LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The life has returned to Louisville basketball, only two seasons after it had slipped away during a 12-19 season in Denny Crum's final season as coach.
That was before Rick Pitino arrived, but there have been times when he has felt the life being pulled out of him too.
It had nothing to do with his troubled turn as coach and president of the Boston Celtics, his first encounter with failure.
It had nothing to do with the scorn and charges of "Benedict Rick" when the coach who'd turned a disgraced Kentucky basketball program back into a champion returned to Rupp Arena last season, reincarnated as Louisville's coach.
It had nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with family.
When the World Trade Center fell a year and a half ago, Pitino lost his brother-in-law and closest friend since high school. Billy Minardi, the brother of Pitino's wife, Joanne, was a trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north tower.
A year after putting one foot in front of the other during a somber march through a 19-13 season, Pitino suddenly has the No. 2 team in the nation, with an 18-1 record and a 17-game winning streak.
Life, though diminished, goes on.
"What has been rekindled is a spirit to carry on and move on in a positive way," Pitino said.
"I didn't lose the passion. I think 9/11 just took so much out of my family, myself. It wasn't basketball. It just took so much life out of me. It's never going to be the same for any of us.
"Basketball really wasn't that important anymore. I love coaching it. I love teaching young people. But it was just an overly difficult time and I have six nieces and nephews who are without fathers. [Don Vogt, the husband of Joanne's sister, died after being struck by a taxi six months before the terrorist attacks.] Then 9/11 hits, and life will never be the same again."
In December, Louisville held the first Billy Minardi Classic, a four-team tournament in which every coach was a former player, assistant or friend of Pitino's.
Minardi's wife and three children were there to present the trophy.
"We knew it meant a lot to him," guard Reece Gaines said of Pitino. "He was happy, as happy as I've seen him. We knew it had been pretty tough on him. He kind of didn't talk about it, but before practice for a couple of minutes, he'd talk about something that had nothing to do with basketball. Just take five or 10 minutes to talk about what we need to do in our lives, and keeping in touch with our families."
On campus, a 36-student dormitory named Billy Minardi Hall is under construction, funded by $4.5 million in donations from Pitino and friends.
"We all feel good about what's happening to honor him, but still, our lives will never be the same, ever again," Pitino said.
In the first indication that this season might be something special, rival Kentucky visited Freedom Hall on Dec. 28 and took an 11-point lead in the first half, only to be blitzed the rest of the way in an 81-63 Louisville victory.
A new brand of Louisville basketball was emerging.
There is the relentless defense -- part of it a full-court press Pitino's Kentucky teams made famous -- but there also is a group of players who have been transformed into more than simply an entourage for Gaines, Louisville's best player.
That victory over Kentucky might have meant more to center Marvin Stone than anyone, even Pitino, who had absorbed the ire of Kentucky fans in the frenzied atmosphere surrounding the Cardinals' 20-point loss in Rupp Arena last season.
Like Pitino, Stone is a Wildcat expatriate. He left the Kentucky team in December last season, uncertain at first where he would go. A McDonald's All-American in high school, his career at Kentucky had amounted to little. Out of shape and coping with the deaths of his father and a sister, he averaged only 5.3 points in two-plus seasons as a Wildcat.
Nevertheless, when he announced his intent to transfer to Louisville, there was an outcry.
"People called me traitor all the time," Stone said. "People would come up to me and say, 'I can't believe you did that. You can't do that.' "
Pitino admits he hesitated to take Stone.
"I don't want to take a player for one year," he told his staff when they urged him to consider Stone. "And I don't want anymore of the Kentucky nonsense. I want that to go away completely."
"Then his mom called me," Pitino said. "Told me he lost his dad, lost his sister. Told me the story. And after everything that's happened in my life, she was such a nice lady.... She said, 'Look, he needs this in his life.' "
Pitino said yes, and the 6-foot-10 Stone came through, slicing his body fat from about 15% to about 8% before the season. Since becoming eligible -- four games after Louisville's only loss, a two-point defeat by Purdue -- he has been a new player, averaging 13 points and eight rebounds. Against Kentucky, he had 16 points and seven rebounds, giving the Cardinals the big man they desperately needed to compete.