ALBANY — Rick Pitino has never wanted to be anywhere else but on a basketball court, whether it is putting his 13th-seeded Iona Gaels through the paces at MVP Arena on a Thursday at noon before a Friday West Region March Madness showdown with UConn, or on any court anywhere against anyone with a basketball team he gets to teach how to win and learns to love.
“Somebody said, ‘How would you want to die?’ ” Pitino told The Post.
“I said, ‘Calling a timeout on the court.’ ”
Pitino laughed. It is a thought he has shared with this Iona team, his third in New Rochelle, and it has come as no surprise to his former Knicks ballboy and Louisville assistant and current Gaels director of basketball operations, Steve Masiello.
“That’s how he wants to go,” Masiello said as he headed off the court. “This is his life, and he’s given so much to this game, and this game has given so much to him. People understand how much he eats, sleeps and breathes this. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not by accident.”
“He said it. And he means it.”
Gaels guard Berrick JeanLouis can vouch for that.
“I feel like he lives for this,” he said. “He even says it in practice a lot. ‘I’ll die for basketball. I want to die on a basketball court.’ He talks crazy about it.”
For Pitino, there is no calling timeout on Passion, Hunger, Drive. If anyone is Forever Young, even at 70, it is Pitino. I ask him: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
“In terms of coaching, I probably have the same passion that I had as a 30-year-old,” he said. “I still coach the same way, I still work seven hours on the court, with three player development sessions in the morning, practice in the afternoon, meetings, film work … so I still have the same time schedule as I did when I was 30.
“I don’t know what age I would consider myself. When I look in the mirror, I think I’m 70. When I perform the work ethic I have, I’d say I’m about 40.”
Nothing has changed in this regard: Rick Pitino is the last coach you want to see on the opposing sidelines.
“We wouldn’t want to go into the tournament with any other coach,” Iona guard Daniss Jenkins said.
Dan Hurley has the better team that can hurt the Gaels on the offensive glass. The better team doesn’t always win.
“He has the tactics and the player development,” Hurley told The Post. “Some coaches can make players better players skill-wise, and some are just really good tactically. Not many are tactical and help people become better basketball players.”
Pitino is 54-20 at The Dance, with national championships at Kentucky and Louisville (though the latter was vacated for NCAA violations). His March Madness history stands in stark contrast to Iona’s:
The Gaels are 0-14 in the NCAA Tournament, because an 84-78 win over Holy Cross in 1980 was vacated by the NCAA due to a rules violation. Pitino’s 15th-seed Gaels lost to second-seed Alabama in 2021.
Asked what makes Pitino a Hall of Fame coach, P.J. Carlesimo told The Post: “His ability to get different types of players to play the way he wants ’em to play, which is really the essence of coaching.”
Pitino views UConn as a potential Final Four team that shouldn’t be overly stressed about him.
“I’ve coached against Dean Smith, I’ve coached against Coach K, I’ve coached against John Thompson. … and I never worried about the coach on the sideline, I worried about the players, so I don’t think anybody is concerned about me,” Pitino said. “They should be concerned about my players, not me.”
I tell Pitino he has gotten modest in his young old age.
“When you’re 70,” he said and laughed, “humility hits you right between the eyes.”
A former president thinks the UConn Huskies should be concerned about Pitino, who relayed his prediction to his team.
“I’ve always said that President Obama was one of the most intelligent presidents we’ve ever had and this lends credence to that,” Pitino said. “Obviously, he didn’t see Connecticut play. But it was exciting for my guys to hear that as well.”
Pitino has done some of his best work with a 27-7 team ravaged by injuries.
“This is the most minutes missed of any team I’ve ever coached,” Pitino said. “Through all that adversity, they only got stronger as a basketball team.”
The Gaels have won 14 straight since losing at MVP Arena to Siena.
“We took the loss for the Siena fans to make them feel good that night,” Pitino cracked, “so they should be behind us.”
They wear PHD shirts at Iona, because for Rick Pitino, there is no calling timeout on Passion, Hunger, Drive.
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