Day 6: Louisville | Traveling Violations
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – He doesn't have it perfect quite yet.
Maybe there was a point a year ago, when Louisville was streaking to 16-1 and recruits Sebastian Telfair and Donta Smith were scheduled to be here instead of the NBA, when it seemed like it would be perfect by now. That by the eve of Season 4 after taking over a 12-win team, he would have the undisputed favorite to win the national championship.
But these days recruits go pro. And like always, kids get hurt – freshman Brian Johnson is out for the season with a knee injury.
So while Rick Pitino keeps getting the Cardinals closer and closer each day, each season (No. 14 in the preseason poll), he isn't there yet.
But he still is smiling. Still loving it. Still looking happier and more relaxed than ever.
These days, Pitino can deal with less than perfect.
"I can't press right now because Francisco [Garcia] and Ellis [Myles] have to play too many minutes," Pitino said Monday morning between individual workout sessions here.
"So I am going with the kamikaze squad, the kamikaze kids, the 'red' squad.'"
Pitino smiled at the thought of it.
"I'm going to take the five biggest overachievers on the team, sub them in all at once and they are going to press and trap all over the court. Right now it's Brad Gianiny, Brandon Jenkins, Larry O'Bannon, Perrin Johnson and Otis [George]."
Just then Garcia, the team's lanky junior mega-star arrived for his morning workout, where the focus is on skill development. Pitino got immediately excited.
"Hey, Francisco, yesterday the red squad killed you guys. They kicked your guys' ass."
Garcia was incredulous.
"There's no way they won," Garcia said. "No way."
"They were up 15 on you," Pitino said.
"That's only because Taquan [Dean] got fouled, and you call a charge," Garcia said, before turning to everyone else and throwing up his hands. "He's a coach and a ref. I've never seen a coach and a ref."
Pitino smiled again.
"What are you talking about? We were up 18-3."
"We?" Garcia said.
Pitino just laughed.
"He's the funniest player in college basketball," Pitino said. "It is going to be fun."
It's been a ton of fun here for Pitino. Ask any of his old friends. Ask any of his new friends. What once looked like a solemn guy barely capable of enjoying the wins has been replaced by someone who enjoys the journey.
Maybe it was the tough days with the Celtics. Maybe it was the loss of his best friend, Billy Minardi, on Sept. 11, 2001. Maybe it is just getting into his 50s.
"The thing about Coach Pitino is I see a person who is always proactive," assistant coach Reggie Theus said. "Coach is very well-rounded in his life. And [he has] been through tragedy.
"There is nothing you can't work through when you've been through what he's been through."
So while there is no doubt he wishes the NBA didn't pillage his recruiting class last spring, he redoubled his efforts to make the guys he does have better. He changed, at least slightly, his recruiting priorities.
Now U of L is about to sign a monster class of recruits that Pitino believes will all remain on campus for a few years.
Meanwhile, he is trying to design ways to make a thin bench work and ride what he does have, starting with Garcia. The 6-foot-7 Bronx, N.Y., native arrived here thin and raw, but he is coming off a 16.4 point-per-game season and is a national Player of the Year candidate.
"Francisco is Francisco," Pitino said. "He is the best wing player I've ever coached in college basketball. And I've had some good ones with Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer. But he's the best with his length and what he can do on the court."
Then there is a host of big-time players, from Myles, the burly forward, to Dean, the steady guard. And of course, all of these energetic, team-first, do-anything kids who don't mind being on the "red team."
In fact, they take pride in being on the "red team."
"Guys are going to want to be on that team," Pitino said.
Why wouldn't they? It's Pitino's team. The coaching star, the man who excels at coaching stars, calls the kamikaze kids "we."
Because there is no sense lamenting what isn't perfect when so much is.