LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The last four years, without question, have brought University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino from one of the most difficult places in his life to one of the most enjoyable.
When he met with the media last week and was asked about his future, he wouldn't even begin to speculate about an end date to his Hall of Fame career.
"I think because of the players the last four years I can go a long time," Pitino said. "I think my passion and enthusiasm is better at 61 than it was at 31. . . . It's the players the last four years that have enhanced that. It's not me, it's them. They stir my drink. They have such enthusiasm, they have such great attitudes."
And a big part of that, it must be said, has been a significant influx of foreign flavor. Pitino said at that same news conference that he likely wouldn't sign a foreign-born player this year, after signing two in his last recruiting class. He spoke too soon. On Monday night U of L got a verbal commitment from five-star wing player Deng Adel, a 6-8 native of the Sudan who, like current Cardinal Mangok Mathiang, grew up in Australia before coming to the U.S. to play basketball in Bradenton, Fla. He is the nation's No. 18-rated player by Scout.com after averaging 22 points and eight rebounds last season. He's the No. 47-rated prospect and a four-star recruit by Rivals.com.
Pitino had taken players in the past with foreign backgrounds. Francisco Garcia, born in the Dominican Republic, became one of Pitino's favorite players in three seasons at U of L. Edgar Sosa was another. Juan Diego Palacios, from Medellín, Colombia, played on a Final Four team at Louisville as a freshman.
As Pitino got to know those players, and their stories, he began to notice that backgrounds of foreign players gave him an affinity for their work ethic, and his hard-work philosophy seemed to fit with their approach to the game. Palacios, Garcia, and players like Samardo Samuels, from Jamaica, could tell stories of extreme poverty. They had varying degrees of success at U of L, but through them Pitino began to think their influence was important to his program -- and to him as a coach.
"I haven't met an international player yet that you don't fall in love with, because of the humility," Pitino said. "Most of these young guys today are pampered. They have been patronized, written about, cajoled, and they come in and -- guys like Gorgui (Dieng) when they come in, and (current freshman) Anas (Mahmoud), he's telling us what's going on in Egypt when he left, and certain areas you can't go near because bombs are going off. To hear these stories of what these guys go through is kind of amazing. So I hope we get more of these guys."
Pitino's first brush with a foreign player at U of L was with Muhamad Lasege, a Nigerian big man who was ruled ineligible and was fighting with the NCAA to have his career restored. It never was. But Pitino kept working with Lasege, putting him through private workouts, and even helped him finish his degree. When a visa problem forced Lasege to leave the country, and his job with Humana, Pitino encouraged him to go back to playing basketball, which Lasege did, in Iran. With the money he made, he came back to the U.S. and was admitted to Penn's prestigious Wharton School of Business. He's now an executive with Exxon.
The emphasis on academics that began with Lasege and has continued with other foreign athletes impressed Pitino. The love affair, however, reached a new level with Gorgui Dieng. The big man from Senegal became a friend to Pitino, following his coaching almost religiously. He went from a player who didn't realize there were such things as offensive fouls to the No. 6 votegetter for the NBA's Rookie of the Year award in four seasons.
"Coach P wants players who want to be coached, and where I grew up, you listened to people older than you and your coaches and you tried to learn from them," Dieng told me once. "We are taught from an early age that we don't have the answers, that people older than us have the answers and we have to learn from them. Sometimes it's the opposite in this country."
The San Antonio Spurs rode an unmistakable foreign flavor to the NBA title this past season, with Tony Parker and Boris Diaw growing up playing the game in France, Manu Ginobili in Argentina, Patty Mills in Australia and Tiago Splitter in Brazil.
During San Antonio's devastating Game 5 of the Finals, Pitino said he sat courtside with U of L equipment manager Vinny Tatum and marveled at the ball movement.
"We were counting how many passes the Spurs were making in a 16-second span," Pitino said. "Seven, eight, nine passes and they still had plenty of time to work for a shot. You could hear Pop (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) all the time saying, 'Get the ball moving, get the ball moving.' The foreign players are used to that. They are used to passing the basketball. They are taught to pass before they go one-on one."
This season's U of L team will feature more foreign players than any Pitino has fielded. Mathiang, who escaped from war-torn Sudan with his mother and brothers under cover of night, is expected to start at center. Matz Stockman, a 7-2 player from Norway, just arrived last week. Anas Mahmoud, a 7-2 Egyptian, is skilled enough to play but is expected to redshirt to build up his body.
And then there's Akoy Agau, whose family left the Sudan because of war and famine. His mother lost her father and five brothers to the civil war. Refugees, they fled the country, his mother carrying Akoy on her back and a baby in her arms. An older brother, the 11-year-old son of Akoy's father from his first marriage, was separated from the rest of the family in the escape. They fled to a refugee camp in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, but were separated there. When Akoy's father entered the women's camp to try and find them, he was jailed for three weeks. They moved on to a refugee camp in Cairo, Egypt, before emigrating to the U.S., to Baltimore, where church friends aided them until they eventually settled with other refugees in Nebraska. On the family's first Thanksgiving day in this country, Akoy's parents spoke to The Baltimore Sun, telling this story. They already had an appreciation for the holiday.
Adel, who also held scholarship offers from Florida and Connecticut, among others, may be the most polished foreign prospect Pitino has landed. Like Mathiang and Agau, his family escaped war and poverty in the Sudan. Like Mathiang, he wound up in Australia, struggling with the language and learning he had some talent for basketball. He talked about his life in Sudan with an the Australian public broadcasting service SBS before leaving for the U.S.
"So many wars back in Sudan," he said. "It wasn't fun, because I was young there was a lot of gun shots and things, we used to have a hiding spot where, if we would like see planes we would run and there and hide from all that violence."
In the late stage of his coaching career, when many speculated he might be getting ready to hang it up, Pitino has drawn energy and inspiration from the stories and daily presence of these players from distant lands.
"He's really falling in love with these guys," Demling said. "It's different. I've told the story, I was at a camp talking to a head coach who Louisville will play this year and he said, 'Jody, you need to go watch the court down there.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, there's four African players, you know Rick is going to get one of them.' And he's probably right. It's just been kind of a neat thing to see how this has worked."