ATLANTA — To those in Kentucky — whether they bleed Kentucky blue or Louisville red — Rick Pitino is king. He has brought both schools to the Final Four, winning the 1996 national championship with the Wildcats, and he stands just two wins away from the same glory with Louisville.
But whether he wins on Saturday or Monday, or both or neither, Pitino will leave Atlanta one step closer to basketball immortality, with the news breaking Friday that he has been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Still, for all his greatness in the college ranks — he is the only coach to have officially taken three teams to the Final Four, also having gone with Providence — Pitino has a mixed legacy in Massachusetts.
There was his time at UMass, playing for Jack Leaman. There was his time at Boston University, where he mastered the press. And there were the Celtics days, a coaching stint that still provokes bitterness around Causeway Street.
“If I had Tim Duncan, I may still be in Boston,” Pitino said at his press conference at the Georgia World Congress Center on Friday.
He laughed. Much of Boston groaned.
Pitino has one of the all-time great legacies in the college ranks. Before the Hall of Fame news broke, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had already expressed support for Pitino’s enshrinement. “Should’ve been [in] last year,” Boeheim said. “He’s got better credentials than probably 80 percent of the coaches in there.”
“It was inevitable that that was going to happen,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who played for Pitino with the New York Knicks. “I don’t think anybody doubted that. It’s certainly very well deserved based on everything he’s done his entire career, and that goes back to when he was an assistant coach at Syracuse.”
The official announcement of this year’s Hall of Fame class will come on Monday. Pitino will be joined by former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, former Houston coach Guy Lewis, and nine-time NBA All-Star Gary Payton, according to various reports.
“I think when September rolls around, I’ll have my 10, 15 minutes of a great experience, if it is to happen,” Pitino said on Thursday. “But right now this is about the guys, players, Louisville, the city, the university winning a championship.”
He has done that already with Kentucky, and has a chance to do it again. That would truly cement Pitino’s inclusion among the college greats. His winning percentage of .735 ranks 10th among active coaches. In the NCAA Tournament he’s 46-16 (.742).
“I really believe, pound for pound, he is the best coach I have ever seen in any sport, just in terms of his impact, getting guys to play at a level that they didn’t know they had,” Carlisle said. “He creates an environment where when you do get better and you do get praise from him, it’s the most meaningful thing you’ve ever had.”
Twenty-eight of his seasons as a head coach have come at the college level. Six have been at the professional level. There’s no comparing his success in the two realms, though Pitino won a division title with the Knicks in 1988-89.
Boston, not so much. While it generated a lasting quote — “Larry Bird is not walking through that door” — Pitino’s Celtics tenure ended after three-plus years with a 102-146 record. He bolted midway through the 2000-01 season.
“For me, sometimes ping-pong balls can change your life in the NBA,” Pitino said. “If you’re as shrewd as the Red Auerbachs, the Pat Rileys of the world that can pull off these incredible trades, that does it. In college basketball, it’s all about recruiting.”
Pitino recently told a radio station in Miami, “I think I do regret leaving Kentucky because I took over a [Celtics] team with 15 wins banking everything on the Tim Duncan lottery. And once we didn’t get Tim Duncan, I realized that leaving Kentucky was not a good move.”
Instead of getting the top pick in 1997, the Celtics selected Chauncey Billups at No. 3. Pitino traded Billups after 51 games.
“[Pitino’s] stint in Boston did not go well, and he will tell you the reason it didn’t go well was he was just too impatient,” Carlisle said. “He made more roster moves in a two-year span than the entire rest of the NBA, I believe.
“He was impatient with the roster, he was impatient with a lot of the people that worked in that franchise, and he knew that after three years that he needed to move back to college.”
Carlisle recalled something Pitino had said in his time with New York, that he was “a college coach living on borrowed time in the NBA. I’m really a college guy.”
It proved to be true.
Pitino made perhaps his worst decision when he marginalized Red Auerbach, taking over as president of the Celtics. The resentment of that still burns in Boston.
“Oftentimes,” Carlisle said, “greatness is polarizing.”
Pitino will be enshrined in Springfield for the 662 wins he has amassed in Division 1 basketball. It is for the seven Final Fours he has reached. It is for that national title. And it is for the full-court press that Pitino has used to great advantage throughout his college career.
“It was my own laboratory,” Pitino said of his BU days. “I could make all those mistakes trying to put a pressing, running style at the age of 24, and nobody would notice what I was doing wrong. So for five years I got to tinker, tinker. By the time I got to be assistant coach of the Knicks, head coach of Providence, I had a system I believed in.”
But it was before that, when Pitino was an assistant at Syracuse, that Carlisle could see the seeds of greatness. Carlisle, who credits Pitino’s influence as the basis of his desire to become a coach, recalled basketball camps in the mid-’70s, when Pitino would go one-on-one with campers.
“He would pick the guy in camp who was the best player out there, and he would rip the guy to shreds,” Carlisle said. “He would score on him every time. He would talk trash to him. And then when he was on defense, he would strip him every time.
“It was an illustration of the kind of competitive fire that he had. It was glowing hot, and it still is today.”
Pitino is having a good week. On top of the Final Four appearance and the Hall of Fame news, his son, Richard, was hired as coach at Minnesota. And his horse, Goldencents, is running in the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.
Asked about his momentous week, Pitino laughed.
“I don’t think those four can happen,” Pitino said. “I just would love to see the national championship one happen.”
So far, Pitino has two of the four. And two to go.