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I sometimes read with horror the insults hurled at one particular Rick Pitino, one whom I feel every Kentuckian like myself ought admire for what he accomplished while leading UK’s program from near irrelevance back to the top of the heap. Of course, one can always say that Cal did it faster, and to this I would agree.
Though the circumstances being quite different, I certainly have extreme admiration for John Calipari and his relentless pursuit of excellence. Yet, I am loath to denigrate Rick Pitino for much the same reasons I admire John Calipari. Number one is, they both revived UK’s vaunted tradition into pre-eminence in record fashion after we had stumbled mightily.
What we have here are two intensely driven individuals seeking perfection tempered by their intuitive knowledge that they are all-too-human, and that they will never be perfect or content (but still, they can be happy).
Though Pitino left us in a hurry, one cannot argue that he left our cupboard bare. I mean, the intrinsic nature of "opportunity" is that it can strike at any time, and not likely at some pre-determined moment of our choosing. Just ask any Memphis fan.
Rick Pitino grew up while playing Boston Celtic games over and over in his head, much like I expect you or I have done with past Kentucky moments in our childhoods. He was in effect, going home; an all-to-appealing circumstance that many of us can well understand, with its considerable personal and unique magnetism.
I went to Boston once to watch Rick’s Celtics get thrashed by some other lower placed division squad. He looked miserable and out of place among the hungry and angry Celtic fans, who jeered every missed shot or opponent rebound. Neither of them were used to losing like that, but I sensed that Pitino was also not used to inattentive players. In fact he was infuriated. Barking his simple instructions, they all looked at him as though he were some alien from another planet. And, as he eventually realized, he was.
What landed him at Louisville were two simple things aside from a burning desire to return to the college game; Love of friends and family, and love of a place/state which he had once been lucky enough to have encountered in a past life. Our beautiful Kentucky home.
The Louisville job held one other simple allure besides it being in Kentucky, that place which he admittedly had grown to love along with his family and friends; It’s undying commitment to its basketball program. His pocketbook was already full, so it would be a hard sell to argue that he did it for the money.
The folks at Louisville had long known that its campus was less than ideal for recruiting great high school players. But, they also knew that a monetary commitment to the program had brought them prestige and exposure to potential players and other students far and wide. Basketball was even more of an identity factor on a local and national level for them as any of their considerably strong academic programs, like Law and Medicine.
Not to mention, Louisville had long become a hotbed of fandom, likely considering its two National Championships, and being located in the state where college basketball is considered more a religion than a sport.
And of course, ever since the Bird-Magic days of March Madness, great college basketball more than paid its own way. But, only a celebrated name like Rick Pitino would likely be able to rev up their slouching program without any other obvious draw. A program that had slipped into idle during Denny Crum’s twilight days, after he refused to consider the implications of the 3-point shot, or even to change his high/low offense to meet the evolving nature of the game. Denny had "gone fishing" long before he retired from UL.
If you think you understand the complex nature of the one-and-done situation as it relates to Kentucky players, you will be hard pressed to argue Pitino’s leaving for the NBA’s Celtics, considering the considerable monetary and control offer he was given at the time (think: offer you can't refuse).
I mean c’mon, let a man choose his own destiny!
John Calipari espouses much the same philosophy with his "players first" ideas. He knows that opportunity can be an elusive proposition, and one should honor themselves and their family by "jumping" when the timing appears right, despite what anyone who is less personally invested thinks. And, I agree wholeheartedly with this thinking.
Sure, I think Rick knew that he would be jeered at Rupp when he showed up for the UK-UL matchup, but I doubt that he or anyone could have imagined the vitriolic nastiness that spewed forth from Cats fans from day one of his taking the Louisville job.
Its my opinion that if you can’t appreciate Pitino for his achievements at Kentucky, then you’re just not able to understand the simple idea that each individual must stay true to him/herself and those he loves dearly. And if you can’t understand that, then we disagree on way more than the game of basketball.
To be sure, there will be someone out there moralizing about the Karen Sypher affair, and how wretched a man that makes Rick Pitino, but I can say with absolute certainty that, "Mistakes do not a bad man make". Perhaps you do live in a glass house, and for that I offer congratulations. But if so, you are the exception, and not the rule. Better to consider yourself fortunate and remain quiet, for you’ll have another chance to fail, and who knows?
I’m certainly willing to entertain dissenting opinions, since I understand that some folks whom I seem to like very much have a hard time accepting Rick Pitino as one of the "good guys".
Or, perhaps it’s me that’s supporting some untenable "obtuse" point? Please, do edify me. I have been apt to change course mid-stream after learning some previously unknown fact, or hearing some simple logic based reasoning of which I dare not disagree. I’m all ears.
Until then, I’ll only say that I love Kentucky basketball (and UL basketball), and I love having two of the best coaches in the modern game at their respective helms. I say give the guy a break. I mean, in the end its only basketball. And it’s Kentucky basketball.
At the end of the day, I suppose I’m a Catbird born, and a Catbird bred, and I guess I’ll be a Catbird dead.