INDIANAPOLIS – Ali and Frazier had Manila. Watson and Nicklaus had Turnberry.
Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski? They'll always have Philadelphia.
Twenty-one years have gone by since their two teams created performance art that endures today as the greatest game in college basketball history. Krzyzewski's Duke team scored 104. Pitino's Kentucky team scored 103. As everyone who has watched five minutes of NCAA tournament basketball since then knows, Christian Laettner made the last shot – in overtime, in the regional final, in Philly, in perpetuity.
That game is the impossibly high standard by which March Madness is judged. It is the standard Krzyzewski's Blue Devils and Pitino's Louisville Cardinals will aspire to reach Sunday, with a Final Four bid once again on the line. It is the legendary coaches' first NCAA tournament meeting since March 28, 1992, in The Spectrum.
"It was like being in Carnegie Hall and just seeing the best musician or the best singer," Pitino said. "And just sitting there in amazement of what they were doing out on the basketball court."
"It's one of those moments in time that helped define our sport," Krzyzewski said. "When I've talked to Rick about it, we realize we were the lucky guys. … You shared something no one else could share."
They will share a different venue this time – a football stadium in the Midwest, not a basketball arena in the Northeast. In a reversal from Philadelphia, Pitino's team will be the favored No. 1 seed this time around, while Krzyzewski's team is the dangerous No. 2 seed.
In fact, this is the first time in 10 years – spanning 32 games – that Duke has been the lower-seeded team in an NCAA tournament game. But don't mistake either team for an underdog – not the lordly Blue Devils, who were ranked No. 1 five weeks this season, and not the confident Cardinals, who entered the tournament as the overall No. 1 seed. We will be fortunate if any game next week in Atlanta carries the cache of this one.
"Elite Eight games are huge anyway," Krzyzewski said. "But this one, I think it's like a national championship game. The two seasons of the two teams could match anybody's in the country. I think it's great for college basketball. I hope we both live up to the game."
The much harder part will be living up to the legacy of the game Pitino and Krzyzewski coached 21 years ago.
As exalted as the level of play was in that game – Kentucky shooting 57 percent, Duke shooting 65 percent, the teams combining for 47 assists – the coaches ennobled themselves with their reaction to its outcome.
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When Laettner's lightning bolt went in, Krzyzewski was instantly empathetic in victory. He consoled the Wildcats personally, and even went on the Kentucky radio broadcast at courtside – the last one ever by legendary announcer Cawood Ledford – to express his admiration to the Kentucky fans.
"I will always remember the stark difference in emotion," Krzyzewski said. "Because really right in front of me [Kentucky guard] Richie Farmer collapsed. And I see our guys jump and I see him fall. And I really was more taken by Richie. And I understood looking at him … just how tough that was."
The outcome thoroughly devastated a group of Kentucky overachievers, most of whom had no higher aspiration in sports than to wear the blue uniform of the Wildcats. In-state, small-town players Farmer, John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus – Kentucky fans from the crib – were recruited as afterthoughts. They were spare parts in classes otherwise dotted with blue-chip prospects. Indianapolis native Sean Woods was a slightly higher-caliber recruit, but ineligible to play as a freshman and never considered a great NBA prospect.
Improbably, those four formed the nucleus of a team that rose from the ashes of NCAA probation under Pitino. Along with one star player, sophomore Jamal Mashburn, Pitino drove them – almost mercilessly at times – to win 29 games and the SEC tournament championship as seniors.
Duke, on the other hand, was living up to the highest of expectations. The Blue Devils were defending national champions and ranked No. 1 every week of the season – one of the best teams in history. They were the closest things to rock stars as any team I've seen in covering the last 22 NCAA tournaments.
As successful as Kentucky had been, not many people gave the Wildcats a chance in that regional final. The chances seemed slimmer midway through the second half, when Duke took a 67-55 lead.
But that's when Pitino called a timeout and decided his team had to press Blue Devils guard Bobby Hurley – a brilliant ball handler who had seemed impervious to pressure. The game changed after that decision. Kentucky roared back, and it became an epic shootout in the final minutes of regulation and into overtime.
You know what happened at the end: Woods hit his floater off glass and over Laettner for the lead with 2.1 seconds left; then Krzyzewski called timeout and diagrammed the 75-foot pass from Grant Hill to Laettner.
Pitino said Saturday that his biggest mistake was not leaving the inbounds pass unguarded – it was telling Pelphrey and Feldhaus, as they broke the huddle, to at all costs avoid fouling Laettner. That led to timid defense, giving the Duke center a comfortable catch, dribble and shot.
The result was the highlight that never stops airing.
"I did a Vitamin Water commercial with Christian Laettner [a couple of years ago]," Pitino said. "A lot of Kentucky fans don't like him. I got to know him and still don't like him. I'm only kidding. He's a good guy. I'm joking."
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The joke is forever lost on many Kentucky fans, who will never bring themselves to appreciate the nobility inherent in that defeat. Duke went on to win the national title, but the Wildcats won as well.
Farmer, Feldhaus, Pelphrey and Woods had their jerseys retired in the wake of that classic. Athletic director C.M. Newton and Pitino had perspective, able to appreciate the greater gift of that game.
"It's a pretty darn special moment for those guys and me," Pitino said. "It was just a great, great basketball game that I think most of the Kentucky fans don't realize."
Said Krzyzewski: "I think when the basketball gods deem you worthy enough to put you in a great moment, sometimes you're placed in that moment as a winner, and sometimes you lose. But sometimes the loser shines more than the winner. I thought how [Pitino] reacted and has reacted since made him shine."
The two coaches have taken different paths since that memorable moment. Krzyzewski has stayed wedded to Duke while showing incredible longevity at the peak of his profession – he is shooting for his 12th Final Four, which would tie John Wooden for the most in history, and his four national titles span from 1991 to 2010.
"Coach K is the modern-day John Wooden," Pitino said.
Pitino's path has been more meandering and melodramatic. He could have stayed at Kentucky and likely won more than the one national title he captured in 1996, but the Boston Celtics lured him back to the NBA with a boatload of cash. The result was 3 ½ seasons of misery, so Pitino returned to the college ranks at Louisville, Kentucky's arch-rival.
The fact that he is now in his 12th year with the Cardinals has surprised a lot of people. But the 60-year-old Pitino of today is far different from the restless animal who was leading Kentucky 21 years ago. Losing so much in Boston taught him a valuable lesson.
"Humility," Pitino said. "It took me goddamn long enough to get it."
Twenty-one years have passed. Much has changed. But two coaching icons are still at the top of their profession.
If the basketball gods are smiling, maybe they can have another memorable shared moment Sunday. It may not live up to the one in '92 – but nothing else has, either.
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