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Tonight, he becomes the first man to coach three different schools in the Final Four. He is back at the pinnacle of his profession, a middle-aged coaching eminence, one of the best basketball minds of his generation. And Rick Pitino has finally learned to enjoy it.

"This is the first Final Four that I'm really having fun," Pitino said Friday in the Edward Jones Dome. "It's been the most fun for me because I'm 52 and I look at how happy the players are. It's really fun to witness the elation of all the people around you, the friends and family."

Pitino has done it all in 31 years of coaching. He has presided over some of the sport's most storied teams. He has achieved fame and fortune and a national championship. But it wasn't until late in his career that he found something no amount of money can buy: perspective. He found it the hard way.

Billy Minardi was Pitino's best friend, going back to their high school days at St. Dominic's High on Long Island. Pitino married Minardi's sister, Joanne. They were more like brothers than brothers-in-law. They used to talk almost every day. Minardi was there when Pitino reached the Final Four with Providence in 1987, and Kentucky in 1993, '96 and '97.

But on Sept. 11, 2001, Minardi was killed in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. Pitino was devastated. Sometimes, while driving in his car, he would hear a joke or a good story and instinctively dial Billy on his cell phone.

"Age and 9/1 1 have not mellowed me, but just made me care about everybody other than myself," Pitino said. "The pain of going through that and seeing so many people suffer, I'll never be the same person again."

It had been a difficult 2001 even before the terrorist attacks. In January, Pitino had quit as coach and president of the Boston Celtics, having failed miserably in his attempt to resurrect the franchise. In March, he took the head job at Louisville. Around that time, another brother-in-law, Don Vogt, was killed by a taxi in New York City.

In the end, Pitino got his therapy from a familiar source -- his work. He immersed himself in his job and began turning around a once-proud Louisville program that had collapsed in the final years under Denny Crum. And Pitino succeeded. In his first year, the Cardinals jumped from 12 wins to 19 and earned a berth in the NIT.

Louisville returned to the NCAA Tournament his next two seasons, winning 25 and 20 games. This year, the Cardinals tied a school record with 33 wins and returned to the Final Four for the first time since winning it all in 1986. Louisville rides a 13-game winning streak into tonight's national semifinal against top-ranked Illinois.

They are calling Pitino a "changed man." Humbled by the Celtics experience and saddened by the loss of his best friend, he seems more open, more at peace with himself. That wasn't the case in his younger days. He was single-minded and egotistical, an obsessive young man with a chip on his shoulder.

"Rick the Ruler, that's what they called him back in the Knick days," said Louisville assistant Reggie Theus, a former NBA star. "He's obviously very different now. He's mellowed a little bit. But there's no lack of intensity in him. The thing that makes coach special is he expects . . . extraordinary things.

"He expects these players to come up with a way to get it done. He expects the staff to figure things out. He demands it from all of us. But what makes him special is he doesn't give any less of himself."

At 52, Pitino has grown older and wiser, closer to his family and friends. That doesn't mean he is any less motivated. Theus said Pitino talks about his players being "poor, hungry and driven," the "PhD of basketball." Pitino sure isn't poor, but he remains one of the most hungry, driven men in basketball.

It shows in his team. Louisville isn't loaded with blue-chippers, like Pitino's rosters at Kentucky in the mid-1990s. He has done it by teaching tough kids and pushing them to get better. At heart, he has always been a teacher. Some of his best coaching jobs (Providence '87, Knicks '88, Kentucky '91) have been with lesser talent.

Louisville would have been loaded if two of Pitino's recruits -- Sebastian Telfair and Donta Smith -- hadn't jumped to the NBA, or if another top prospect, Brian Johnson, hadn't torn up his knee. On the other hand, it might have held the Cardinals back.

"You never know," Pitino said. "The chemistry on this team is so good that we made it to a Final Four. We might not have with those guys."

They nearly didn't get here. In the regional final, John Beilein's West Virginia team shredded the Cardinals' 2-3 zone and went up by 20. Pitino threw out his game plan at halftime, went to his signature man-to-man and Louisville clawed its way back.

The Cardinals won in overtime and Pitino was back in the Final Four for the first time since 1997. When the game ended, many of his relatives came out of the stands to congratulate him. Minardi's three children were among them. So were Vogt's three kids.

Saturday night, when Pitino returned home to Louisville, he noticed a portrait of Minardi on a chair in front of the TV set. His wife, Joanne, said she had taken it off the wall and put it there when Louisville fell behind. She said Billy was the only one who could pull them through.

This will be Pitino's fifth Final Four, his first without Billy. He's finally having fun, so you have to believe his best friend is right beside him, in spirit, making sure he keeps it all in perspective.


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