NEW YORK – He came in from his home on Long Island to watch the University of Massachusetts play Marquette in the NIT – Julius Erving vs. Dean "The Dream" Meminger.
Marquette won big, which didn't stop then-UMass coach Jack Leaman, scholarship papers in hand, from walking over to Pitino, then a good high school guard, and asking, "Are you ready to sign?"
"So I signed," Pitino recalled. "It's something to be a New York kid and sign scholarship papers on the floor of Madison Square Garden."
The New York kid was back Thursday, 56 now and in need of reading glasses to examine the stat sheet of his Louisville Cardinals' 73-55 victory over Providence in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. U of L (26-5) plays Villanova on Friday in the semis.
It always seems to come back to the Garden for Pitino. He signed with UMass here, was an assistant with the New York Knicks, then head coach at Providence when this tournament was going strong, then back to the Knicks as the head man and now bringing a team all the way from Kentucky in as this tournament's top seed.
"The freight elevator still smells," he cracked.
"This is Rick's building," said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese.
He'd like nothing more than to clip the nets Saturday night here, winning the nation's best conference under the incomparable bright lights of Manhattan.
When the Big East expanded to 16 teams, a move designed for football, it forever altered the character of the league. What was once a mostly Northeast, Catholic school league, had now expanded into the Midwest and South.
On the day Louisville was granted membership, Cardinals fans mentioned in the local Courier Journal newspaper that they hoped maybe the league would move the tourney around to different cities, the way every other league does it.
Pitino could only shake his head at the naïveté. The Big East is New York, it is the Garden.
"We're not moving it anywhere," Tranghese said Thursday. He's scoffed at any suggestions that with the league so expansive the tournament has lost its charm or something else should be considered.
"Why don't you go play in Cleveland if you want," Tranghese said. "We're the conference in this building playing. It's the best tournament in the country because it's in this building, in this city. Nobody else has that."
No one has to tell Pitino. His players say they sense an extra spark in the man when the team plane lands at LaGuardia. He's quick to tell anyone who doesn't understand the unique opportunity of playing here at MSG.
"Any time the West Coast teammates [ask about it], Coach P tells them, 'This is the Mecca of Basketball,'" Jersey native Earl Clark said. "You see what all the greats do when they come here, Kobe Bryant, LeBron, Jordan. They light it up."
Pitino isn't afraid to go on about all his experiences here – of learning under Hubie Brown, of coaching Bernard King, of the passion of the fans, who'd wait for the coaches postgame to heckle them after losses. Mostly, though, it's about the magic of winning a game, any game, here.
He thinks Cardinals fans have begun to come around on this tournament.
"I think it's going to take some time to catch on like Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Connecticut, with bringing all the fans," he said. "I think Kentucky people, by nature, are a little intimidated by New York City because it's so different. But the ones that come have a blast. They love the city."
Pitino keeps preaching, although he knows nothing will speak louder than winning the tournament. He might have the best team. Clark is playing harder and better, realizing both his team's postseason fortunes and his NBA draft stock are on the line.
Pitino is the bridge between the league's past and present – the familiar face with the new program.
The league has expanded three times since 1991, yet none of the "new" teams have ever captured the tournament championship. Only one, West Virginia in 2005, has ever reached even the traditional Saturday night finals.
Most years the new schools have had quick stays, run out of town by old teams that, perhaps, understand and want this event more.
No one though is more motivated than Pitino. Before taking the Louisville job in 2001, he had a conversation with Tranghese. The Cardinals were in Conference USA at the time and the Big East had no plans to expand.
U of L, with its rich tradition, was the best fit for Pitino, but he was wistful on the phone that day about somehow coaching back in the East.
"He's from New York," Tranghese said. "He's an Eastern person."
Four years later, the Big East grew and the worlds meshed. Pitino is still in his New Kentucky Home, but now with an annual shot to make noise back near Broadway. Friday night he gets old foe Villanova. The building will be electric, the streets outside buzzing, the intensity cranked up.
Back to the Garden for Pitino, back one more time.
- New York