Pitino could be back on bench by weekend

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville coach Rick Pitino might miss only one game after treatment for an undisclosed condition that has caused him pain for months.

Pitino, 51, said Monday he was taking an indefinite leave of absence to determine the cause of the ''urological-related'' pain in his left side.

He underwent tests at the Cleveland Clinic on Tuesday and was optimistic about returning to work in less than a week.

''I hope to be back coaching by this weekend and resuming full responsibility with our team,'' Pitino said in a statement. ''It is not a cancer-related or life-threatening matter.''

Assistant coach Kevin Willard is leading the team in Pitino's absence. The No. 4 Cardinals (15-1) have home games with Houston on Wednesday and Marquette on Saturday.

''Right now as a team, our main worry is coach Pitino,'' Willard said Tuesday night, after telling the team that Pitino might be back as soon as this weekend. ''We know he's going to come back healthy and everything is going to be fine.''

The players were energized by the good news.

''It was a big sigh of a relief,'' said junior guard Larry O'Bannon. ''We just want to go out there and take care of Houston for him.''

Luke Whitehead, Louisville's leading rebounder, said Willard told the team to make Pitino proud.

''We can't drop off, we've got to keep our energy at the same level as if Coach Pitino was there,'' he said.

Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard, Kevin's father and one of Pitino's best friends, said Pitino has been complaining about the worsening discomfort for the past month.

''I told him, 'Get it done. You have to get to the bottom of this before it becomes debilitating,''' said Ralph Willard, who talks to Pitino daily. ''That's what concerned me.''

The players said Pitino never told them he was in pain.

''There were rumors,'' O'Bannon said. ''But as far as how severe it was, we didn't know anything. Any time he had anything to do with basketball, you'd never know anything was wrong with him.''

Ralph Willard said Pitino had tests for prostate and bladder cancer earlier this month. Both turned up negative, Ralph Willard said.

The Cardinals beat Tennessee 65-62 in Knoxville on Sunday for their 15th consecutive victory. Pitino told Willard after the game he was going to take a leave and put Kevin in charge of the team.

Ralph Willard said his 28-year-old son was reluctant to embrace the sudden opportunity.

''Kevin loves Rick. He's like a second father to him, as well as being his mentor as a coach,'' Willard said. ''Rick being ill is something nobody wants. It was more a matter of holding down the fort and keeping things together and praying he'll be back.''

The younger Willard said before filling in for Pitino on a local radio show Tuesday night that he didn't see it as a positive step for himself.

''It's more of a challenge taking over for Rick Pitino,'' Kevin Willard said.

The Cardinals will also be without leading scorer Francisco Garcia (sprained ankle) and top 3-point shooter Taquan Dean (pulled groin) against the Cougars.

''Our guys will rally behind those two guys and they'll rally behind Coach,'' Willard said. ''I'm looking forward to it.''

Florida coach Billy Donovan, who played on Pitino's Final Four team at Providence in 1987 and served as an assistant under him at Kentucky, said he tried unsuccessfully to reach Pitino after Monday's announcement.

''Obviously I'm very, very concerned for coach Pitino and my thoughts are immediately with him,'' Donovan said. ''I certainly hope that he is doing well and my thoughts are most definitely with him right now.''

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, another former Pitino assistant, said Pitino's leave of absence puts basketball in perspective.

''There's nothing more important than your health and we're hoping he gets healthy and back on the sidelines so he can do what he loves to do,'' Smith said. ''He's been great for basketball.''

Smith and Pitino remain friends, in spite of the bitter rivalry between the in-state schools. They walked side-by-side through the Rupp Arena tunnel before the Louisville-Kentucky game in December. Pitino paused just before they came into the fans' view, so that Smith could walk out ahead of him.

The Cardinals won 65-56.

''You compete on the court, but I think every coach will tell you that this is a fraternity and most guys enjoy the company of their colleagues,'' Smith said. ''I know I do. Rick is no different. He's a guy that you like spending time with.''

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