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Epic game stuck with Pitino, Coach K
What throws me more than anything is Rick Pitino’s appreciation of the moment. Just the chance to be in the moment, to be part of it, even if it did turn out all wrong for him. Famously wrong.
There’s a lesson in that.
Pitino will face Mike Krzyzewski Sunday as Louisville plays Duke for a spot in the Final Four. Incredibly, it will be just the third time these legendary coaches, who are in the NCAA tournament year after year, have faced each other. Once, when Duke beat Louisville this season.
And the other time (close your eyes, Kentucky fans) 21 years ago (cover your ears, Kentucky fans) in the (deeeeep breath, Kentucky fans) Christian Laettner game.
It was the greatest ending in NCAA tournament history, even better than the North Carolina State win. My opinion, anyway. There have been books about the game. Documentaries. And it seems that 45 minutes can't pass during the tournament without seeing a replay of Laettner catching that long heave of a pass, turning and scoring, all in 2.1 seconds. Krzyzewski’s Duke buried Pitino’s Kentucky, 104-103, in overtime in the East Regional.
“We came on the losing side, but I’ve had the Kentucky fans always say it’s one of the worst losses,’’ Pitino said Saturday. “To me, it’s one of the best losses I’ve ever had. It was a great loss because my guys played almost a perfect game, and just had the wrong ending for us.’’
While Kentucky fans strangely are still unable to get past the moment, no matter the national championships their team has won, Pitino embraces it. He said he has so many fond memories of it.
Krzyzewski said he, too, has thought about the importance of the game, the moment. He said it helped to define college basketball.
It’s surely partly in manners and sportsmanship that Krzyzewski talked about it Saturday not so much as a defining victory for him. Instead, he talked about the appreciation of the moment.
It was the same thing Pitino was saying, really.
This is about the spirit of sport. It’s about respect for competition and respect for the battle, for having the opportunity to fight it. It’s an appreciation for making it to the stage you’ve worked for, no matter the result.
That’s an important thing to remember, that sport actually isn’t only about the outcome.
And while these coaches have taken such different paths in their lives, the moment has brought them together. It sounds embarrassingly hokey to say that, but it seems to actually be true. You’d think their careers have represented such different things that it wouldn’t be.
Krzyzewski has stayed at Duke all these years and represented the conscience of college sports. Pitino chased the money and fame, bounced to the NBA, undermined his own career out of greed and selfishness, then apparently redeemed himself after bouncing back to college.
Of course, what they do have in common is that they are among the top college coaches in history. Pitino has had enough success to live down the moment personally.
But that’s the thing. He doesn’t look at it that way, as a mistake that needed to be corrected so it can be forgotten.
He has watched the game five times and thinks about it often.
“He’s one of the best, one of the best ever,’’ Krzyzewski said. “And our relationship was good before that game. After the game, it’s grown exponentially. It’s like one of those things where you shared something that no one else could share. So we’ll always be close as a result of that.’’
Pitino said: “We’ve been friends from that point on. Both of us looked at the game a lot different than the Kentucky fans or, for that matter, the Duke fans. Both of us just sat back and coached and watched an incredible offensive display.’’
Several players in Sunday’s game were asked about the history. Most of them weren’t born yet, but they all knew about it. How couldn’t you? They’ve seen it over and over and over on TV replays.
Duke players talked about this being their moment, not something that happened in 1992. But they also said they appreciated what it meant to Krzyzewski.
And does anything stand out in the coaches’ memories from that game, other than the obvious?
“I will always remember the stark difference in emotion,’’ Krzyzewski said. “Because really right in front of me (Kentucky’s) Richie Farmer collapsed. And I see our guys jump and I see him fall.
“And really, I was more taken by Richie. And I understood looking at him — I could never understand completely because it didn’t happen to me — but just how tough that was.’’
Pitino still stands by his decision not to guard the inbound pass. But he said he made a mistake in telling his players to be careful not to foul Laettner, rather than to aggressively try to bat down the pass.
“And you saw my guys freeze a little bit,’’ Pitino said. “That’s the one thing I look back on the game I wish I could have done differently.’’
So they play again Sunday, just the second time they’ve faced each other in the NCAA tournament. Krzyzewski said it has the feel of a national championship game, and he only hopes both teams can live up to it.
There is no way to live up to this moment.
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