7.23.2013

Kentucky is a little blue

May 7, 1997

University of Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton is like a 1990s Will Rogers with a homespun phrase, but this time, Newton said, he had to read from a prepared text. There was too much to say about Rick Pitino.

"I have a feeling of sadness that we're losing a great coach," said Newton, "and a feeling of sadness that I am losing a friend. But I also have a feeling of happiness, that I have an understanding of Rick's excitement and happiness at this new challenge he's facing. If it's possible to be happy and sad at the same time . . ."

So it was throughout the commonwealth of Kentucky yesterday afternoon. An entire state paused to take in a televised press conference, mourned at the words that Pitino was leaving as Kentucky basketball coach, and tried to understand why.

"I never felt all those other offers Rick had that he was going to leave - until this Boston thing came up," said Newton. "Rick's a traditionalist, and us traditionalists need to be involved in these kinds of programs, like the Celtics."

Here in central Kentucky, where bluegrass, bourbon, and the thoroughbred rank high, Kentucky basketball is king. And since Newton and Pitino arrived, it has been the best kind of basketball, a clean program that wins championships. Even Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass to whom Pitino is now second in Kentucky lore, could not make that twin boast.

"This is bigger than life here," Newton jested about the huge media throng. "But only here; it could only happen here. But you know what Rick has done? He has got it back to where it's just a game again."

Joe B. Hall, the former Kentucky coach who had the near-impossible task of replacing Rupp, said he was "very sad that Rick would choose this avenue. But I can understand his decision, for the same reason that I would never leave Kentucky, I can see why he might want to go back to the Boston area. That's his stomping ground. My stomping ground was in Kentucky, and I know how he feels."

"I've got to say it dawned on me a bit that Coach Pitino is leaving for Boston, where I'm from," said Kentucky guard - and Dorchester, Mass., resident - Wayne Turner. "I'm just so happy that he's going to Boston, seeing that I'm from Boston. Hopefully, when I go back home to Boston this summer and when Coach isn't that busy with the Celtics, he can give me some workouts. Maybe I can get into a couple of pickup games now with players on the Celtics."

On Sunday night, when Pitino gathered his players at Memorial Coliseum and gave them the word that he was deciding on the Celtics' job, he gave them a chance to speak back to him.

"I told Coach Pitino that I didn't want him to go, and that was truly coming from my heart, that I didn't want him to leave," said Turner. "That's because I think he's the best coach in the world. But then I said to him that it was an opportunity for him that rarely comes around, and the job would be great, and I told him, 'If I was in your situation, I'd probably take the job, too.' "

Yesterday Turner talked of how much he owes to Pitino.

"When I came down here from Boston, I couldn't play a lick of defense," he said, "and I never thought I had it in me to play defense until I got here. And what I'm going to miss the most about Coach Pitino is that he really gets the most out of you. And he taught me everything."

Turner paused and added, "I'm happy for him. I'm happy to see him go on to the next level. I truly believe he can do a lot for the Celtics. In the next couple of years, they're going to be back in the playoffs all the time, like when they had Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale."

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