Life experiences, age have Pitino enjoying experience

Joanne Pitino sat in her Louisville living room Saturday afternoon and watched a disaster unfolding 1,300 miles away.

On the threshold of the school's first Final Four in 19 years, the Louisville Cardinals were being routed by a bunch of unheralded underdogs from West Virginia.

Worse yet, her husband, Rick, was being shot out of the gym from the three-point line – the very weapon he's used better than any coach in college basketball history. The valedictory moment in Pitino's coaching comeback was slipping away.

Down 20, this surreal situation called for a supernatural solution. Joanne, who was watching the game with her future daughter-in-law, Bethany Moore, got up and went into the next room. Speaking to the portrait hanging on the wall, she said, "I really hate to do this, but ..."

When Joanne came back into the living room, she was toting a painting of her dead brother, Billy Minardi. It was a portrait of Billy standing on the 18th green at Pebble Beach, taken from a photograph shot on the last day the Pitinos saw him alive – Sept. 7, 2001.

In a better world, Billy would have been in Albuquerque Saturday. He'd never, ever miss watching his best friend Rick coach in the big games. In a tragic New York minute, terrorists took him away.

But when times got tough on Saturday, Joanne decided she wasn't going to let him miss this big game. She put the painting in a chair – laughing at the craziness of the gesture, laughing to break the tension.

"You're going to help us through this," she told Billy, whose death in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 changed the Pitino family forever.

"Put it closer," Bethany said. "He can't see."

Positioned facing the television, Minardi's portrait witnessed – inspired? – a comeback that they'll talk about for as long as basketballs are bounced in Louisville. A long, unwavering rally put the game into overtime, and the Cardinals took over from there. Along the way Joanne and Bethany screamed, jumped out of their seats and even gave the picture a kiss.

In the end Louisville made it. The Cards reached the Final Four. Billy Minardi's work was done.

"He's with us every day," Joanne said of the kid brother they called Willy. "He would have had such a great laugh at this. I'm sure he was looking down laughing."

Joanne and Bethany left the portrait there in the chair. Rick arrived back in Louisville late that night on the team charter. When he got home, he found the painting staring at him.

"What's this?" he asked Joanne, and she explained.

"She got a little teary-eyed," Rick said. "Then I got a little teary-eyed. Then we just laughed."

That was Billy Minardi's gift to all who knew him – sprinkling laughter into every day. He was first-team All-Fun. Three-and-a-half years later, that laughter is still missed at times like these.

"It's so bittersweet, I can't tell you," Joanne Pitino said, in one of the few interviews she's done. "You can't laugh without crying.

"When we were young and crazy and wild, the highs were so high. Nobody had more fun than we did with Billy and basketball. We just had a great time every single minute."

Rick Pitino is still having a great time coaching basketball. Sobered and softened by tragedy and age, he's simply appreciating it more. When the lows are as low as Pitino's, you learn to embrace every high that drops by.

* * *

Rick and Joanne went out for dinner Tuesday night to Porcini, their favorite Italian joint in Louisville. They took their close friends, Ron and Lynn Carmicle – it was Lynn who painted the portrait of Billy.

It's Final Four week, and next up is No. 1 Illinois, but Rick insisted on a night out. Captain Video said goodbye to the Illini for a few hours – not the kind of thing he would have done in the 1990s, as the hyper-driven coach at Kentucky.

"Given his age in life and some of the things that have happened to him, the tragedies he's gone through, the feeling is, 'Let's enjoy this,' " Ron Carmicle said. "He's really just enjoying the moment."

We've seen that a lot in the last 3½ years. A man who rarely seemed to appreciate the ground under his feet because he was always sprinting toward the horizon – chasing something – has slowed down enough to savor the here and now.

That's the bittersweet gift given by Billy Minardi. Pitino lost his best golfing and horse racing buddy, the guy he talked to every day.

"When he married Joanne, he got a best friend, too," Carmicle said.

But he gained something from Minardi's death, too.

To quote a favorite old saying of Pitino's, he's used his personal losses as fertilizer to grow on. Not just Minardi, but Don Vogt, Joanne's brother-in-law, who was run over by a taxi in New York in 2001. And also the humbling failure as coach and king of the Boston Celtics.

Through all that Pitino has cultivated a patience and perspective we rarely saw before.

Snapshot, 2003: The Cardinals are in Houston to play a woeful Cougars team. Pitino usually is not at courtside for the national anthem, but on this night he is – and looking at the flag, he tears up, thinking of 9/11. Then-freshman Francisco Garcia actually asks him if he's OK before the opening tip.

After the Cards won, I wrote a story and returned to the hotel bar for a beer. There was Pitino and his associate coach, Mick Cronin, having a drink. Pitino happily talked basketball and signed a few autographs for fans before going to bed.

The Kentucky-era Pitino would have been in his room rolling video on the game, plotting the next practice, looking for the next mountain to climb.

Snapshot, 2005: Another game at Houston. This time the Cardinals lose, in a major upset, blowing a late lead with some horrific crunch-time decisions and execution.

Pitino has been known to be the world's worst loser (which is, in fact, a big reason why he's lost so rarely). He's gone Linda Blair on many occasions: ordering midnight practices after losses, threatening players with scholarship revocation, threatening assistant coaches with termination, blistering more eardrums than Metallica.

But senior Larry O'Bannon describes the postgame message from that night this way:

"Go home, tell your family you love them. Just be grateful that you're alive and you're here."

In the 23 games since that night, Louisville has won 22 times.

"He's changed," O'Bannon said. "The first year I got here he was pretty tough. He was looking to get rid of some players, to see who were basketball players. ... The first meeting he said, 'Look around. Probably half of you won't be here in the next couple weeks.'

"I think he became more life-oriented, with some of the things he's gone through."

Pitino has found a softer in-game edge with players as well. Way ahead during a 1996-97 massacre of Georgia Tech in Atlanta, he caught several bench players eyeing a video replay board instead of listening to instructions.

"You want to watch TV?" Pitino hissed at them. "I'll send you home if you want to watch ----ing TV. I'll send you home so ----ing fast it'll make your head spin."

These days, Pitino still has a quick hook and a foul mouth for erring players – especially on defense. But his first reaction is less caustic and more calculating. When a player arrives at the bench, he usually passes off delivery of the first contructive criticism to his understated associate coach, Kevin Willard.

Famously impatient, Pitino has never suffered fools gladly. But where he once would skewer reporters who asked dumb questions, now he's more likely to kill 'em with comedy. When a St. Louis TV reporter asked him Monday about the wondrous, cosmic coincidence of having the basketball Cardinals coming to the home of baseball's Cardinals, veteran Pitino watchers tensed, waiting for the eviscerating comeback.

Instead Pitino smiled and said that the school did, in fact, name its athletic teams in honor of the St. Louis nine. Everyone chuckled, and the reporter even got a usable sound bite.

"I just think he handles everything better, based on the experiences he's had," Carmicle said. "I think he's really just enjoying the moment, because you never know when you're going to get it again."

* * *

In what many regarded as a stunning upset, Louisville has turned out to be a perfect fit for the native New Yorker.

One of the great misperceptions of Pitino's tenure at Kentucky was that he and his family hated the place. He stayed eight years – longer than he's been anywhere else, by a good margin. His love of basketball and zeal for winning fit the general profile of the commonwealth.

When he left for Boston, he'll admit now, it was for the money – a staggering sum of $50 million. And when he walked away in the middle of his fourth year, leaving $27 million on the table, it was to return to the state of Kentucky.

"I think years from now, when we look back on it, we'll see that this is one of the great fits of all time," U of L athletic director Tom Jurich said.

Louisville offers a bigger fish bowl than Lexington, not to mention better restaurants, Valhalla Golf Club (Rick's a member), Churchill Downs (Rick has an endorsement deal) – and the same passion for hoops. And when Pitino wants to get away, his Celtic nest egg has afforded him the means: he has part ownership in a private jet, and homes in Miami and New York.

Despite all that, it's amazing how close Pitino came to never coming back here.

After the Celtic fiasco, he flirted hard with UNLV. Then, even after Jurich took great political risk to force out legendary coach Denny Crum and made an all-out effort to get Pitino, it still nearly fell apart at the 11th hour. The coach nearly wound up at Michigan.

On the night before Pitino made his decision, Jurich was contemplating a doomsday scenario: force out a Hall of Famer, whiff on a future Hall of Famer ... he'd barely even sketched out a Plan B.

"I was concerned up to the last minute," Jurich said.

On the morning of the day he would be introduced as the new coach of the Cardinals, Pitino actually said yes to Michigan.

"He doesn't always handle those job situations as well as he handles preparing a game plan," Carmicle said.

Then Joanne – whom the rumor mongers kept saying was miserable in Kentucky – told him he was insane.

"My wife changed my mind, for all the right reasons," Pitino said. "She said, 'You don't know one person, including the AD, in the state of Michigan. You have a lot of friends in Kentucky. At our age, friends are very important. It makes no sense at our age to go just for basketball.' "

Pitino swallowed hard, decided he would handle the outrage from Kentucky fans, and changed his mind. By early afternoon on a Thursday in March 2001, word was out. By that night, he was being introduced in Louisville.

Four years later he's going to his fifth Final Four, the only coach to get there with three different schools. Among the travel party for St. Louis are the usual cast of Pitino characters: pro golfers, thoroughbred trainers and owners, Wall Street titans, Outback Steakhouse chain founder Chris Sullivan – and a ton of family.

All five Pitino children will be there, and Joanne, too. Don Vogt's three children will be there. So will Billy Minardi's three.

And come August, Minardi's widow, Stephanie, and her three children will move to Louisville. Pitino is as excited about that as a fifth Final Four.

He is a changed man with unchanged coaching brilliance – still able to win at the highest level, but now able to appreciate it so much more.

"It's almost like he's at peace," Joanne said. "He's content."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.