SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Rick Pitino remembers the training meals at the pizza place where his Boston University teams ate more than 30 years ago.
Even Hall of Famers have to start somewhere.
That obscure beginning provided a foundation for a coaching career that took him to two NBA teams and three other colleges, all reaching the Final Four and two winning NCAA championships.
“Coaches don’t get in the Hall of Fame,” Pitino said Sunday at his induction. “Players put them in the Hall of Fame, and I’ve had a great journey along the way.”
It started for him as a head coach in 1978 just 90 miles east of Springfield Symphony Hall, where the ceremony was held for him and 11 other honorees.
He had to “learn the trade from the bottom” at Boston University, Pitino said. There were those “training meals,” he said, and the time when champagne was served at Midnight Madness.
“Nine drunks showed up,” he said, “and no one else.”
He spent five years with the Terriers, then two as an assistant with the New York Knicks before spending the next two as head coach at Providence, leading the Friars to a surprising berth in the Final Four. He kept moving — two years as head coach with the Knicks, eight with Kentucky, four with the Boston Celtics and the past 12 with Louisville.
Just five months ago, he led the Cardinals to the championship.
“At BU, you learn how to build the right way. At Providence, I learned how to dream. I always thought anything is possible after coaching that team,” Pitino said during his 20-minute speech, the last of the day. “At Kentucky, I learned all about pressure every single day. It was unbelievable pressure, and it was very difficult, and that pressure brought out the best in everybody.”
Two former college coaches were inducted as part of the second straight 12-member class, the largest in the Hall’s history — Jerry Tarkanian, 83, who led UNLV to the 1990 NCAA championship, and Guy Lewis, 91, who took Houston to five Final Fours. Tarkanian, who had heart surgery less than two months ago, came on stage with a walker. Lewis was in a wheelchair. Both smiled as they received standing ovations.
Also inducted Sunday into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame were Gary Payton, the only NBA player with 20,000 points, 8,000 assists, 5,000 rebounds and 2,000 steals; Bernard King, who averaged 22.5 points in 15 NBA seasons with five teams; North Carolina women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell; five-time WNBA All-Star Dawn Staley; former Knicks guard Richie Guerin; former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik; and Oscar Schmidt, who played in five Olympics for Brazil.
E.B. Henderson, who learned basketball at Harvard in 1904 then introduced it to African-American students in Washington, D.C., and four-time ABA All-Star Roger Brown of the Indiana Pacers were enshrined posthumously.
Henderson “laid the foundation” for the progress of African-Americans “from exclusion to domination” of basketball, Nikki Graves Henderson, wife of Henderson’s grandson, said in a recorded message.
Payton was known for his defensive prowess, aggressiveness and trash-talking.
“I played hard because I wanted to win every time,” he said of his 17-year career, nearly 13 of those years with the Seattle SuperSonics. “It was all for my crazy love for the game.”
For King, playing basketball as a kid involved sometimes clearing snow from a playground court in Brooklyn.
“I fell in love with basketball the first time I made a basket,” he said.
Ten days before his 61st birthday, Pitino stood on stage with Hubie Brown, head coach of the Knicks when he was an assistant, and Dick Vitale, the pair he chose to present him for induction.
Pitino never came close in the pros to the success he had in college. He had losing records in five of his six NBA seasons.
After a loss to Toronto on March 1, 2000, an agitated Pitino urged people to focus on the future, saying, “Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they’re going to be gray and old.”
On Sunday, while Pitino posed for photos before the ceremony, a blonde-haired Bird showed up.
“He finally walks through the door, and I said, ‘What took you so long to walk through that door?’ And he said to me, `You don’t want me now,'” Pitino said, grinning.
Bird had his turn on stage as the presenter of Schmidt, a prolific scorer who said he chose not to play in the NBA because that would have barred him from playing for his national team.
“It’s too easy to have Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant as an idol, a guy [who] flies around and does whatever he wants. It’s easy,” Schmidt said. “My guy doesn’t run, doesn’t jump and played the best of everybody else.”
Bird was enshrined in 1998.
On Sunday, he was joined by 12 others.
“There is nothing better than this,” Schmidt said.
Photo via Twitter/@NBA