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."
But there was always room for Minardi, who was not only Pitino's best friend but also the brother of Pitino's wife, Joanne.
On a vacation at Sea Island, Georgia, in the early 1990s, Minardi introduced Pitino to the finer points of life only a cigar can bring. "There's not much downtime in a college basketball coach's year," says Pitino. "So when it's there, you want the best possible experience. Smoking a cigar helped me relax, calm down and just think."
Rounds of golf would be punctuated with a Montecristo. Over wine, hours after their wives and children had gone to sleep, the two men would smoke and talk. When he wasn't building his own career in finance, Minardi served as Pitino's conscience. As cigar smoking helped mellow the obsessive Pitino, he began reassessing his priorities.
"As I neared 40, I needed to get off the figurative treadmill and stop for a moment," says Pitino. "I could see that burnout could happen, that I had to diversify my life so I could be strong for basketball."
Pitino's interests broadened. Even during the season he began reading something other than scouting reports (he's just reread Leon Uris's Cold War thriller, Topaz). He took breaks for golf and began arduously breeding horses -- two pastimes ideal for enjoying the tranquility of a good cigar.
Pitino had always embraced life with a passion, starring as a basketball player at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay, New York. Even back then, Pitino loved the smell of cigars, associating them with the aromas wafting from the Macanudos that the school's freshman coach, Frank Lizza, smoked. More important to his time at St. Dominic was when he met Joanne and Billy. Or was it Billy and Joanne? She always joked that Rick probably loved Billy more than he loved her. And she'd accept it, too.
When Pitino took the Knicks' head coaching job in '87, Minardi was a constant presence at Madison Square Garden, plenty of road games, and after-hour meals at restaurants like that venerable Manhattan sports bar, P.J. Clarke's. In 1989, Pitino returned to the college ranks to take the reins at the University of Kentucky. The relocation to Lexington was the beginning of a career-defining run. Over his last five years in Kentucky, Pitino guided the team to three Final Four appearances, including an NCAA title in '96 and a runner-up showing in '97.
"I threw so many parties in Lexington," says Pitino. "After celebrating a win, we'd have these parties with 40 to 50 people in our basement party room. Invariably we'd light a cigar or two and set off the smoke alarm. So then we'd take it outside and the party would continue no matter how cold it got. Those were great times in Kentucky.
"Basketball has always been entertainment to me since 1987," says Pitino. "I know what sports is about -- it's about making us laugh, it's about good times together."
In 1997, Pitino accepted a 10-year contract to coach the Boston Celtics, no doubt hoping to rival the nine championships coached by the man who invented the victory cigar, Red Auerbach. "I'd try to never smoke with Red, though," says Pitino, joking about the Celtics legend. "He would always smoke the cheapest, foulest-smelling cigars you could buy. I swear, he'd never spend more than three bucks for one."
Pitino indulged his passion for premium cigars by taking advantage of the built-in humidors in his Commonwealth Avenue brownstone. But the comforts of home couldn't assuage the mounting frustrations he felt coaching the Celtics, who were a far cry from the caliber of Auerbach's teams.
"I'd sit on the roof, with my assistant coach, Jim O'Brien, and smoke a cigar and reflect on our losses," says Pitino, who served as the team's president in addition to his coaching duties. There were many such opportunities as the Celtics went 102-146 during Pitino's tenure.
Before Pitino came to Boston, Minardi had advised him not to take the NBA job. After all, he had been a king in Kentucky. In the manner of such basketball coaches as Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, Pitino had not been just a coach but had begun to be an industry, a motivational multimedia persona featuring books, tapes and speeches.
As the Celtics foundered, Pitino's time on the Commonwealth Avenue rooftop increased. "I'd sit up there with a Cabernet, a cigar, and my winter coat and scarf, trying to relax and think," he says. By the start of '01, the only answer was extrication, and Pitino resigned from the Celtics on January 8, 2001. "Professionally, I failed as a basketball coach, but it wasn't a personal failure," says Pitino. "To me, personal failure involves letting down your friends and family. There's nothing wrong with failure -- if you can learn from it."
Pitino didn't have to wait long to return to the sidelines. By March, he was weighing offers from the universities of Louisville and Michigan. Pitino was hesitant to return to Kentucky and coach his former school's cross-state rival. Hours away from accepting a position at Michigan, he consulted again with Minardi. The two, after all, had spoken every day for 32 years. And here was Pitino, a year away from turning 50, cast out of the pros and uncertain of his next move. "Billy told me, 'If you're choosing Michigan because it's right for you, fine,'" says Pitino. "'But if you're doing it because you're worried about Kentucky, you should think again.' In my 20s and 30s, I probably would have gone to Michigan. But now, I have so many close friends in Kentucky."
Signing a six-year, $12.25 million contract for a job he claims will be his last coaching gig, Pitino was rapidly assimilated into Louisville, his books spotted on incoming flights, his face on the cover of magazines and billboards.
"After 9/11, if I was in pro basketball, I knew I'd be lonely and depressed," says Pitino. "I like the way the college game is more of a family."
He thinks of Minardi every day. Louisville's uniforms this season featured a small "B" over the left shoulder. This December, Louisville will host its first Billy Minardi Basketball Classic.
Yet for all the tranquility and balance he has found, as a coach Pitino remains as driven as ever. Sporting the snappy suit, crisply wrapped necktie and quintessential slick hair that's turned basketball coaches into fashion icons, Pitino strides the sidelines like a martinet, yelling, clapping, advising, reprimanding. His pale brown eyes seem to never blink, watching with the attentiveness of a concerned parent. When his patience is challenged, he typically bends his arm and brings his fingers to his mouth, repressing his short-term desire to scream, opting wisely to shut up and let the children play.
Joel Drucker is a freelance writer living in California.