NEW ORLEANS — Fifty million viewers. Five hundred reporters. One tragic story. No way you win with odds like that. They’ll come after Rick Pitino like flies to food.

Pitino is a sort of hero this week, a handsome, 34-year-old coach in his first visit to college basketball’s Final Four. But he didn’t bargain for the attention. Not this kind. Until the state troopers stopped his team bus on a highway a few weeks ago, everything had been great, super, his Providence Friars had just finished the Big East tournament and were about to be invited to the NCAA tournament and were headed home to a party.

Then the bus halted and the doors opened and Pitino and his wife, Joanne, learned the horrible news: their infant son, Daniel, who had been sickly since birth, had died earlier that day. And it was fitting that their ride to the hospital was in a speeding patrol car, lights flashing, because there has been little time for quiet grief since.

Nearly three weeks have passed. The thump of the basketball has grown louder with each Providence victory, and so has the bubble in which it echoes. Now the Friars are center stage in the Final Four, and the whole country wants to know Pitino’s sad story.

We call it human interest, human drama, a dimension that thickens the man we see on TV, gives him flesh, feelings, makes us care. No story like a heartbreaking story. So we ask how Pitino is coping, and how his wife — who sits quietly in the stands and waves after each win — is holding up. What do the players think? What is the mood? This we want to know. So much kindness

And yet your throat tightens when you ask. For there are two losses at work here. The loss of a child, and the loss of the privilege to mourn in private. Thousands of well-wishers have sent cards and letters to the Pitinos,

and that is kind. Yet anyone who ever has gone through something like this knows reminders are always bittersweet, however well-intentioned.

“They’re all so touching,” Pitino told a reporter Wednesday, “but you cry 2,000 times with every letter.

“It’s been very hard. It’s been especially tough for my wife. For 5 1/2 months she drove back and forth to Boston trying to nurse the baby back to health . . . It’s just really, really sad . . .

“When this is all over, it’s something I will have to live with. . . . It’s a cross we’ll have to bear. But it has nothing to do with the present time.”

And while that last statement is more brave than true, the Providence circle is out to stick by it. Athletic director Lou Lamoriello, who reportedly broke the news in the patrol car that awful day, doesn’t even want to acknowledge the memory now. “Let’s just leave it alone,” he said Thursday.
“We’ve agreed none of us will comment.

“It’s a private thing. No matter how much attention it gets, the grief still belongs to the family. It’s always with the family. If you have children, you understand this. . . .

“You answer one question, it leads to another. If you give one detail you are asked for another one. I know this is a human interest story now. But if it wasn’t for basketball, it wouldn’t be a human interest story. It would just be a tragedy.”

And he is correct. Courage at its finest

It is a modern invention, this national sports media business, full-time cable TV, headlines coast to coast. Fifty years ago, coaches didn’t worry about the whole country knowing their private sorrows. But that was then.

So Providence kept its practice a secret Thursday, and Pitino was unavailable to almost all of the press. Yet when he walked through the Marriott hotel there were the inevitable stares, the occasional words, mixed with admiration and sympathy, and wherever he goes it is the same now.

No story like a heartbreaking story. A coach can work his whole life to reach something like the Final Four. And yet, Pitino’s little band could win this crazy tournament and he’d be weeping afterwards and you would never know what for, sadness or joy?

There is a picture in the Providence media guide of the Pitinos and their other children — three boys, ages 7, 6, and 3. But the paragraph above the picture, written months ago, reads: “Rick and his wife and their four children live in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. . . . ” How sad. How real. The world doesn’t stop for baskets or printing deadlines. No matter how big.

“What does all this mean now?” someone asked Joanne Pitino last Saturday, after Providence’s victory over Georgetown put the school into the Final Four for only the second time ever.

“It’s a distraction,” she said blankly.

Yes. A distraction. On a nationwide stage. Sometime on Saturday the TV announcers will mention this week’s heartbreaking story, and they will speak in quiet tones, and the cameras will focus in on Rick Pitino as we shake our heads and marvel at the courage it takes to endure in front of 50 million viewers.

We have no idea.

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