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Rick Pitino

Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

It's tempting to say that University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino lives for March. What matters more to a coach than the NCAA tournament, the big dance that determines the best men's college basketball team each year? Yet as much as Pitino wants Louisville to return to the glory of the 1980s, when the Cardinals won two NCAA titles, tragic events have altered his focus. Credit a cigar with at least an assist for Pitino's new outlook. The cigar has been front and center in Pitino's emotional confrontation of triumph and tragedy.

On September 5, Pitino and his closest friend, Billy Minardi, stood on the 18th hole of Pebble Beach golf course, each smoking a cigar, and enjoying a beautiful day on California's Monterey Peninsula.

It was the last time he and Minardi would ever smoke a cigar together.

Minardi worked as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. On September 11, it was the first building hit, the second to collapse.

"Friendships mean so much to me," says Pitino, who knew Minardi for more than 30 years. "Good cigars, good times, good company. The older I get, the more I realize that it's my friendships that matter most of all, way more than any win or loss."

Minardi's death devastated Pitino. So long as Minardi was around, through good and bad, a cigar meant a chance for contemplation and a chance to tackle the future. Over the last six months, through the loneliest fall and winter of his life, Pitino continues to enjoy cigars. Only now he finds himself smoking alone, his mind drifting into the past, feeling the weight of loss. In the basement of his new home in Louisville, near the pit where Pitino likes to smoke, panels of photos cover the walls, the lion's share featuring Minardi. Looking out on a gray day in Louisville, Pitino concedes: "It's torture when you're by yourself."

It isn't the first time that Pitino has faced tragedy. In 1987, just one week before he led Providence College into the NCAA tournament in his first season, his six-month-old son, Daniel, died of congenital heart failure. And in the spring of 2001, brother-in-law Don Vogt was struck and killed by a New York City cab.

 

Fifteen years ago this month, Rick Pitino was the belle of the ball, a 34-year-old wunderkind who landed on the national map by bringing Providence to the Final Four. Few knew that his overnight arrival had been preceded by a 12-year apprenticeship, including stints at the University of Hawaii, Syracuse, Boston University and the New York Knicks.

By Pitino's own admission, his focus was narrow. "There was nothing except basketball and family, with occasional rounds of life," he says in his wood-paneled office on the Louisville campus. "In your 20s and 30s, you're pretty shallow, mostly intent on showing you can do your job really well, advance your career. It doesn't leave you open too much. It doesn't help you build too many friendships."


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