University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino grew up aware of how much Muhammad Ali meant to his home town – Louisville – but didn’t realize how much Louisville meant to the legend himself, until he moved there to work as an assistant coach for his father, Rick Pitino.
As a result, Pitino – who was in the Derby city from 2007 to 2009 and then again in 2011 and 2012 – collected a patchwork of memories about “The Greatest” and his deep involvement with the city in just a few years.
He reminisced on some of them on Saturday as the sports world grieved Ali’s passing on Friday night.
“He was a big, big part of the city,” Pitino said. “There was a Muhammad Ali center downtown that he would always take recruits to. Probably once a year he would come to a game, or a football game. He was involved. He had great pride for the city of Louisville, and that was kind of cool because I didn’t really know that until we lived there. He came to our locker room for a couple of games. He wasn’t in great health then, so he didn’t speak to the team, but he wanted to be around.”
On Friday night, Pitino posted a photo on Instagram of his daughter, Ava, with the boxer from the spring of 2012, shown at top. Pitino was the associate head coach for Louisville at the time and the Cardinals were playing Florida in Phoenix in the Elite Eight. Ali had come for the game.
“Afterward, Jill [his wife] showed me the picture,” Pitino said. “They were sitting right in front of Muhammad Ali at the game and he had asked to hold Ava. His wife said that he loves babies. He’s always like that. He’ll take pictures with anybody and he’s one of those guys that knows that people love doing that.
“Jill claimed we went on a big run while he was holding her.”
In years since, Pitino has talked to his teams about Ali. Different as the sports are, the lessons bleed through, he said. On Saturday, the Gophers coach pooled some inspiring quotes and stories about Ali and emailed them to his players.
“For coaches, there are just so many things that you can talk to your teams about-- things that would inspire anybody,” he said. “Obviously his confidence was amazing, and you always talk to your kids about being that confident. But he backed it up. And the other thing is just outside of the ring, politically, and some of the things he stood for – at the time, it was pretty remarkable. He’s a pretty amazing guy.”