NEW YORK – When Richard Pitino stepped off the chartered flight Sunday, it was almost like coming home.
The Gophers men’s basketball team landed at LaGuardia Airport — 1,200 miles from the coach’s current home, a five-hour drive from his high school and a world away from Lexington, Ky., where he spent his childhood.
But woven throughout his 31 years has been New York: for Pitino, a quilt of sparkling memories, tinged by tragedy.
Tuesday, Pitino will experience another New York moment when he leads his top-seeded Gophers onto Madison Square Garden’s floor for an NIT semifinal game against Florida State.
“This is exciting for me personally,” Pitino said Monday at a news conference in the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. “It means a lot, certainly, to be back here.”
Pitino’s chronicle within Gotham began before he can remember. When he was 4, his father — current Louisville coach Rick Pitino — was hired as the coach of the New York Knicks. The younger Pitino would toddle through the Madison Square Garden locker rooms and push basketballs around the floor.
When the elder Pitino later coached at Kentucky, the family would vacation at their summer home in Bedford, an affluent town in Westchester County, just north of Manhattan. Only 5 miles away, in Mount Kisco, was the home of Richard’s beloved uncle, Bill Minardi, the brother of his mother, Joanne, and best friend of his father. There, the Pitinos would pass the humid summers.
Rick and Billy would golf at Winged Foot. The kids would splash around at the swimming pool and attend camps. Three or four times a year, the family would trek to the Bronx for games at Yankee Stadium. When Rick was away recruiting, Minardi would stand in, taking the kids to games and to the beach. As a kid, Pitino remembers marveling at the way his uncle could “captivate a room.” He aspired to be the same way.
“He was like a second father to me,” he said. “That was definitely like the home away from home.”
In 2001, after another restless summer in the Empire State, Pitino was getting settled into his freshman year at Providence. On the morning of Sept. 11, he was in his dorm room when reports of a plane crashing into a downtown Manhattan building began to surface.
Richard Pitino watched in shock as the second plane hit, and the World Trade Center towers began to crumble. When he couldn’t get through to his brother Mike, who was living in the city at the time, he called his dad.
“Is Mike all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Rick Pitino replied. “But Uncle Bill.”
In the chaos of the morning, Richard had failed to put it together: the office of his uncle, who worked as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald, was housed in one of those fiery pillars.
After a day of pacing, Pitino hopped in his car and drove south, to the place that had long acted as a blissful retreat: Uncle Bill’s home in Mount Kisco. There the two families convened, about 20 members driving from Long Island, where Pitino’s mother was from.
Piled inside walls that held decades of lazy summer memories, with the backdrop of the constant coverage on television, they waited.
“We didn’t know if he was alive,” Pitino said. “We had to wait. You know how it took forever, they were trying to find bodies. … Names would pop up. Every day you lost a little bit more hope.”
No one at the house could even manage distractions to pass the time. Instead, they simply sat — in chairs and on couches and on the floor. Sometimes the cushions would be damp from tears.
Almost a week later, names stopped coming in.
“The whole country started mourning,” Pitino said. “Thereafter we certainly all did.”
Thirteen years later, it’s still hard for Pitino to talk about his loss.
But since then, the city has doled out happier moments. Twice while working as an assistant under his dad at Louisville, the Cardinals won the Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden. Pitino remembers fans, even then, approaching his father on the street to thank him for his time with the Knicks.
Now, his staff full of East Coasters has a reason to celebrate a return. Assistant Dan McHale has coached at Iona in New Rochelle and at Manhattan College in New York, and at Seton Hall, just across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Assistant Kimani Young is originally from Queens.
The latter has been gunning for this trip for some time.
“He’s always been preaching, ‘You guys have got to take me back to New York, take me back to New York!” senior guard Maverick Ahanmisi said. “So I’m happy we can do that for them, they’ve done a lot for us.”
Pitino wants to make the visit last as long as possible. A victory Tuesday would send the Gophers into the NIT championship game on Thursday.
“I remember just the feeling of winning in the Garden,” Pitino said. “And that experience of just walking out of the Garden and you’re right in the heart of it all. There are a lot of options to celebrate.”