said. "My eyes aren't as good as they used to be, but I could see it."

When his turn to speak came, Pitino noted that Grant Hill was in the back of the room. He didn't have a defender to put on him. He looked at fellow inductee Bernard King behind him, and remarked that for an entire season as an assistant to Hubie Brown with the Knicks, his main contribution was to say, "Give it to B," whenever Brown asked him what play he thought they should run. He told Gary Payton that he's used his name often in practices over the years on players who went for impossible steals, asking them, "Who do you think you are, Gary Payton?"

Afterward, speaking with reporters while still wearing his Hall of Fame jacket and 2013 NCAA championship ring, Pitino was asked what he was going to do with the blazer.

"I'm going to wear it like a smoking jacket around the house to see if I can get my wife to do some things for me," Pitino said. "She's given me a lot of love, but she doesn't cook. So I'm going to wear this as a smoking jacket and ask her if she'll make me some tea or something, and see if she'll do it, for the first time ever."

He talked about the possibility of reaching a third straight Final Four, then said, "If we go to one more, the way my friends in Louisville celebrate, I'll be dead."

Somebody asked him what it was like coaching in Hawaii at the beginning of his career.

"Well," he started, "I was single. It was the disco era. I spent 50 percent of the time on the road. But when you went back, every night was a Friday night. I was a coach, having money for the first time in my life. So it was a good time."

These are the best of times for Pitino. He's even getting a handful of congratulatory texts from his current players. Some more than others.

"Russ (Smith) keeps texting me," Pitino said. "I leave my phone on because I've got grandchildren now. And sure enough, 1:15 in the morning rolls around, and Russ texts, 'What's up?' I answer back, 'You just woke me up, that's what's up? Why aren't you asleep?' He says, 'New Yorkers don't go to bed this early.' He cracks me up. He keeps me laughing almost every day."

The stories, it seems, don't end. Pitino has three-plus decades worth on which to draw. But he knows, when he stands up to thank people, it will take some polish to hide the sentimentality.

A look at the official Enshrinement Program is a reminder of the reach of Pitino's career. In it, congratulatory ads were purchased by St. Dominic High School, where Pitino earned a college hoops scholarship to UMass. There were ads from UMass, Boston University, the New York Knicks, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Billy Donovan and Florida, his son Richard and Minnesota, even the University of Kentucky, which congratulated him "on behalf of the Big Blue Nation."

One moment in his speech will be dedicated to Donovan and others he hopes may someday follow him into the Hall.

"I don't think, from a personal standpoint, there's anything better than this moment," he said. "As a coach, you get to share it with so many people. When you've got to condense that speech, and you've coached as long as I have and moved around to as many different programs, the main thing you want to do is make sure that you hit on things that go out to the people that got you here. It will be short and sweet. . . . As much as it is for my athletes and friends, it's more my family's night as it is anyone's."

He said he didn't think about the emotions of the Hall of Fame until Friday night, when at a Hall of Fame function at the Mohegan Sun casino  in Connecticut, he saw a line of current Hall of Famers introduced. Then, walking around the Hall on Saturday, he looked at all the members, and considered that he was joining that group. And as he talked about it, he sounded a little less certain of his emotions.

"Seeing the class you're with, and all the Hall of Famers walking out before us (Friday) night, guys you've admired for years, it was really exciting to be part of it," he said.

"I'm hoping I don't cry. You're going to get emotional, but I don't want to get away from thanking the people I need to thank. And when you're in a very small window of speech, if you can't talk because of your emotion, you're going to leave out the most important people. I'm going to try to be glib, so I can get everybody in. If I cry, it's not going to be good. I cry at movies. So, it'll be difficult. It's a moment, I know, I will never forget."

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