Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
It is difficult to think of Rick Pitino as living hoops history, what with his still relatively boyish looks at age 64 and his ongoing college basketball relevance, now well into the 21st century.
But there was no escaping it Saturday as he held court with reporters here in advance of Louisville’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Michigan.
The more he talked, the more the long arc of his career came into focus, a four-decade ride through on-court victories large and small, connections to a colorful array of people and places, and personal and professional dishonor.
It helps, of course, that he is very good at being interesting when he speaks publicly, with bonus points for still holding on to the accent that gives him away as a Long Islander straight out of St. Dominic High in Oyster Bay.
Take 1987, and the ride to the Final Four with Providence College that made him nationally famous.
When someone mentioned that this is the 30th anniversary of that experience, Pitino offered a long, winding tale in which he mixed past and present, saying this Louisville team reminds him of that Providence group, at least as people.
“I look back, and it’s molded my career in thinking that anything is possible,” he said.
Pitino recalled advice he got from a pair of iconic old New York basketball men, Dick McGuire and Fuzzy Levane, when he was a young Knicks assistant coach in the mid-1980s. That advice was simple: Do NOT take that job.
Soon he was being wooed by Providence athletic director Lou Lamoriello — and immediately caved. “He patronized me for one sentence, and I took the job without talking contract or money,” Pitino said, smiling.
He added, “If that team could go to a Final Four, anything’s possible. And if Billy Donovan can go from a 190-pound basketball player who I was beating 15-0 every day one-on-one to an All-American and I couldn’t even carry his shoes after two years, that was quite special.”
That Providence team, which lost to Syracuse in a national semifinal in New Orleans, has an indirect connection to second-seeded Louisville (25-8) as it prepares to face seventh-seeded Michigan (25-11) on Sunday.
The 1986-87 season was the first in which the three-point shot was used in the NCAAs, and Pitino was among the first coaches to grasp how useful it could be. Thirty years later, it has come to dominate the college and pro games, including for Pitino’s opponent Sunday.
Michigan both made and attempted more three-pointers than twos in its first-round victory over Oklahoma State.
Pitino said the biggest change in the evolution of three-pointers has been the number of very tall players who can shoot them now, to the point that it has become a focus of his recruiting efforts.
“It has evolved where 6-10, 6-11 guys no longer want to play in the post,” he said.
Like all parents, teachers and coaches of a certain age — even one who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame — he walks a fine line in trying to impart historical lessons to young people without seeming hopelessly old.
“I tell them stories about Bernard King all the time,” he said, “and I realize as I’m telling them that, they have no clue who Bernard King was.”
He tries, though, such as when explaining the value to a post player of loudly, insistently demanding the ball — something King never was shy about.
“I tell them old stories about players all the time,” Pitino said. “They just met [TV analyst] Grant Hill. You would think they would know all about Grant Hill, because it hasn’t been that long. I certainly remember him.”
That was a reference to a play you may recall from a 1992 East Regional final that ended with Duke’s Hill throwing a long inbounds pass to Christian Laettner for a game-winning turnaround jumper at the buzzer against Pitino’s Kentucky team.
That could well be a story for another day for Pitino’s players, assuming they are willing to listen. Remember: They hadn’t been born yet.