Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Shot at Redemption

"A man walks down the street, he says 'why am I soft in the middle now?
Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?
I need a photo opportunity; I want a shot at redemption.
Don't want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.'"

I used to dislike Rick Pitino. Not a little. A lot. 

But they say that everyone deserves a second chance. And Pitino has earned one with me.

Sure, he and his Providence team were darlings 25 years ago, the little engine that could, the collection of gym rats and castoffs that made it to the Final Four.  After that, though, Pitino had shown his true colors by jumping ship to the New York Knicks, then Kentucky, then the Celtics, then Louisville. And with his fancy suits and fancier loafers he always seemed a little too slick, a lot too confident, to inspire much of anything other than dislike in the casual fan and especially the fan of any team other than the one he was coaching at the time.

The former Slick Rick?

I have to admit to a certain smug satisfaction several years ago when Pitino was excoriated after news of a dalliance with Karen Sypher (apparently straight out of casting for Fatal Attraction) led to sordid speculation in the press and forced Pitino to announce that he had been the target of an attempted extortion

Whether due to that sobering incident or simply maturation, Pitino seems a changed man and a changed coach. The press has been full of stories in this week leading up to the Final Four of how Pitino has mellowed, transforming himself from an unapproachable dictator to a likable mentor. Even seniors on his current team remark on how he has changed just in their time at Louisville, that he talks to and jokes with the freshmen players in a manner that they couldn't have imagined three years ago.

Perhaps most impressively, Pitino neither portrays himself as a victim in the scandal brought on by Sypher's allegations, nor does he point to it as playing a role in his change. Instead, he points with pride to the fact that he learned during that time to simply turn the other cheek, something he certainly hadn't been known for in the past.

Pitino's maturation has been amplified this week as Louisville has prepared to play Kentucky, his former team and in-state rival.  The noise gets even louder, or the suits a little whiter, when he is compared to Kentucky's coach, John Calipari, who seems to have many of the same traits as the old Rick.

It may be unusual, or even uncomfortable, for Pitino to find himself in the role of both underdog and sympathetic character. But his actions over the past three years, and those of his team in the Big East and NCAA tournaments to this point, have earned him the right to both.

Pitino was dangerously close, as Paul Simon said, to becoming "a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard." I, for one, am glad he didn't. Regardless of how Saturday's game turns out, this NCAA tournament has been Pitino's shot at redemption. And, as many of his teams have been famous for, he drained the three.

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