It's tempting to say that University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino
lives for March. What matters more to a coach than the NCAA tournament, the big
dance that determines the best men's college basketball team each year? Yet as much
as Pitino wants Louisville to return to the glory of the 1980s, when the Cardinals
won two NCAA titles, tragic events have altered his focus. Credit a cigar with at
least an assist for Pitino's new outlook. The cigar has been front and center in
Pitino's emotional confrontation of triumph and tragedy.
On September 5, Pitino and his closest friend, Billy Minardi,
stood on the 18th hole of Pebble Beach golf course, each smoking a cigar, and
enjoying a beautiful day on California's Monterey Peninsula.
It was the last time he and Minardi would ever smoke a cigar together.
Minardi worked as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the
north tower of the World Trade Center. On September 11, it was the first building
hit, the second to collapse.
"Friendships mean so much to me," says Pitino, who knew Minardi for more than 30
years. "Good cigars, good times, good company. The older I get, the more I realize
that it's my friendships that matter most of all, way more than any win or loss."
Minardi's death devastated Pitino. So long as Minardi was around, through good and
bad, a cigar meant a chance for contemplation and a chance to tackle the future.
Over the last six months, through the loneliest fall and winter of his life, Pitino
continues to enjoy cigars. Only now he finds himself smoking alone, his mind
drifting into the past, feeling the weight of loss. In the basement of his new home
in Louisville, near the pit where Pitino likes to smoke, panels of photos cover the
walls, the lion's share featuring Minardi. Looking out on a gray day in Louisville,
Pitino concedes: "It's torture when you're by yourself."
It isn't the first time that Pitino has faced tragedy. In 1987, just one week before
he led Providence College into the NCAA tournament in his first season, his
six-month-old son, Daniel, died of congenital heart failure. And in the spring of
2001, brother-in-law Don Vogt was struck and killed by a New York City cab.
Fifteen years ago this month, Rick Pitino was the belle of the ball, a 34-year-old
wunderkind who landed on the national map by bringing Providence to the Final Four.
Few knew that his overnight arrival had been preceded by a 12-year apprenticeship,
including stints at the University of Hawaii, Syracuse, Boston University and the
New York Knicks.
By Pitino's own admission, his focus was narrow. "There was nothing except
basketball and family, with occasional rounds of life," he says in his wood-paneled
office on the Louisville campus. "In your 20s and 30s, you're pretty shallow, mostly
intent on showing you can do your job really well, advance your career. It doesn't
leave you open too much. It doesn't help you build too many friendships."
But there was always room for Minardi, who was not only Pitino's best friend but
also the brother of Pitino's wife, Joanne.
On a vacation at Sea Island, Georgia, in the early 1990s, Minardi introduced Pitino
to the finer points of life only a cigar can bring. "There's not much downtime in a
college basketball coach's year," says Pitino. "So when it's there, you want the
best possible experience. Smoking a cigar helped me relax, calm down and just
Rounds of golf would be punctuated with a Montecristo. Over wine, hours after their
wives and children had gone to sleep, the two men would smoke and talk. When he
wasn't building his own career in finance, Minardi served as Pitino's conscience. As
cigar smoking helped mellow the obsessive Pitino, he began reassessing his
"As I neared 40, I needed to get off the figurative treadmill and stop for a
moment," says Pitino. "I could see that burnout could happen, that I had to
diversify my life so I could be strong for basketball."
Pitino's interests broadened. Even during the season he began reading something
other than scouting reports (he's just reread Leon Uris's Cold War thriller, Topaz).
He took breaks for golf and began arduously breeding horses -- two pastimes ideal for
enjoying the tranquility of a good cigar.
Pitino had always embraced life with a passion, starring as a basketball player at
St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay, New York. Even back then, Pitino loved the
smell of cigars, associating them with the aromas wafting from the Macanudos that
the school's freshman coach, Frank Lizza, smoked. More important to his time at St.
Dominic was when he met Joanne and Billy. Or was it Billy and Joanne? She always
joked that Rick probably loved Billy more than he loved her. And she'd accept it,
When Pitino took the Knicks' head coaching job in '87, Minardi was a constant
presence at Madison Square Garden, plenty of road games, and after-hour meals at
restaurants like that venerable Manhattan sports bar, P.J. Clarke's. In 1989, Pitino
returned to the college ranks to take the reins at the University of Kentucky. The
relocation to Lexington was the beginning of a career-defining run. Over his last
five years in Kentucky, Pitino guided the team to three Final Four appearances,
including an NCAA title in '96 and a
runner-up showing in '97.
"I threw so many parties
in Lexington," says Pitino. "After celebrating a win, we'd have these parties with
40 to 50 people in our basement party room. Invariably we'd light a cigar or two and
set off the smoke alarm. So then we'd take it outside and the party would continue
no matter how cold
it got. Those were great times
"Basketball has always been entertainment to me since 1987," says Pitino. "I know
what sports is about -- it's about making us laugh, it's about good times
In 1997, Pitino accepted a 10-year contract to coach the Boston Celtics, no doubt
hoping to rival the nine championships coached by the man who invented the
victory cigar, Red Auerbach. "I'd try to never smoke with Red, though," says Pitino,
joking about the Celtics legend. "He would always smoke the cheapest,
foulest-smelling cigars you could buy. I swear, he'd never spend more than three
bucks for one."
Pitino indulged his passion for premium cigars by taking advantage of the built-in
humidors in his Commonwealth Avenue brownstone. But the comforts of home couldn't
assuage the mounting frustrations he felt coaching the Celtics, who were a far cry
from the caliber of Auerbach's teams.
"I'd sit on the roof, with my assistant coach, Jim O'Brien, and smoke a cigar and
reflect on our losses," says Pitino, who served as the team's president in addition
to his coaching duties. There were many such opportunities as the Celtics went
102-146 during Pitino's tenure.
Before Pitino came to Boston, Minardi had advised him not to take the NBA job. After
all, he had been a king in Kentucky. In the
manner of such basketball coaches as Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, Pitino had not been
just a coach but had begun to be an industry, a motivational multimedia persona
featuring books, tapes and speeches.
As the Celtics foundered, Pitino's time on the Commonwealth Avenue rooftop
increased. "I'd sit up there with a Cabernet, a cigar, and my winter coat and scarf,
trying to relax and think," he says.
By the start of '01, the only answer was extrication, and Pitino resigned from the
Celtics on January 8, 2001. "Professionally, I failed as a basketball coach, but it
wasn't a personal failure," says Pitino. "To me, personal failure involves letting
down your friends and family. There's nothing wrong with failure -- if you can learn
Pitino didn't have to wait long to return to the sidelines. By March, he was
weighing offers from the universities of Louisville and Michigan. Pitino was
hesitant to return to Kentucky and coach his former school's cross-state rival.
Hours away from accepting a position at Michigan, he consulted again with Minardi.
The two, after all, had spoken every day for 32 years. And here was Pitino, a year
away from turning 50, cast out of the pros and uncertain of his next move. "Billy
told me, 'If you're choosing Michigan because it's right for you, fine,'" says
Pitino. "'But if you're doing it because you're worried about Kentucky, you should think
again.' In my 20s and 30s, I probably would have gone to Michigan. But now, I have
so many close friends in Kentucky."
Signing a six-year, $12.25 million contract for a job he claims will be his last
coaching gig, Pitino was rapidly assimilated into Louisville, his books spotted on
incoming flights, his face on the cover of magazines and billboards.
"After 9/11, if I was in pro basketball, I knew I'd be lonely and depressed," says
Pitino. "I like the way the college game is more of a family."
He thinks of Minardi every day. Louisville's uniforms this season featured a small
"B" over the left shoulder. This December, Louisville will host its first Billy
Minardi Basketball Classic.
Yet for all the tranquility and balance he has found, as a coach Pitino remains as
driven as ever. Sporting the snappy suit, crisply wrapped necktie and quintessential
slick hair that's turned basketball coaches into fashion icons, Pitino strides the
sidelines like a martinet, yelling, clapping, advising, reprimanding. His pale brown
eyes seem to never blink, watching with the attentiveness of a concerned parent.
When his patience is challenged, he typically bends his arm and brings his fingers
to his mouth, repressing his short-term desire to scream, opting wisely to shut up
and let the children play.
Joel Drucker is a freelance writer living in California.