LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It's Friday night, and Bravo Pitino's is hopping as usual. Downstairs, former New York Knicks coach Stu Jackson shares a laugh with a few gentlemen. Moments later, LSU center Shaquille O'Neal very noticeably walks through the door.
Upstairs, another former Knicks coach, the one for which the restaurant is named, sits at a table in the middle on the floor, the easier to see and be seen.
Patrons begin clapping as the violinists from the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra break out in a soothing rendition of the University of Kentucky fight song. Pitino, never missing a moment to entertain, leaps to his feet and motions for scores of other people to stand and clap. They do.
There probably isn't much that basketball fans in the Bluegrass State -- practically everybody -- would not do for Pitino. He rescued their program from ruins, reversed embarrassment to pride. And most important, he is winning big much sooner than anyone anticipated. There is a feeling throughout the state that Pitino is loved.
"Love is probably a good word," said Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton, who hired Pitino from the Knicks on June 1, 1989. "Everybody has strong feelings."
Few thought it was possible for anyone to right a program that had gone wrong so quickly. Eddie Sutton's last Kentucky team, in 1988-89, finished with the school's first losing record in Southeastern Conference play and its first overall losing record since 1926-27. The depleted roster Pitino inherited was picked to finish near or at the bottom of the SEC.
"I told Rick that if he won 10 games, he should be national coach of the year," said Cawood Ledford, in his 38th year broadcasting Wildcats games.
The same fans who once expected nothing less than a conference championship were thrilled when Pitino's first Kentucky team went 14-14, including 10-8 in the SEC and undefeated at 23,000-seat Rupp Arena.
If any doubts remained hidden in the Bluegrass about Pitino, 38, they were quickly dispelled.
"I'm the type of guy who likes to make cloudy days into sunny ones," he said.
Kentucky fans are smiling even more this season. The Wildcats are 11-2 overall, 3-0 in the SEC and rank ninth in the nation.
"I told Rick the first year, 'If you can just get the fun back into Kentucky basketball and let everybody understand the program's going to be run right. . . . ,' " Newton said. "He accomplished a whole lot more than that.
"We've still got a long way to go to get back to where we want to be, but it's happening sooner than I thought it would."
For a guy who grew up 10 blocks from Madison Square Garden and wears Armani suits, coaching the Knicks would seem to be the ideal job. That's what Pitino had in 1987, returning to the team he had once served as an assistant under Hubie Brown. Pitino inherited a 24-game winner and produced a division champion two seasons later.
But Pitino said his coaching style of running and pressure defense conflicted with general manager Al Bianchi's philosophy. Pitino was ready to make a move.
"I did not feel wanted," he said. "It wasn't Kentucky so much as I had to get out of New York."
So Pitino returned to the college ranks, in which he had made his name. By age 25, he was head coach at Boston University, where people said he could not win because it was a hockey school. Four years later, Pitino coached the Terriers to their first NCAA Tournament berth in 24 years.
After two years under Brown with the Knicks, Pitino was named coach at Providence in the prestigious Big East Conference. Two years later, the Friars turned heads by knocking off Georgetown and making the Final Four. Then, it was back to the Knicks as head coach. At each stop, the common denominator was success.
"There are people who coach with great talent and don't get it done," said Bob Brown, Boston University's coach and a former Pitino assistant. "And there are people who coach with good talent and get it done.
"And there are people whose teams always play better than their talent. That's what Rick's teams have done from Day One."
Kentuckians often consider spring the best time of the year. The university's basketball team is usually trying to win a national championship. The first weekend in May brings the Kentucky Derby to Churchill Downs in Louisville.
The spring of 1989 wasn't so pleasant a time. In March, Sutton went on television to announce his resignation, ending his fight to clear his name amid allegations of NCAA wrongdoing.
The NCAA suspense ended May 19, when Kentucky learned of sanctions that included a three-year probation, a two-year ban from the NCAA Tournament and a one-year ban from live television. Two of the Wildcats' best players, sophomore guard Eric Manuel and freshman forward Chris Mills, were forced off the team for breaking NCAA rules.
Between Sutton's departure and the NCAA announcement, Newton made a wish list of replacements. Seton Hall's P.J. Carlesimo rebuffed an early offer because of the NCAA uncertainty. Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley, a Kentucky star in the mid-1960s, wasn't interested at all. Arizona's Lute Olson expressed interest but stayed put. Mike Krzyzewski pledged his allegiance to Duke.
Newton had settled on Pitino and contacted him, but the two agreed to postpone further discussion until after the Knicks' season.
"I felt like if we didn't get the right basketball coach, we could go the way UCLA did after John Wooden left," Newton said. "This program at this time needed somebody who could come in and people could say: 'Yes, that makes sense. He's the right man for the job.' Then you have all your constituents who have been feeling kind of bad and down pulled together, and that's what happened when he took the job."
Because the Kentucky job is Pitino's fourth in eight years, a New York columnist dubbed him "Larry Brown on training wheels." But Pitino, who earns a reported $1 million per year, insists that he will fulfill his seven-year contract with Kentucky. That, he said, is one reason he opened Bravo Pitino's and brought two of his closest friends, Jody DiRiamo and Dave Dibble, from New York to run the restaurant. It's in the trendy Victorian Square in downtown Lexington.
"I'm not going to allow them to leave their families and friends to come down here and then pick up and go," Pitino said.
By leaving so many jobs, he said, he learned the value of commitment. When he left Providence, he thought fans would be proud of him and wish him well. Most did not.
"They felt like a jilted lover, like how could I leave them?" he said. "They didn't look at the Final Four and great memories. Now looking at that, you realize how many people you do affect when you leave. That's why it is so important for me to fulfill this &L; contract."
Dale Brown of LSU says the Kentucky job is the toughest in the nation because of the fans' enthusiasm and interest. Texas assistant Jamie Ciampaglio, a Pitino aide at Boston University, says Pitino can handle the pressure.
"He knows what to give to the alumni and the media and what not to give them," Ciampaglio said. "He plays them like an instrument. He knows how to give them motivation, but he knows they can't be too close to the basketball floor."
Pitino minced no words in establishing his turf at a school that features some of the nation's most active boosters.
"Come to the games and cheer as loud as you can," he told Kentucky fans in general days after getting the job, "but stay away from our practices. Stay away from my players."
The NCAA gave the rest of the players Pitino inherited the option of transferring without sitting out a year; the best of the lot, 6-10 sophomore LeRon Ellis, left for Syracuse. What remained was a team with no player taller than 6-7, one senior and little chance of maintaining Kentucky's winning tradition.
But Pitino worried little about tradition. He immediately installed his own system, marked by a combination of pressure defense, fast-paced offense and an appetite for the three-point shot. He coaches basketball the way he would have liked to play it. But back in the early 1970s, at Massachusetts, the pace was slow and deliberate.
Kentucky fans loved the change. Pitino is only the fourth Kentucky coach since 1929 and is nothing like his predecessors. Adolph Rupp had a racehorse style but did not press. Joe B. Hall relied on the power games with players like Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin. Sutton had a slowdown approach.
"It was difficult at the beginning for a lot of players, because they had never played that style," forward Deron Feldhaus said. "But we got used to it."
A promising start degenerated into a 5-7 record by early January. But the Wildcats won eight of their next 11 games, capped by a 100-95 victory over LSU and Chris Jackson before a Rupp Arena-record 24,301 fans. The Wildcats had regained respectability.
"The guys who were left . . . weren't as bad as people thought," Pitino said.
Three-point shots paved Kentucky's path. After making 358 of 980 three-pointers in three seasons under Sutton, the Wildcats went 281-of-810 in their first year with Pitino. They set seven NCAA records for three-point shooting.
The long shot is a focal point again, and they are 117-of-322 through 13 games. Kentucky's only appearance among the leaders in NCAA team or individual statistics is three-pointers made per game (seventh at 9.3 per game). No LeRon Ellises remain; the closest thing Pitino has to a star is freshman Jamal Mashburn, the team's big man at 6-8.
Kentucky's only losses this year are by three points each at North Carolina and Indiana, two of the nation's toughest road sites. The Wildcats' four-game winning streak includes victories over their biggest rivals, Louisville (93-85) and LSU (93-80).
"I still think we're not as good as people think," Pitino said.
Said LSU's Brown, one of Kentucky's main tormentors: "I don't think you can judge a true Kentucky program until they come off probation and all that pressure their fans put on them is back. Part of their relaxation is due to the fact that nothing is on the line."
Kentucky is ineligible to play in the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats have their sights set on winning the SEC. That's an astonishing goal considering where the program stood less than two years ago.
"I didn't expect this team to develop into a Top 20 team," Pitino said. "Now that we have, we don't want to lose it."