Rick Pitino, adversity and the America’s Cup

Putting together this piece Tuesday night, I was thinking about something IBEX keynote speaker Rick Pitino said last week prior to the opening of the marine technology conference. I was also thinking of this remarkably improbable America’s Cup, which saw Oracle Team USA come streaking back with two wins Tuesday to tie the series with Emirates Team New Zealand after being down 8-1.

Seven consecutive victories. Improbable and impressive. The next race is winner take all.

The live streaming video on Tuesday was as exciting as racing gets, the AC72 cats up on their foils and hitting speeds as high as 40 knots as they flew over choppy San Francisco Bay. Weather permitting, there will be a Cup winner this afternoon, and if Oracle wins, the pundits will trumpet it as perhaps the greatest comeback in sports. (I happen to think the Red Sox’s historic clawback in 2004 after being down 3-0 in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees and trailing 4-3 in the ninth inning of the fourth game remains the gold standard).

What does any of this have to do with the outspoken head basketball coach at the University of Louisville? Pitino’s talk focused on his new book, “The One-Day Contract,” in which he outlines advice and strategies for success and happiness on and off the court.

Some of the things he said made me think of the Cup sailors, especially the Oracle syndicate, which has shown admirable grit, grace and skill under circumstances in which others would have mentally checked out, mailed in the last race and headed for the barn. The Oracle team had a lot of fight, and they embraced their underdog longshot status.

Pitino talked about the virtue of embracing “pressure,” of thriving in pressure-filled situations, be it taking the last shot in a basketball game or, in Oracle Team USA’s case, facing elimination seven times. A headline in the New York Times last week read, “America’s Cup Seems All Over but the Sailing.” It seemed a safe bet at the time.

But Oracle skipper James Spithill stood on his catamaran after losing his eighth race, facing elimination the next time out, and said, “It’s not over. It’s a long way from over.”

Pitino, whose passions include thoroughbred racehorses, surely would have smiled at the chutzpah.

“Pressure is great,” the coach told the IBEX audience. “In your job, you want passion and pressure. They’re your best friends.” Not stress, he emphasized, but good old-fashioned pressure, the stuff that gets you up in the morning and makes you work hard.

Adversity, Pitino said, “should make you stronger and more creative.” Excuses, he added, are a sign of weakness. “You have a choice,” Pitino told the audience. “You can be ordinary or extraordinary.”

Don’t live in the past or the future, Pitino said. Rather, “Live in today … in the present tense. It’s an attitude.”

One race at a time.

He spoke of maintaining a “razor-sharp focus” and of the value of having strong people around you. Get rid of naysayers and overly moody sorts who drag teams and organizations down, he advised. “You need to surround yourself with people who are smarter, more energetic and more passionate than you are.”

And he warned against complacency. “If it’s not broken,” Pitino said, “break it and make it better.” Did Emirates Team New Zealand get overly complacent? Did the Kiwis ease off a tad, play it safe? Peak too soon? Hard to say. They may in several hours regain both their balance and the Cup.

And give Oracle credit. The teamwork certainly improved as the finals went on. The team also found more boat speed and made a significant crew change when it swapped out tacticians. Oracle looks awfully dialed in with one race to go.

No matter how today’s contest ends, both teams deserve a tip of the hat, but Oracle gets a special nod for hanging in there and making a good show of it, for reminding us why we root for underdogs.


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