A year that began with Rick Pitino cutting down the nets in the national championship ended with the Louisville coach’s enshrinement to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., Sunday.
“I never thought about it,”Pitino said of the Hall prior to his induction. “Until I got the phone call, it was never a goal, the only goal is to win the next game. I’ve lived in the moment my whole life. Besides competing at a championship level, I want to get as many guys into occupations as possible, not just getting guys to the pros.”
Pitino said he suggested Wall Street to a player who was a walk-on for the 2005 Louisville Final Four team, who was unsure of his career path. Pitino flew to New York to pull some strings, and that player became successful in the field.
He is the only coach to take three programs to the Final Four, which he has now been to seven times between Providence, Kentucky and the Cardinals, and first won the NCAA title in 1996 with the team down the road from his current position.
“At Louisville, the toughest thing has been the changing of leagues,” Pitino said. “We were Conference USA, then I was very excited to go to the Big East, now we’re in the AAC for a year, then we’re going in the ACC. They’re a pretty focused group because when you coach at the Louisvilles, the Kentuckys of the world, if you don’t win, you have a major problem in the communities.”
Pitino began his head coaching career at Boston University in 1978 and took the Terriers to the Big Dance in his fifth and final year. He also experienced two NBA stints with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics.
“It’s all about personality, Brad Stevens is a perfect example,” Pitino said of the former Butler coach turned Celtics coach in regards to the leap from college to the pros. “He runs pro offenses, defenses, he’s a perfect fit. I was an assistant first, It’s an adjustmen that is very difficult to make unless you’ve been there. It’s very difficult to do unless you have experience.”
His induction speech included a humorous anecdote from the previous day when Larry Bird came through the door during another one of his speeches, sparking memories of a famous line he made as Celtics coach that Bird wasn’t coming through the door. At his press conference on Saturday, he also joked about why Grant Hill had to be present, referring to the inbounds pass Hill threw to Christian Laettner as Duke defeated Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional Final.
Pitino has had many star players- Jamal Mashburn, Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Francisco Garcia to name a few – but Billy Donovan, the Florida coach who played on the 1987 Final Four Providence team, is a prized protégé of his.
“Billy the Kid is like my sixth child,” Pitino said. “This is going to sound crazy, but it meant more to me to watch Billy win the championship than me winning it myself, I didn’t cry when we won, I cried like a baby when he won. I couldn’t find a character flaw in his personality, he was the hardest working player I ever had, he told the truth at all times, there was nothing about him that wasn’t the epitome of a young man, and Peyton Siva was the same way.”
Enshrined with Sylvia Hatchell, who was won 900 games on the women’s side, Pitino has been supportive of the women’s game, attending Louisville’s national final loss to Connecticut in New Orleans this April, a day after his own final in Atlanta.
“I think I’ve been very naïve to women’s basketball until the last few years when (Louisville coach) Jeff Walz came in,” he said. “ I’ve become such a fan of Jeff’s and women’s basketball. Louisville has taught me one thing, I’ve gone out and become a fan of every team, and I’ve never done that. I love the women’s game, they shoot much better, they shoot the free throws much better, they pass much better, the only thing you don’t see is the pure athleticism. From a fundamental standpoint, the women play better. I was so focused on what we were doing, I didn’t realize there was a world out there, now I am more appreciative of the other sports.”
Pitino’s presenters were Dick Vitale and Hubie Brown, of whom he served as an assistant for with the Knicks. The star player on that team was Bernard King, also inducted Sunday. Other inductees were coaching colleagues Jerry Tarkanian and Guy Lewis, Brazilian Oscar Schmidt, Richard Guerin of the 1950s Knicks, contributor Russ Granik, the ABA’s Roger Brown, and early African American pioneer Dr. E.B. Henderson.