If Kentucky basketball were a psychiatric patient, the diagnosis
would be simple: chronic status anxiety. Even as the Wildcats
have taken their accustomed place near the top of the polls,
some calamity or crisis has always been nigh. Sports talk radio
in Big Blue Nation would leave you convinced that the couch of
the typical Kentucky couch potato is a therapist's: How come
swingman Keith Bogans is in such a horrible slump? Who's going
to pick up for forward Marvin Stone, now that he has been kicked
off the team, or for sometime starter J.P. Blevins until he gets
back from a fractured wrist? Most urgently (better activate the
10-second delay here, Mr. Engineer): When do we tear down that
banner in the rafters of Rupp Arena, the one that bears traitor
Rick Pitino's name--before or after he leads @#$%&! Louisville
to an NCAA championship?
Pitino took the Wildcats from the depths of NCAA probation to
three Final Four appearances, including a national title, during
eight years in Lexington but then bolted to the Boston Celtics
in 1997. Last January, after 3 1/2 seasons of losing, he quit
and signed to coach Louisville, Kentucky's archrival. Before
doing so, he called Wildcats fans who might object "small-minded."
So when Pitino brought the Cardinals to Rupp on Dec. 29, the
stands were filled with placards in response: BETTER
SMALL-MINDED AND TRUE BLUE/THAN A TWO-FACED CAT-BIRD LIKE YOU
read one. RICK'S NEXT BOOK: TREACHERY IS A CHOICE read another.
(The latter was a reference to Pitino's 1997 tome Success Is a
Choice, success being an option the author apparently declined
to choose with the Celtics.) Other signs included cardinal:
STATE BIRD/PITINO: STATE TURD; THEIR COACH IS STILL A CRUM; and
BENEDICT ARNOLD/JUDAS ISCARIOT/RICK PITINO/JOHN WALKER LINDH.
Yet amid this venting over all things Rick, a strange thing
As fans realized that Louisville's promise pales next to
Kentucky's present, the cheers for the current coach, Tubby
Smith, seemed to double, even treble, in volume. The Wildcats'
home-opener stumble against Western Kentucky is long forgotten,
obscured by their having played No. 1 Duke to a virtual standoff
on Dec. 18 before losing by three, and having easily beaten
Indiana on Dec. 22 en route to a 9-2 record as of last
Wednesday. Months ago, playing possum, Pitino had announced that
the Cardinals would unveil black uniforms in Rupp Arena, so
"when [Kentucky] beats us by 90, it will help the mourning
period." Louisville fell by only 20, but the 82-62 defeat sent
the 8-2 Cardinals back onto Interstate 64 knowing it will be
awhile before anyone calls Kentucky the Redgrass State.
Although Smith led the Wildcats to an NCAA title in his first
season, and though he has won 77% of his games since coming to
Lexington and delivered SEC titles in all but one of his four
years with Kentucky, attendance has fallen slightly since the
Pitino era. Now fans may say they never liked Pitino, but their
complaints about Smith--the Wildcats (take your pick) "aren't in
shape" or "don't play hard enough" or "aren't scoring enough,"
or "can't defend the three"--betray an in-spite-of-themselves
nostalgia for the New Yorker Pitino, who may have been a
mercenary but had a mercenary's ruthlessness that they liked.
Smith couldn't possibly defend himself against all the charges
and still find time to run his team, but he does point out that
Kentucky led the SEC in scoring during conference games a year
ago, with 79.2 points per game. "So much is made of what we're
not," he says. "I don't want to know what you're against. I want
to know what you're for."
The fans' griping has led Smith to flirt twice with other jobs.
When the Washington Wizards came calling in the summer of 2000,
Tubby turned them down, perhaps because his wife, Donna,
wouldn't let him abandon their son Saul, who was a point guard
for the Wildcats, before his senior season, as Tubby had done
when he left Saul's brother G.G., a guard at Georgia in 1997, to
go to Kentucky. Then, last May a contract adjustment--he now
makes a guaranteed $1.5 million a year, about $200,000 more than
Pitino does in Louisville--helped keep Smith from bolting for
South Carolina. "It usually takes four or five years to be
accepted anywhere," says Smith, "and that's if there are no
other issues to cut into your grace period."
Part of the reason for that truncated honeymoon was Saul. The
Smith family had to listen to fans pillory father and son for
every mistake Saul made. "People didn't want to accept that
recruiting hadn't gone well [in Smith's first couple of seasons
in Lexington], and Saul didn't have a chance to play with
veteran players," Tubby says. "Last year he had to play with
seven freshmen. The guys I brought in two years ago"--Bogans and
frontcourtmen Jules Camara and Marquis Estill--"are now making a
difference." So is freshman Rashaad Carruth, a coiled,
tattoo-festooned shooting guard whose shot is so low-slung and
torqued with backspin that it reaches the rim in a trice. As for
senior forward Tayshaun Prince, who's as laconic as Carruth is
frenetic, he remains the Wildcats' finest player and a cinch to
win his second straight SEC player of the year award.
On the morning of the game against Louisville, the Lexington
Herald-Leader reported that Mark Barnett, a longtime Kentucky
fan who's a professor of civil engineering at Auburn, had sent
Pitino a letter in November with an epistolary boo to stand in
for the catcall Barnett wouldn't be able to offer in person.
Pitino sent Barnett's note back with a scrawled response that
read in part, "For a PhD, your [sic] awfully stupid!" The point
isn't so much that Pitino could use work in remedial English;
it's that Smith would have let the letter go.
The difference between the two is the difference between a New
York minute and a day under the sun on Maryland's Eastern Shore,
where Smith grew up on a farm as one of 17 kids. After losing
their home opener last season--indeed, after starting 3-5--the
Wildcats won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. This
season Smith is charting much the same tortoise's course, just
as his teams at Georgia and Tulsa always seemed to do.
"Longevity is the key to success," he says. "My dad worked
40-some years and never missed a day. In 12 years of school I
had perfect attendance. Most successful teams get that way
because they go to practice and practice hard."
Smith's teams approach individual games with similar patience.
Whereas Pitino extended his defense into every cranny of the
court, Smith preaches "ball-line" principles, founded on
covering your defensive rear. Whereas Pitino believes you can't
launch too many three-pointers, Smith would just as soon see a
jump hook in the low post from Prince, a dance into the lane by
rapidly maturing point guard Cliff Hawkins or a gathering at the
offensive glass of Bogans, Camara, Estill and guard Gerald
Fitch, who through last Wednesday had helped Kentucky rack up a
rebounding margin of +12.1 per game, a stat that is often a
bellwether for who will wind up in the Final Four.
"Rebounding from the two and three positions, that's Kentucky's
forte," said Pitino on Dec. 28. "This is the second-best
Kentucky team in modern times in terms of talent. It won't have
as many draft choices [as the seven on Pitino's 1996 national
champ], but that doesn't mean it can't be as good a team if the
players keep improving."
The richest talent, Prince, is a jumble of appendages who, to
judge by his game, was assembled in a lab by a scientist working
with the spare parts of Larry Bird, George Gervin, Ed O'Bannon
and Jalen Rose. He insists, with a shrug of shoulders too broad
for the spindles that pass for his arms, that he's a better
shooter the farther he stands from the basket. "The farther out
I am, the better my mechanics," he explains. "I'm sure to put
enough arc on the ball. My high school coach used to get me to
concentrate on stepping at least two or three feet behind the
three-point line." In a 79-59 defeat of North Carolina he
bottomed out threes on each of Kentucky's first five
possessions, the last from a mechanically impeccable 30 feet.
It's inside the arc, however, where Prince best makes the case
that he should be considered, with Duke's Jason Williams, as a
candidate for national player of the year. Against the Blue
Devils he took a defensive turn on Williams that but for the
kind of help from the officials that Kentucky, not Duke, could
once count on, might have allowed the Wildcats to avoid a 95-92
overtime loss. During the 66-52 defeat of Indiana, Prince
repeatedly schooled 6'10" Hoosiers sophomore Jared Jeffries with
his jump hook. "He seems so nonchalant," says Louisville guard
Bryant Northern, "but how many guys 6'9" have his range, his
handle, his passing ability? He's not the most athletic guy, but
he and [Duke's] Mike Dunleavy are the most effective forwards in
the country creating havoc on the floor."
Prince's confounding style leaves others grasping at analogies.
"He's a lot like Antoine Walker," says Pitino, referring to the
sweet-passing forward who played for him at Kentucky and with
the Celtics. "He's so long, he can see over pressure." Smith
likens Prince to Alex English, the wraithlike forward who so
flourished in the old Denver Nuggets' motion offense that he
wound up in the Hall of Fame: "He's 6'9", very thin, a great
shooter. If he's banged one way, he'll just go another."
Prince says he has borrowed from Scottie Pippen (another forward
who can bring the ball upcourt against pressure), Magic Johnson
(for his jump hook and comfort anywhere on the floor), and Nick
Van Exel and Mark Jackson. "I like their little floaters in the
lane," he says.
"Tayshaun was slow to mature physically," says Smith, "but
mentally he's the strongest kid I've ever seen. He'll step in
and calm the waters. His basketball I.Q. is such that he just
knows, 'O.K., they need me here' or 'Let me do this.'"
Prince returns the compliment. "The fans need to appreciate
Tubby the way they appreciated Rick Pitino," he says. Indeed,
when the Rupp Arena crowd chanted "Tub-BEE! Tub-BEE!" during a
late timeout against Louisville, with the Wildcats leading by 23
points, Prince and several other players joined in the serenade.
"Going to have to go back and listen to it again," Smith said,
sounding pleased, if a bit disbelieving.
A few hours later a caller to a Lexington talk show offered this
question from the couch: "If your car broke down and you were
stranded by the side of the road, who would you rather see drive
by, Rick Pitino or Tubby Smith?" Then he answered his own
question: "Pitino's chauffeur might get out to help you. But
Rick, he'd stay in the car."
Whether Smith's personality wears better than Pitino's is
ultimately irrelevant. The Kentucky coach could be Albert
Schweitzer, and he'd be run out of town if Louisville were to
leapfrog the Wildcats. For now, though, fans of the Big Blue are
content to pile in the back of Tubby's pickup and let him
observe the speed limit, as long as they reach their intended
a New York minute and a day under the sun in Maryland.