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In life of glory and grief, extortion episode doesn't define Pitino

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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'It was obviously difficult,' Pitino says about the Karen Sypher controversy. (US Presswire)  
'It was obviously difficult,' Pitino says about the Karen Sypher controversy. (US Presswire)  

Billy Donovan remembers it vividly. He was 20 years old, a star at Providence coming off a shellacking at the hands of Georgetown in the Big East tournament. The team was driving on the bus back to campus when state troopers pulled alongside and asked the driver to pull over at a vacant rest area. Just minutes later, after Rick Pitino and his wife Joanne were escorted off the bus, Donovan recalls the couple breaking down in tears. They had been informed their six-month old son, Daniel, had died of heart failure.

"Coach was obviously emotional," Donovan said. "He didn't even get back on the bus."

Ralph Willard recalls the day -- like so many others. Sept. 11, 2001. It was the day many lost loved ones. It was also the day that Rick Pitino lost his best friend and brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

"He was devastated," Willard said. "Crushed. That was his best friend. To this day, he still tears up when talking about Billy."

Rick Pitino had been through adversity. Real adversity. So while many watched as Pitino was mocked and chastised through the entire Karen Sypher Saga, one in which he cheated on his wife and was later extorted by the woman, Donovan and Willard knew Pitino would get through it all.

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"He had lost a son and his best friend," said Willard, who has become Pitino's best friend after the death of Minardi. "Those were far more traumatic."

But the public humiliation, along with trying to keep his family together, was taking its toll on Pitino. There were times he admitted he thought about retiring.

"It was obviously difficult," Pitino said. "I made a mistake."

But here is Pitino. Fifty-nine years old and somehow taking this Louisville team to the Final Four. It's his sixth trip to college basketball's grandest stage, but no one expected this. The Cardinals coach has been questioned for not being able to keep up with his rival down the road, John Calipari. He has brought in talent, but not Kentucky-level talent. Then came the rash of injuries this season -- season-ending ones to three players and plenty others throughout the year.

Yet Pitino arrives in New Orleans as a participant, not a spectator.

He'll try to win his second national title and first with the Cardinals -- and he'll have to get past who else but Kentucky. This script couldn't have written itself any better. UK is his former employer, the program he led to the national title back in 1996.

Pitino was once revered by Kentucky fans. He took the program, one that had been scarred from a recruiting scandal, and brought it back to the top. He took the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1993 and won the championship three years later with a deep, loaded team that knocked off Syracuse to cut down the nets.

Then he left for the NBA -- again. The first stint was brief, two seasons with his hometown New York Knicks in the late 1980s. This time he was in charge of bringing back the NBA's most storied franchise, the Boston Celtics, from utter disarray. He was hailed as a hero, the savior. But he left, instead, a failure.

Three-plus seasons in Boston, no playoff appearances and the franchise in a similar state as when he first arrived in 1997. He was tortured by the Boston media, for his inability to make progress and also how he handled himself off the court.

"Boston obviously didn't go the way I'd hoped," Pitino told me a few years ago. "I didn't think I'd leave under those circumstances."

Pitino left, but didn't stay away from the game for long. The guy that could once do no wrong in Lexington, Ky., would now be hated as he agreed to take over the "other" program in the state, the Louisville Cardinals, in 2001. There were a couple of NIT appearances in the first five years of his tenure, along with a Final Four. Two Elite Eights in 2008 and 2009, but it all appeared to unravel when Sypher's allegations become public a few years ago.

"It was certainly very difficult," said his son, Richard Pitino, who was also on his coaching staff when the news first broke that Pitino and Sypher had sexual relations. "But it wound up bringing my family closer than ever."

"It was hard to see my dad go through that publicly," he added.

"I couldn't have done what he did," Willard added. "The constant barrage of insults. It was like he was a piñata. There were plenty of nights he didn't sleep."

But Donovan and Willard both maintain it paled in comparison to what he had dealt with earlier in his life.

"It's not even close," Willard said. "Not even in the same realm. He got his life back, but he can't bring his son back. He can't bring Billy back."

Who knows how much longer Pitino will wind up coaching? He has said he intends to finish out his contract, which expires in 2017. Willard suggests he should ride off into the sunset if he's somehow able to cut down the Superdome nets Monday night in New Orleans. That could also be the same day he gets elected to the Hall of Fame.

But he'll have to get past this Kentucky group first in the national semifinals, one that some have even likened to the dominant UNLV teams of the late 1980s and early '90s. Pitino will speak of how much he loves this group -- and that it reminds him of that special Providence team back in the day, due to its unselfishness and willingness to listen.

"I'm having so much fun coaching again," Pitino said. "It was difficult for me and my family, but we've gotten past it."

All of it.

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