THE UNTOUCHABLES IT WASN'T ALWAYS PRETTY, BUT KENTUCKY RUBBED OUT SCRAPPY SYRACUSE TO WIN ITS SIXTH NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

April 07, 1996

THEY SCARCELY celebrate their national championships at
Kentucky. They receive them, yes, and cherish them, most
certainly. But celebration comes reluctantly to the people of
the Commonwealth, who so surely expect NCAA titles. And the
Wildcats won their sixth, with a 76-67 victory Monday night over
Syracuse in the New Jersey Meadowlands, despite the most
daunting of expectations.

Or perhaps they won because of those expectations, for over the
past year Kentucky coach Rick Pitino played a masterful,
drawn-out trick of psychology. "I tried to use pressure as a
motivational force for my staff and my players," he said after
his thoroughbreds had outrun Syracuse on a muddy track in the
sloppiest championship game in recent memory. "Even if the
players say it doesn't exist, every fan tells them, 'You've got
to win it all.'"

So Pitino turned the pressure outside-in. He somehow rejiggered
all that external expectation into an internal prod. In spite of
the common perception of Pitino as a control-freak coach, his
futility in recent NCAA tournaments has owed itself not to
overcoaching but to undercoaching: to not putting a man on Grant
Hill, the inbounder whose pass to Christian Laettner led to
Duke's winning the East Regional final over the Wildcats in
1992; to not substituting for his star, Jamal Mashburn, who
would foul out during the final minutes of overtime in the loss
to Michigan in the national semis in '93; to not reining in his
Cats' tendency to launch heedless three-point shots, as they did
in losing to North Carolina in last season's Southeast Regional
final. This year Pitino coached his way to the national crown in
the most methodical, fastidious and patient way possible. The
foundation of Kentucky's title was laid a year ago, after that
loss to the Tar Heels, when he took his players one by one into
a darkened hotel banquet room and lashed into each with
personalized, 20-minute philippics so sharp that they hated him
for weeks afterward. In the locker room before the tipoff of
Monday's game, Pitino laid the capstone in the rebuilding of
those players. He told his five starters why he would rather
coach them than their Syracuse counterparts.

Pitino can spin like the best D.C. political operative. During
the course of the season, he said, "The SEC is too good for us
to think of a 16-0 mark," and of course Kentucky went through
the league unbeaten. He said, "Our frontcourt is a little thin,"
when of course it was so thick with talented players that it
turned other coaches the color that bluegrass isn't with envy.
The prospect of losing to Mississippi State in the SEC
tournament final loomed ominously--"Nothing good could come from
a loss," Pitino said before tipping off against the
Bulldogs--until the Wildcats actually played State and suffered
an 84-73 defeat; then he said, "I was glad we lost," because it
would get the players back to doing the basic things necessary
for winning the NCAAs.

But Pitino's most brilliant spinmastering turned on a joke borne
of the Wildcats' August trip to Italy, during which Pitino had
had an audience with the pope. The joke had already begun making
the rounds of the state when Pitino told it at a luncheon last
fall. "When I met the pope, I leaned over and kissed his ring,"
was the way Pitino put it. "Then he looked at my hand to do the
same, and he said, 'Oh, you don't have a ring.'" This kind of
gag can become a weight unless you tell it on yourself.
Brilliantly, Pitino shucked the weight by appropriating the joke.

The last time Kentucky won a title, in 1978, coach Joe B. Hall
had pronounced the season one "without a celebration," because
the pressure to win had been so great. Expectations were almost
as high this year; several fans, upon seeing that Street &
Smith's yearbook had chosen the Wildcats as its preseason No. 2,
called the magazine to demand, "How can you rank us so low?" Yet
this was a season of celebration. Every day Pitino asked his
players to celebrate what he came to call "the precious
present." And there was guard Derek Anderson on Monday night, as
ready to party as he could possibly be. "I don't drink,"
Anderson said, "but I may buy myself a bottle of wine and just
stare at it."

The New York City area, to which the Final Four returned for the
first time since the point-shaving scandals came to light in
1951, recurs unpleasantly in the history of Kentucky basketball.
New York was home base for the wiseguys who plied several star
Wildcats with cash in exchange for controlling the spread in
certain games. It's where Saul Streit, the judge presiding over
the point-shaving hearings, issued an opinion in which he
lacerated basketball at Kentucky before the school shut the
program down for the '52-53 season. And it's where, one day in
the early '60s, Jimmy Breslin, then a young clerk on the sports
desk of the New York Journal-American, took a phone call from
Wildcats coach Adolph Rupp during which the Kentucky coach asked
if the paper would kindly indicate "colored" high school players
with asterisks so Rupp would know where not to bother to send
his recruiters.

Forty-five years after the scandals broke and 30 years after a
Texas Western team with five black starters defeated an
all-white Kentucky club for the national title in what has since
become known as the Brown v. Board of Education of college
basketball, a Manhattan-born Italian-American orchestrated the
final expunging of Ruppism. No great whoopee has been made of
it, but this season marks the first in which the Wildcats have
regularly started five black players. Over the past few years
both Spike Lee and Muhammad Ali have sat on the Kentucky bench,
and proceeds from a Wildcats' preseason game have been donated
to the Urban League. And while wounds from the Rupp era haven't
completely healed--in 1993 the grandparents of Jason Osborne, a
black high school star who wound up staying home and playing at
Louisville, told Pitino that no grandchild of theirs would set
foot on the campus of Rupp's university--guard Derek Anderson has
become the first black player from the state's largest city to
suit up for the Wildcats in eight years. According to the Pitino
philosophy, neither race nor province figures. All that matters
is how good you are and how hard you play.

With his every inflection Pitino reminds Kentuckians of his New
York City pedigree, and almost as regularly he alludes to his
time there with the Knicks--two years as an assistant and two as
the coach. Pitino has transplanted almost whole the NBA model
from New York to Lexington. Wildcats are redshirted as if they
were being placed on extended injured reserve, and this season
Pitino added a sort of mini-CBA, a jayvee team. His continuing
criticism of the five-year-old NCAA rule limiting practice time
to 20 hours a week is a professionalist's gripe. And with his
incessant pickups from the "waiver wire" of transfers (on this
championship team, Anderson was a refugee from Ohio State and
center Mark Pope came from the University of Washington) and his
arranging of soft landings elsewhere for recruits who don't pan
out (in just the last four years, Carlos Toomer at St. Louis,
Aminu Timberlake at Southern Illinois and Rodrick Rhodes at
USC), Pitino essentially swings off-season "trades." All year
long Pitino's affectionate nickname for his team, the latest in
a line that includes Rupp's Runts and the Fiddlin' Five, was the
Professionals.

Listen to Pitino, and again and again you'll hear the patois of
the pros: Wake Forest, Kentucky's victim in the East Regional
final, plays "like the Houston Rockets." To Syracuse point guard
Lazarus Sims, distraught after Monday's final, Pitino said,
"Keep your head up, you've got a great future in the league next
year." Of course this invocation of the NBA resonates with
recruits hoping to end up in the pros. But it's also effective
in scaling back the outsized expectations of the Kentucky
faithful. Subtly but stubbornly Pitino reminds Wildcats fans
that there is something bigger than Big Blue basketball. Last
week he told of an overnight letter, sent from a doctor just
before Kentucky left for the Meadowlands, containing strategic
suggestions for the Cats. "Thanks for your help," Pitino wrote
back. "After the season I want to sit down with you and have a
serious talk about how you're conducting surgery." As someone
who has voluntarily descended from a higher level of the game,
Pitino can challenge the fans' obsessions in a way that his
predecessors, Hall and Eddie Sutton, never could.

And there's always the chance he will move on, leaving
Kentuckians behind. The rumors coursing through the Final Four
only underscored that fact. The New Jersey Nets, tenants of the
very building in which the Wildcats won their sixth national
title, were said to be preparing a Pat Rileyesque offer to make
Pitino their coach, general manager and part owner. No, the
Boston Celtics would be hiring him. No, no, it would be the
Knicks, bringing him back for a second term.

Back in his hometown of New York he presided over Final Four
weekend as if he were the protagonist of his favorite movie, The
Godfather. Everything at the Meadowlands could, it seemed, be
traced back to this capo di tutti capi, even if it was, in fact,
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim who gave Pitino his first big-time
job, as an assistant, 20 years ago. In 1988 Pitino sat on the
search committee at Massachusetts that recommended the hiring of
John Calipari, whose Minutemen lost to the Wildcats 81-74 in the
semifinals last Saturday. And it was during a trip to visit
Pitino for the Kentucky Derby two years ago that Boeheim met his
current girlfriend, Juli Greene, a Kentucky graduate who has had
much to do, according to those close to Boeheim, with his
sunnier disposition of late. It appeared as if all Pitino has to
do is rasp out a wish, Corleone-like, for it to be someone
else's command.

Last Thursday night, after a Rockette-powered salute to the
Final Four coaches at Radio City Music Hall, Pitino repaired to
Bravo Gianni, an Italian restaurant on Manhattan's tony East
Side. There his party of 18 engaged in such fevered ring-kissing
and glass-raising, all under the beaming gaze of proprietor
Gianni Garavelli, that another diner, JFK Jr., sat ignored in a
nearby booth.

Four years earlier Pitino had shared an Italian meal with
legendary Kentucky broadcaster Cawood Ledford before an NCAA
East Regional game against the Minutemen, and the two had
enjoyed a laugh at the expense of the UMass coach. "Boy,"
Ledford had said, "that fried calipari was good."

Fried Calipari is just about the right way to describe the
Massachusetts coach after last Saturday's semifinal. Exhausted,
too, was Calipari's point guard Edgar Padilla, who gamely tried
to solve Kentucky's pressure. From his seat in the stands,
lawyer Robert Shapiro must have looked on admiringly at
Kentucky's unapologetic defense. The game was like a Wagnerian
opera. It was never quite over. Five times in the second half
UMass pared Kentucky leads of 10 points or more back to single
digits, and that was testament to a magnificently courageous team.

Last fall skeptics had pointed to Kentucky's glut of talent and
questioned the Wildcats' team chemistry. Those concerns, it
turns out, were misplaced. The relevant discipline for anyone
studying this Kentucky team was biology: It's physically
impossible to go more than 35 minutes in so demanding a system,
and anyone playing it properly must have been grateful for a blow.

For a team that was supposed to fall apart because of competing
egos and clashing agendas, the season unfolded almost perfectly.
A November loss to UMass removed the Cats from the No. 1 spot in
the polls and relieved them of any burdens that come with that
position. The rest of the regular season showcased Kentucky's
virtuosity, from the 96-32 rout of Morehead State, in which the
Cats threw down more dunks (11) than the Eagles scored baskets
(nine); to the 86-point first half at LSU; to the game with
Vanderbilt, in which the score had stood at 13-0 before the
Commodores had so much as hit the rim; to the supposed showdown
in Starkville with Mississippi State on Jan. 9, in which the
Bulldogs lost 74-56, coughing up the ball 20 times (and
prefiguring State's 77-69 loss to Syracuse in last Saturday's
semifinals, when the Bulldogs committed 21 turnovers).

Whenever ennui threatened to set in, the kvetchers on the talk
shows in bluegrass country found something with which to occupy
themselves. First there was the refashioning of the sacred
vestments of Kentucky basketball in--hellfire!--blue denim that
looked dangerously like the shade popular at North Carolina
(whose Tar Heels the Cats moved past during these NCAAs, into
first place on the alltime NCAA victory list). Next up was the
rendering of Pitino as "a man possessed" in the pages of this
magazine. Someone even suggested that all the easy winning might
not be such a good thing. "It's like you're having a great time
in your life and someone asks, 'Any concerns that you're going
to die someday?'" said an exasperated Pitino at one point.

Kentucky and Syracuse did not appear to be having such a great
time on Monday. They combined to make such a mess of the final
that, appropriately enough, water from the heavy rains outside
began to drip from the arena's ceiling early in the first half.
Before play began in the second half, Pitino and Boeheim huddled
with the referees to assess the situation, as if they were the
baseball managers in that classic Norman Rockwell painting. As
swabbies mopped up moisture intermittently throughout the rest
of the game, Syracuse wound up contributing 24 turnovers to the
slop, and Kentucky laid on a total of 45 bricks, 13 of them from
the lane, en route to the lowest shooting percentage (38.4%) for
a championship-game victor in 33 years. Twice in the second half
Syracuse drew within two points, but both times the Wildcats
fired some combination of their many weapons--an Anderson
three-pointer, a McCarty tip-in, acrobatics from rubber-legged
freshman Ron Mercer, who played his most impressive game yet--to
open up the gap anew. Mostly, however, it was guard Tony Delk's
seven three-pointers that overcame the 29 points, 10 rebounds
and headlong hustle of Syracuse star John Wallace and won for
Delk the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player award.

Afterward Pitino told his players that as much as he would like
to continue to call them the Professionals, it didn't seem quite
right for college hoops. Instead he told them he would hereafter
call them the Untouchables. Said Kentucky assistant coach
Winston Bennett: "With all the pressure placed on these guys,
they never let any of it touch them. Coach said over and over,
'The only pressure you've got is good pressure--the type that
makes you run faster, jump higher and defend better.'"

The players felt that internal pressure so keenly that in one
case it gushed forth like a geyser. Last week Pope was watching
a segment on Geraldo about runaway kids and suddenly found
himself sobbing uncontrollably. After the final, a spent Pope
just shook his head recalling how he had lost it. "Ridiculous,"
he said. "It was Geraldo!"

From that summer trip to Italy, where this splendidly deep and
talented team first started to come to terms with its depth and
talent, reserve guard Jeff Sheppard most vividly recalls one
episode. He and his teammates had gathered on Aug. 19, the night
Mike Tyson made his comeback against Peter McNeely, and together
they had played cards and gabbed until the bout came on Italian
TV at six in the morning. "We stayed up all night," Sheppard
recalls, "for a fight that lasted 89 seconds."

That's a parable for a powerful Kentucky team that won the
championship by a TKO. And a reminder of a certain freshly
adorned finger belonging to a man possessed--possessed of his
first NCAA title.

You can pucker up now, Your Holiness.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHOCOVER PHOTO Blue HeavenAntoine Walker and Kentucky soar to the NCAA title [Syracuse University basketball player and Antoine Walker in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO The Wildcats won the battle of the boards 40-38 against the beefier Syracuse front line. [Overhead view of University of Kentucky and Syracuse University basketball players under basket] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Todd Burgan got a hands-on demonstration of the Kentucky defense that forced 24 turnovers.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: RICHARD MACKSON (2) Rising above the crowd, even in defeat, were Wallace (44), who had a game-high 29 points, and Otis Hill, who finished with 10 rebounds.[John Wallace; Otis Hill] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO McCarty led the Wildcats' 18-8 domination of the offensive boards.[Walter McCarty] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER This off-balance battle for the ball between Hill and Anderson typified the sloppiest final in years. [Otis Hill and Derek Anderson] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERNo Cat deserved a congratulatory hug from Sheppard more than Most Outstanding Player Delk. [Jeff Sheppard hugging Tony Delk]

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