Pitino, Donovan return for 'Friars' reunion


Rick Pitino was the young and demanding coach. Billy Donovan was his star player, a guard with a sure touch nicknamed "Billy the Kid."

Well before either man won an NCAA title or marquee status in the sport, there was Providence &

the 1987 team that flew past opponents with a flurry of 3-point shots during an improbable run to the Final Four.

It was, Pitino recalls, a "magical" season.

"This was a team that wasn't blessed with great talent," Pitino told The Associated Press by phone. "It was blessed with a lot of players who really understood their roles and played their roles perfectly."

Pitino and Donovan are among the coaches and players from that season planning a return to Providence for a 20th reunion of the Final Four team. A celebration is set for Saturday night at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

"We all kind of know what's going on with each other, and there's connections made constantly by all of us," Donovan said. "I think that's unique, that 20 years has passed by."

The 1987 Friars were one of only two Providence teams to reach the Final Four. But the team is remembered today as much for the coaching careers it helped launch as for the success on the court.

Pitino has since made four other Final Four appearances &

three with Kentucky, highlighted by the 1996 NCAA championship, and one at Louisville. Donovan, who worked on Wall Street before turning to coaching, has guided the Florida Gators to the past two NCAA titles.

Pitino arrived at Providence before the 1985-1986 season after serving as head coach at Boston University and as an assistant with the New York Knicks. He inherited a Providence team that had finished last or next to last in the Big East Conference the previous six seasons.

The players were out of shape and the team was something of a "laughingstock," Pitino recalled. Even Donovan, who would become the team's leading scorer, was chubby as an underclassman and looking to transfer.

"Looking back on it now, I realize I was probably part of the problem," Donovan said.

Pitino put the team to work with practices that players and coaches still remember as long and grueling. The up-tempo style he wanted required players in top shape.

"The common goal was to be the hardest-working team in America," said Carlton Screen, a freshman guard that season. "Absolutely, hands down."

Pitino remembers nighttime two-on-two scrimmages. Donovan joked that the coaches' cars were parked outside the gym at all hours. Herb Sendek, then an assistant and now the Arizona State coach, said the days began early and ended late &

and the weeks were eight days apiece.

"None of us dreaded going to practice, though we knew we'd barely be able to move after practice was over," said Delray Brooks, a guard who transferred from Indiana.

The NCAA adopted the 3-point shot in 1986-87, and the Friars made the most of it. The team averaged more than eight 3-pointers a game and sank 280 out of 665 that season &

still school records.

A 3-pointer ended one especially memorable game, when Ernie "Pop" Lewis drained one with two seconds left to lift the Friars over conference rival Georgetown.

"We really didn't feed into the fact that it was a special season," Screen said. "That's what made our team special &

because we took it one day at a time."

Providence entered the tournament that March on a bittersweet note. Pitino's 6-month-son, Daniel, who suffered from congenital heart problems, had just died. Pitino contemplated leaving the team, but his wife discouraged it.

"They all pulled together and helped us get through it," Pitino said.

In the tournament, the Friars dispatched four straight opponents, including Georgetown, to reach the Final Four in New Orleans. The 88-73 win over Georgetown was especially satisfying since the Friars lost twice to the Hoyas during the year. The great run ended with a 77-63 loss to Syracuse.

Pitino left Providence for the NBA at the end of the season, becoming coach of the Knicks. The Friars finished with a losing record the following season and have not returned to the Final Four.

Pitino said he's had wonderful experiences in his more than 20 years of coaching. But those two years at Providence "probably stick out as the two most magical years."

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