Thursday, April 10, 1997
Pitino ready for new chapter
of 'Success'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rick Pitino has written a book. Now, perhaps, he should read it.

The head basketball coach and ranking oracle at the University of Kentucky tells us, for 273 pages, that Success is a Choice. He has developed a 10-step program for aspiring overachievers, based on self-discipline, striving and dreams.

Most of it is perfectly obvious - hard work, Pitino reveals, has its rewards - but this much is confusing: If Rick Pitino practiced what he is preaching, wouldn't he have left Lexington by now?

''You must always be raising the bar,'' he writes. ''You must always be setting higher standards for yourself. This is what separates the good from the great. This is what highly motivated people do. They refuse to be satisfied. They refuse to believe they've reached their full potential. They always keep thinking they can do more.''

Pitino might win some more championships at UK, but it is hard to imagine he can raise the bar much higher in college basketball. He has already won one NCAA title and finished second last week with his best player available only to shoot technicals. He has established himself as the cleverest coach in the college game and the man most widely coveted by the pros.

Yet if he is to continue to set a higher standard, Pitino is probably going to have to take a harder job. There's a lot of pressure coaching basketball at Kentucky, but there are also a lot of built-in advantages. If a coach isn't careful, he can find himself coasting.

Why the devotion?

Our purpose here is not to hurry Pitino's exit at UK, but to reach a better understanding of why he stays. Unlike many of his peers, Pitino does not automatically follow the money. Neither does he seem to have a strong hankering for home. He conjures The Music Man's Professor Harold Hill, a slick, itinerant salesman who mesmerizes a small town only to find himself stuck there.

Lots of basketball coaches would look on UK as a last stop. It is a place of matchless mystique and unrivaled fanaticism. When Pitino travels within the state, he is generally received as if he were Elvis. A man can get accustomed to constant adulation.

Yet Rick Pitino, the author, cautions against getting too comfortable with one's own success. ''Enjoy the moment,'' he writes, ''then move on.''

A lot of us figured Pitino was ready to move on last spring, when the New Jersey Nets wooed him with a contract offer with an estimated value between $20 and $30 million.

He listened, he leaned, and then he left on a golfing junket to Ireland. There, unable to sleep, Pitino decided his heart was still with his players. Stunning those who had suspected him to be a carpetbagger, Pitino spurned the money and stayed.

''I didn't know what he was going to do,'' UK guard Anthony Epps said at the time. ''Normally you can read people. But he's one of those people that you can't read.''

Boston's calling

Now, there are recurring reports out of Boston. Larry Bird has approached Pitino about a joint effort to revive the bedraggled Celtics. The Celtics have as much cachet as the Nets had cash, and they figure to have two lottery picks in the upcoming draft.

Pitino has roots in Boston, a deep regard for its basketball tradition, and still he says no.

''The Boston Celtics are special,'' he told an audience on his book tour. ''It's a special, special organization that has reached its nadir, its lowest point. Now it's going to rise and rise. It won't rise with me ... It's not something I want to leave Kentucky for.''

These words should bring comfort to the Commonwealth. If Rick Pitino will not leave Lexington to coach the Boston Celtics, what pro job could possibly entice him? Orlando? Golden State? Please.

Yet the speculation is unceasing. Even with his team in first place, Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Jerry West felt obliged to issue a statement denying rumors he's interested in hiring Pitino or Kansas' Roy Williams.

Pitino's name is sure to surface each time there's an opening in pro basketball, and often when there's no opening. He's that good. If he ever leaves, Kentucky will miss him.