EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — (continued from Sunday's paper) On the other hand . . . Syracuse might surprise everybody, give Kentucky a very good game, play hard to the end, and make a monkey Monday night of any pinhead who thinks Kentucky will win big.
OK, OK, basketball is a hard game to predict. Just ask Rick Pitino. He knows. He just capped his seventh season as Kentucky's coach with the 1996 national championship, but there are folks back in Lexington, Louisville, Frankfort and Paducah in their old Kentucky homes, curious why this wasn't the school's seventh in a row.
Like that doctor from the UK medical school, the one who sent Pitino the overnight parcel, marked. "Please Open Before the Meadowlands, Extremely Important," the Meadowlands being the New Jersey sports complex where the Wildcats were appearing in the NCAA Final Four.
Opening the envelope, Pitino read: "Dear Coach, you're not taking as many threes [three-point shots] as usual, and it's going to hurt you in the tournament. Make sure [Tony] Delk gets more screens, because we need more threes. And please make [Antoine] Walker pass the ball earlier in the break . . . " blah, blah, blah, six sure-fire tips that would make Kentucky win.
According to Pitino, "I answer every letter back. So, I wrote: 'Dear Doctor So-and-So, there are six things I'd like to help you with. First, you're making too large an incision in surgery. You're giving too much anesthesia. Three, you're charging too much with your billing. Four, your nurses are not using the right procedures . . . ' " blah, blah, blah, and thanks for the home remedy, Doc.
"I said, when I come back, I'd like to meet you and help you with your surgery, because I think you're way off the mark, and I signed it 'Rick Pitino' and I sent it Federal Express and I put, 'Please Open Before Heart Surgery.' "
Kentucky basketball. Coach Pitino and His Million Assistant Coaches. The college game is the pro game, back there in the blue, blue grass of home. Pitino acknowledged that as soon as he (finally) won his first championship, comparing Wildcat basketball to the Green Bay Packers, where one team seems to belong to an entire state.
Coaching the New York Knicks was a picnic for Rick, contrasted to what Kentuckians wanted. They wanted a championship delivered overnight, just like that doctor's letter. Pitino receives what he describes as "30 to 40 highly personal" pieces of correspondence per week. And that doesn't even include his radio show, which is sort of Don Imus in reverse--listeners providing the insults.
Pitino takes pity on most. The guy who called on his car phone, reviewing every detail of a recent Wildcat game, the coach begged him to throw a log in the fireplace, open a bottle of red wine, "put the Chairman of the Board on"--meaning Frank Sinatra on the stereo, not the university president on the telephone--and mellow out.
"He called back the following week," Pitino said. "No, wait. He wrote me a long letter and I read it on the air. He wrote, 'Dear Coach, I can't thank you enough. I put the Chairman on, started a fire, put my kid to bed, cuddled up to my wife . . . and a half-hour later, I couldn't stand it. I had to put a tape of Kentucky basketball on, to get away from it all!' "
Oh, and then, there was someone else's wife . . . his.
This would be Joanne Pitino, whose wedding night was interrupted 20 years ago by Coach Jim Boeheim from Syracuse, insisting that this was the only time he had available to offer her groom a job as his assistant. That was her Monday night who came running from one side of the court to the other, practically springing into Rick's arms.
"We untied her and let her out for one night," her husband joked.
Wednesday will be their 20th anniversary. The town of New York, promised the coach, would be painted red by the Pitinos that night, even if it isn't his school's color. He said, "Don't print this, but I haven't had a beer in a month, and I'm going to go get myself one," even now being careful with those folks back in Kentucky not to sound like an advocate of sin.
Pitino came prepared for New York. He put on a good show. He nicknamed his team "the Untouchables," and was pleased to see his assistant coach, Winston Bennett, decked out in a wild pin-striped suit and spats that was vintage Al Capone. Even the wildcat mascot wore a fedora and carried a toy Tommy-gun.
Just the other day, Pitino had asked rhetorically: "Would I love to win this thing personally? Yes. Just to stop the dumb questions about: 'When are you going to win it all?' "
Now that he had, however, the coach found himself momentarily at a loss for words. Even his wife had needed constant reassurance that this day would come. Now that it had, there was nothing left to do, except maybe call that doctor and see how things in surgery were going.