|Wednesday, September 26
Updated: September 27, 2:51 PM ET
Pitino coaches through tragic loss of Minardi
By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com
Rick Pitino has been on the Louisville practice facility court every morning this week, conducting individual instruction for his new players. This is where Pitino has done some of his greatest work over the years, honing raw talents at the University of Kentucky like Nazr Mohammed and Scott Padgett into star players and eventual NBA draft picks.
But these days Pitino needs the players and the practice more than they need him. This is his sanctuary from tragedy, the place where he goes to submerge his grief.
"I'm sort of emotionally spent," a wan and watery-eyed Pitino said Wednesday, in his first public comments since the death of his brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, in the World Trade Center attacks. "The only solace I get is when I'm on the court four hours a day for individual instruction. That's my only escape. I wish my wife had that escape."
Joanne Pitino's kid brother was one of the doomed workers at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower, where a terrorist plane strike eradicated an entire company of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Billy Minardi's death is only one of the heartbreaking stories produced by the events of Sept. 11.
Pitino knew his brother-in-law worked near the top of the tower. As he watched the horrible replays of the planes screaming into the towers, he tried to count the floors.
He called a friend, who said he thought Billy had moved down to the lower third of the tower. But then he called his oldest son, Michael, who had recently gone to work for Deutschebank in lower Manhattan. Billy had taken Michael under his wing, and the two made a weekly outing to a Harlem pizzeria for dinner. Michael said Billy's office remained on the 105th floor.
The Pitinos hastily drove to New York. A couple of mornings after the disaster, a web site listing survivors erroneously reported Minardi alive but in critical condition.
"We were ready to get our jackets and rush to the cars," Pitino said. "Then we found out it's not a valid list. ... The swing of emotions has just been unbelievable."
After a wrenching week-plus of waiting with dwindling hope, the Pitinos and Minardis held a memorial service last Thursday in New York to celebrate Billy's life and try to carry on with their own lives.
But this marks the latest event in a wrenching year for the coach and his family.
Pitino's resignation as coach of the Boston Celtics capped the only failure of his professional career -- a failure the achievatron coach took very personally. Then Don Vogt, another Pitino brother-in-law who was married to Joanne's sister, was killed last March in Manhattan when struck by a car. Pitino did the eulogy at that memorial, at the time calling it "the hardest thing I've ever done."
Now this, the cruelest blow of all.
Clearly, carrying on will be a gradual, painful process for Rick and Joanne Pitino. There were glimmers of the trademark jaunty wit and burning enthusiasm from Pitino Wednesday, but they didn't last long. There will be many tears to cry before the 49-year-old coach of the Cardinals is back to his old self .
"We're going to cry every night when we go to sleep about Billy," said Pitino, who talked to Minardi daily. "But those tears will turn to laughter. ... I was given a great gift to have 33 years with Billy."
For Pitino, it's impossible to think about Billy Minardi for too long without laughing. Laughter was Minardi's calling card, helping him make friends and win over clients worldwide. Back to the days when they met as high school kids on Long Island, wherever Rick and Joanne went, Minardi was there riding shotgun.
When the young couple had their annual summer vacation in Saratoga, N.Y., there was a bed for Rick and Joanne and a rollaway for Billy. And when Rick's star began rising as a head basketball coach, Billy could always be found sitting behind the bench.
Providence games. Knicks games. So many Kentucky games that he was a virtual honorary Kentuckian, cultivating friendships with Wildcat supporters like famed horseman Seth Hancock. On his commute into Manhattan from Westchester County, Minardi would regularly call Hancock's breeding operation in Paris, Ky., at 5:30 a.m. to chat about horses and hoops. Billy so firmly believed Rick should stay in college basketball that when Rick was on the verge of accepting an offer from the New Jersey Nets in the mid-90s, Billy tore up the contract and dropped it on the floor in a Manhattan restaurant.
But Billy was there during the turbulent NBA years in Boston, too. When Rick went to Italy to work out an intriguing young European named Dirk Nowitzki, the guy who shagged rebounds during the workout was Billy.
Rick's grand return to college basketball in Louisville would have been no different. Pitino said Billy already had scoured the Cardinals schedule for this winter. He planned to be at every home game, and about half the road games.
"I wish he could've been here," Pitino said. "He would have loved this team and loved this town."
Perhaps Pitino and Louisville can make a small gesture in that regard by leaving a seat vacant in Billy's honor in Freedom Hall this year. Better still would be putting a classic, all-heart, all-hustle Pitino team on the floor -- the kind of team that would have brought Billy Minardi out of that seat applauding.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com