Rick Pitino: Success is a Choice

May 11, 1997

(Rick Pitino, indefatigable coach of the 1996 national champion Kentucky Wildcats, made headlines again when he accepted an unprecedented 10-year, $ 70 million offer to coach the Celtics Thursday. In this excerpt from his new nationwide best-seller, "Success is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life" (Broadway Books), Pitino uses colorful, inspiring anecdotes from his stints as coach of the Wildcats and the New York Knicks to illustrate his secrets for building self-esteem, being prepared, communicating successfully, making pressure work for you and more.)


When you're underachieving it's easy to think everyone else has the secret except you. The reality is, though, we all have frustrations and failures. Even the people who, on the surface, appear as if they don't.

In the summer of 1987 I became the coach of the New York Knicks. I was 34 years old, and because I'd been born in New York City and had always been a great Knicks fan, becoming their coach was a dream come true.

But I quickly found out that it was all more complicated than that.

When I wanted to bring to the Knicks the same full-court trapping pressing style of play I had used in college, the media quickly jumped all over me. They said it would never work in the NBA, that the season was too long, there were too many games and the players simply would not exert the kind of energy on a nightly basis that was essential if the style were to be successful.

It seemed to me as if almost every day the New York papers said that our style of play would never work.

Even Al Bianchi, the Knicks' general manager and my boss, had his doubts, which certainly didn't make me feel very comfortable or secure in my job.

Eventually, it started bothering me.

Not that I ever thought they were right. But what if they were half-right? What if 50 percent of what they said came true?

For the first time I started to question myself. I've always been a very confident person, but all the daily sniping and questioning was taking its toll.

This went on throughout much of the season. Even when we started winning there were still doubters who said our style would eventually burn the players out. In fact, it wasn't until the last game of the regular season that I began to feel better.

That was the night we qualified for the playoffs, the first time in years the Knicks had made it that far.

The next day New York Newsday ran a headline that said "Vindicated."

But I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that you can't doubt yourself, that you have to maintain confidence that you are fulfilling the role you've staked out for yourself.


s a coach I'm always trying to explain to my players that all the pain they're going through is worth it, that there's a great reward for them if they keep at it.

Consider the case of Richie Farmer.

Richie played for me at Kentucky, graduating in 1992, but he already was a legend in the state by the time he arrived in Lexington as a freshman.

He grew up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, and was Most Valuable Player of the state high school tournament two years in a row. Richie was a folk hero in the state, so when my wife, Joanne, called me one day to say that Richie and his father were sitting in my downstairs room and that Richie wanted to quit, I came home in a hurry.

Seems Richie had had a run-in with our strength coach in the preseason workouts, and he wanted to quit. He also was trying to come to grips with the realization he was not going to be the kind of superstar in college that he had been in high school.

"It's no longer fun," he said.

"Let's see," I said to him, "You're 15 pounds overweight, you're in terrible shape, and now you're being asked to lift weights and push your body, and you're telling me it's not fun.

"Of course it's not fun. How could it be fun? It's not supposed to be fun.

"In fact, I just came off the road from recruiting. Eighteen days of airplanes and hotel rooms and rental cars and being away from my family. It's the part of the job I don't like. It's the price I have to pay for putting a great team out on the floor in (Lexington's) Rupp Arena.

"So you know what, Richie? Let's quit together. We'll have a joint press conference, and we'll both announce we're quitting. The Italian coach from New York and the Kentucky kid from the mountains. Both of us together. It will be an amazing press conference."

At which point Richie started to laugh.

"Coach, you can't quit," he said.

"I know," I said. "And neither can you."

Working hard is not always fun. That's why it's called "work."

Hard work enabled Richie Farmer to see his career end with his number being raised to the top of Rupp Arena for his contribution to his team's turnaround, the assurance that he forever will be a part of the University of Kentucky basketball history.


It's an old saying, but it's as true as ever: You can't be too prepared.

When a young basketball player named Jamal Mashburn was in high school in New York City, he had the reputation of being a lazy, overweight young man who didn't play hard. I had people telling me we shouldn't recruit him.

The first thing I did was do a little research, wanting to find out as much as I could about Jamal before we actually met. I discovered that he was only 16 - no wonder everyone kept saying he was immature.

I also learned he had never trained extensively. His body was soft and underdeveloped, and he wasn't in great shape, which no doubt contributed to his inability to play hard.

When I first met him, I said: "Jamal, I have a reputation for overworking my players and you have a reputation for being lazy and not wanting to work hard. Why would you possibly want to play for me?"

"I want to be a professional ballplayer," he answered, "and I know that in order to get there I'm going to have to work hard. You'll make me do that."

Jamal succeeded - and so did I. Without a little homework, I'm sure the outcome would have been very different.

Do your homework. Your competitor is doing his.

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