Coach Rick Pitino dodges media in return to his former home court of Rupp Arena

Sunday, December 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) _ Former Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino was showered with boos and a litany of hostile messages as he entered Rupp Arena on Saturday for the first time as coach of bitter archrival Louisville.

He took the jeering in good humor, despite Kentucky's 82-62 victory over the Cardinals.

``I didn't pay any attention to it,'' Pitino said. ``I get cheered in Freedom Hall, and that's all I can ask. I start getting booed in Freedom Hall, then I'm in trouble.''

The turncoat had made a surprise entrance through the home team tunnel before tipoff.

``He's a chicken!'' one fan screamed from above the visitors' entrance.

More than a dozen cameramen scrambled to get a shot of Pitino _ who led the Wildcats to the 1996 national championship _ shaking hands with Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, his former assistant and close friend, at midcourt.

Pitino coached Kentucky from 1989-97, taking over a program ruined by scandal and leading it back to national prominence. He left after the 1996-97 season to run the Boston Celtics; Smith took over at Kentucky and immediately led it to a national title.

Pitino resigned from the NBA team in January after 3 1/2 unsuccessful seasons. Two months later, he accepted the Louisville job, vacated by Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum.

``Their coach is still a Crum!'' read one sign in the arena's pulsating sea of Kentucky blue.

``He's a traitor,'' said Linda Horton, 55, of Salvisa. ``For him to choose Louisville, it means he couldn't care less about what he accomplished at Kentucky. I would've respected him choosing any other school, even Tennessee. But not Louisville.''

Pitino said he ignored the many handmade signs sprinkled among the capacity crowd of 24,330, including one his son spotted. The sign was aimed at Pitino's wife, Joanne, who had a reputation for not liking Lexington.

``He said, and he was laughing hysterically, 'I wish Mom was here, because there was a sign out there that said, 'We didn't like you either, Joanne,''' Pitino said. ``That's the way you have to take it all, as a good-natured jest.

Larry Pelfrey, 40, of Berea, was wearing a white T-shirt with ``Betrayal is a Choice'' emblazoned in blue letters on the front, a parody of ``Success is a Choice,'' one of the motivational books Pitino has written.

``This proves he never really understood what Kentucky basketball was. For him to go to our biggest rival, it's the ultimate insult,'' he said. ``What he did was very selfish. My opinion of him is he'd date his best friend's wife if he thought it would be better for him.''