Rick Pitino changed, regained March magic

Newfound flexibility pays off

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 5, 2013 

Louisville coach Rick Pitino hoisted the championship trophy on Monday night. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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Back in March, in the throes of all the usual Madness, it seemed for all the world that if Rick Pitino was out walking by himself, with no one else around, not a single soul, the Louisville basketball coach would look down and find a $100 bill.

The man was just that lucky.

Here he was being selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., while his team was being showered with praise for the way it handled Kevin Ware's horrific broken leg as (by the way) it was beating Duke to reach the Final Four. It then beat Wichita State to reach the finals and Michigan to win Pitino's second national title, his first at Louisville.

Last March was the never-ending loop of a Big Blue Nation nightmare: All Pitino all the time.

Surely this coming March will be different, right? No one, not even Rick Pitino, has back-to-back magnificent Marches, right? Surely Kentucky with all its breathless talent, or Michigan State with its bloody-nose toughness, or Kansas on the back of Andrew Wiggins' wings, will wrestle the crown away from Pitino, right?

Well, maybe.

If last year didn't really teach us anything new it did remind us, that for all of Pitino's foibles, real and imagined, the guy can still coach every single dribble like few in the sport.

And what brought Pitino back into the national spotlight wasn't so much Russ-diculous Smith or Luke Hancock's threes or Chane Behanan's love of rebounding or Gorgui Dieng's improvement around the rim, but the fact that the coach learned the lessons all great coaches learn: How to adapt.

There was a moment right here at Rupp Arena last March, in Louisville's second game of its NCAA Tournament run, this one against Colorado State. Actually, it was a moment before the game began. It was right before tip-off and Pitino was standing where he normally stands at the end of the bench, when you could just tell that a light bulb had gone off in his head and he spun around in his expensive shoes and headed to the opposite end of the Louisville bench.

Pitino then proceeded, with a rather large smile, to fist-bump every manager and assistant coach and trainer and support staffer and then every player until he finally made his way back to his end of the bench, which as it turned out had been a 2012-13 Cardinal tradition.

You wouldn't have seen that before. Not at Kentucky. Certainly not with the Celtics. Not in his early days at Louisville when he was trying to rebuild Denny Crum's once-great program and Pitino was all wrapped up in Pitino.

"I learned the greatest lesson I could learn, which is humility," Pitino kept saying over and over through Louisville's NCAA Tournament run.

And maybe that was just Pitino's latest shtick, or he was laying the groundwork for his newest addition to your Kindle, or in his advancing age — it catches up with us all — he has mellowed to the point where he wanted to seem a little more likable.

Or, being a smart coach, Pitino knew he had to adapt. Players are different these days. They come from different backgrounds, have different interests, have different goals. They've changed, so coaches must change, too.

Pitino changed. He became a little more flexible. (You think a younger Rick Pitino would have put up with Russdiculous Smith?) He became a better recruiter. (John Calipari gobbling up talent down the road surely had something to do with that.) He became a little more aware of what was going on around Rick Pitino instead of just what was going on with Rick Pitino.

The old Rick Pitino would never have seen that hypothetical $100 because he would have been too self-consumed to look around. Not now.

Last March, it seemed like we were all living in Rick Pitino's world.

Turns out, maybe he started living a little bit in our world, too.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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