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Back Again, With His Third School

Hard to believe, but it has been 18 years since a boyish Rick Pitino first burst into the Final Four in 1987, with a three-point-shooting Providence team led by point guard Billy Donovan that upset top-seeded Georgetown.

Though it was the first of Pitino’s five Final Fours, it was also the saddest, a March filled with pain after his infant son Daniel, born prematurely, died of heart failure shortly before the tournament began.

Pitino, now 52, went on to coach the New York Knicks before returning to the college game to take three talented Kentucky teams to the Final Four in a span of five seasons, winning the NCAA title in 1996.

A stint with the Boston Celtics ended in the first real failure of his career, and Pitino returned to Kentucky -- not to Lexington, but to Louisville, setting off a storm of criticism from Kentucky fans who labeled him “Benedict Rick.”

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At Louisville, it took only three seasons for him to get the Cardinals back to the Final Four for the first time since 1986 -- a feat that made Pitino the first coach in NCAA history to take three schools to the Final Four.

Pitino, whose first Final Four was spent in mourning, arrives in St. Louis with a team that has known more than its share of grief. Guard Taquan Dean lost his mother and three other close relatives as a boy. Guard Francisco Garcia’s brother was killed in 2003. And Pitino lost his brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Those losses have nothing to do with basketball, Pitino said.

“I don’t think anybody’s tragedies help you score points or get rebounds or make assists,” he said. “But it helps you appreciate where you are and what you’re accomplishing.”

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-- Robyn Norwood


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