The coach stood at the podium, the klieg lights warmer, if not brighter, than they had ever felt up to this point in his career. The bad news was out there and he was here to address it head on. But he — being a master at message and manipulation — was sure he could look out at this sea of media faces, small-town and skeptical, and sway them with the sheer force of his New York personality. He had been here so many times before:
“We will win, and we will win right away.”
And with that, the Rick Pitino Era at Kentucky had begun.
“You have to know who you are,” the 36-year-old Pitino said after being released from his coaching contract with the New York Knicks. “I’m a college basketball coach and I think that’s where my heart is.”
Some twenty-eight years later, the circle has closed on the Hall of Fame coach, once again at the front of the room where he always is — this time not as savior, but as spectator — however unwilling — to his own demise.
Now, the heat comes not from the kliegs, but from another round of wildfire allegations — this time involving bribery, this time the pursuer not the feckless NCAA, but the foreboding FBI. This, hard on the heels of a recruiting sex scandal that took hold of the University of Louisville basketball program just two years ago. This, on top of a personal sex scandal that had forever changed the way many would look upon the Louisville head coach.
He is far different than the cocky and charismatic tactician who showed up in Lexington in the summer of 1989. His face is drawn. Weathered. Battered by an unrelenting sea of troubles, many of his own making; social media and the photoshoppers turning him into one of Hamlet’s players, all his visage waned, distraction in his aspect, voice broken, his whole function suiting with forms to his very sorry conceit.
And all for nothing.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Up Ahead’s Another Town
The back roads of Kentucky are many and winding. From the very New York minute he landed in Lexington in 1989, he was, by so many accounts, smitten. It was the oddest of marriages — fast-talking New Yorker and bluegrass country folk. Every twist and turn of Rick Pitino’s two-lane journey over the years — from Lexington to Boston and back to Kentucky, this time Louisville — brought triumph and personal tragedy. Hawaii, Boston University, Providence — all of it was mere prologue for what would await him at the University of Kentucky, the deity of hoops religion, with Rupp Arena its Vatican; and like Vatican City, a nation unto itself.
The young Pope of Lexington, his New Yawk accent as undecipherable to Kentuckians as Latin, needed no translation when he declared Kentucky the “Roman Empire of College Basketball.” Pitino would immediately make good on his promise to win, even as Eddie Sutton’s prized recruits had abandoned the program, leaving the new head coach with only Kentucky mountain kids, boys no other program wanted; kids who — barred from television or the possibility of postseason — stayed for the privilege of wearing a uniform with KENTUCKY on the front, shame, sanctions and all. All they did that first year was stay unbeaten in Rupp in their 1990 SEC campaign — and take down Shaquille O’Neil and his LSU Tigers. The natives were officially in love.
He brought Kentucky back quickly. No sooner was Kentucky released from the shackles of probation did Pitino engage Mike Krzyzewski’s blue bloods in a basketball game for the ages. For the first time in my life the Wildcats weren’t just underdogs, they were lovable underdogs with an entire basketball-crazy country riding along shotgun in that ever-maddening March. David vs. Laettner. The game would be lost in excruciating fashion. But on that night, something intangible — and greater — felt like it had been won.
They played an uptempo NBA-type game. They were once again challenging for the recruiting elite. The memorable Sports Illustrated “Kentucky’s Shame” cover was finally archived away to the faded and dusty past. Lexington had served notice on the college basketball world. Kentucky and its Big Blue Nation were back.
I’m standing on the curb outside the New York Hyatt on 42nd Street. Kentucky is to play in the New Jersey Meadowlands in a couple of days. I’m there to meet Ken “Jersey Red” Ford, a Pitino confidant, who writes a column for Oscar Combs’s publication, The Cats’ Pause. I had written a letter to the editor and Mr. Ford, much to my surprise, had in turn left a message on my answering machine suggesting we get together while he was in New York to “talk hoops.”
It is just a moment, but it stays with me to this day. The bus door opens and out glides Pitino, as if stepping from a gilded coach from another century. The dark topcoat hangs perfectly from his shoulders, allowing but a momentary peek at the exquisite Armani suit underneath. He moves through the space between the curb and the doorman of the hotel almost without effort — a man in full. He sees no one on his periphery. Focused and apart, nothing is so obvious at that moment as the knowledge that he inhabits a different world, even as he walks among us mortals.
It was so fitting that the basketball gods brought Pitino back to the New York area — specifically the New Jersey Meadowlands — for the final summit to the mountaintop in 1996. In defeating Syracuse and the coach who had given him his first big break, Rick had arrived at the place he had always known had a special locker waiting for coaches like him.
Where else was there to go?
Don’t know why you’d run
What you’re running to or from
“I’m a college basketball coach and I think that’s where my heart is.”
Prize in hand, you had to know they’d come after him, offering nothing less than everything. $30M. Head Coach plus GM. Part ownership. The New Jersey Nets were a bad basketball franchise. This was going to change all that. You had to know he’d go, a new challenge and all that. All of Big Blue Nation knew in their heart of hearts it was a fait accompli. After all, Howard Garfinkel had spelled it out years ago. When Pitino took the job at Kentucky, the director of the famed Five Star Basketball Camp remarked, “Why don’t you go ahead and write they’ll be 6–18 next year? Write that there’s no way they’ll be .500 for three years. Rick will love it. He’ll eat it up. Doing the impossible is what drives him.”
Pitino waited nearly a week, then from vacation in Ireland, he gave his answer:
“All season long, all I preached every day for maybe 200 days was, think of the team before yourself. And then suddenly I turn around and leave? I don’t know if I could have faced them with that philosophy. I could not face Ron Mercer, Wayne Turner or any of the guys that fulfilled all my dreams and say, ‘Hey, I’m leaving.’ It’s different for players. Antoine Walker, it’s great for him to leave because his pockets are empty. My pockets are not empty, so I can make decisions based on other reasons.”
Things change. People change. The next season at Kentucky was merely epic. It had taken 18 years to bring Championship #6 to Lexington. The idea that #7 could come the very next year left Kentuckians giddy. With Pitino, anything seemed possible. Even when Derek Anderson — the Cats’ most explosive player — tore his ACL during SEC play, Pitino’s team refused to give in, making it all the way to the Championship game before succumbing in overtime to Lute Olsen’s Arizona Wildcats. That run to Monday night was as driven as I’ve ever seen a Kentucky team. The media saw it, too:
SAN JOSE — Nine and a half minutes remained in Kentucky’s 72–59 win over Utah in Saturday’s West Regional Final and Rick Pitino issued his Wildcats a challenge.
Utah had just tied the game at 43, and stolen the momentum in San Jose Arena. The Wildcats looked vulnerable and Pitino wasn’t about to allow the weaknesses to worsen. He grabbed his clipboard, drawing a line down the middle. He then scribbled “Winners” on one side and “Losers” on the other.
“I told the kids Utah is a great team and that they had made their run,” Pitino said. “I told them they can leave this huddle a winner or go out a loser and say they had a nice run. Then I added a few other things.”
When Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics, some chafed, but most accepted the reality and ambition of a man who had traveled most of Kentucky’s backroads and now wanted to explore a different map. No one was ready for what would happen down that road.
Maybe he took the Louisville job because he was just doing what Howard Garfinkel had said all along — he was just jonesing for the next impossible gig. After all, Denny Crum was tired and the Cardinals program had slipped. Maybe the New Yorker had never gotten the Commonwealth of Kentucky out of his soul. None of that mattered to many Kentucky fans, who saw taking the helm of their hated rival as more than a poke in the eye. To many in Lexington, it was one big red betrayal — a betrayal they would never let him forget each time his Cardinals stepped on the floor to face Kentucky. Even a return to Rupp to speak at Bill Keightley’s funeral couldn’t turn back the clock, couldn’t quell the bitterness and anger.
It didn’t help that Pitino had seemed to have forgotten his own words about UK being Camelot. Now, his Louisville players and Louisville experiences were the best he’d ever had. Pitino always had a penchant for hyping the here and now as the best of times. Who can ever forget his endless sermons about the “precious present?” In actuality, it was just the necessary white lie, like the one the new husband tells his second wife about how she’s more beautiful than the ex before telling the third she’s prettiest of all.
It didn’t help that the coach did childish things like blowing off his press conference appearance after playing Kentucky or losing his cool and flipping off belligerent fans.
It surely didn’t help that Pitino couldn’t face the malfeasance in his own house:
“I think sometimes they think we’re clinical morons here, running this athletic department — that we don’t check these compliance issues. This is one of the best compliance departments in America.”
Before Directv, enormous satellite dishes atop sports bars in the early 1990s brought college basketball to grateful Kentucky ex-pats like me on winter New York weekends. Rob Bromley and Dick Gabriel were welcome, if foreign visitors to my east coast existence. It was a gray Sunday afternoon when a young man made his way over to my table, pointing to his friends across the room. Looking at my blue sweatshirt, he wondered aloud, “Did I know that among his friends sat Rick Pitino’s brother-in-law?”
Not long after, I would find myself inside the south tower of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. Six people died, but I and thousands of others were lucky that day. Seven and one-half years later, a derivative broker at Cantor Fitzgerald named Billy Minardi would not be so fortunate.
Rick Pitino knew tragedy. God, how he knew it. He’d lost an infant son to heart failure while at Providence. In March 2001, months before he would lose his best friend 100 floors up in the sky, the husband of wife Joanne’s sister was struck and killed by a New York City taxi.
Hubris and coaching go together like Ben & Jerry. Rarely does one enter the room without the other close behind. Even the great John Wooden had Sam Gilbert to work the underbelly of college basketball as he successfully wrestled with his own hubris, managing to keep it tightly coiled up like the paper program in his right fist while others found players to help build a pyramid of greatness.
Those close to the coach from Oyster Bay, Long Island say he was humbled in those savage years. You have to wonder how it all got away from him this late in life. Some point to the allegations all the way back in his Hawaii days, claiming he was always a cheat. But, while the baby-faced assistant was personally involved in 8 violations, Bruce O’Neil’s team was awash in dirt, hit with 64 violations. It was young Pitino’s first job. Perhaps he — an ocean away — found himself in troubled waters where he could not afford to rock the boat. As Eddie Sutton once said about Dwane Casey, maybe he just fell in line with what “they” had been doing for years. Or maybe Eddie was just doing what Pitino would do years later, passing the buck, claiming he wasn’t aware of what was going on around him.
If you believe he was always dirty, you have to believe he was dirty at Kentucky and Providence before that, because once coaches go down that rabbit hole, they don’t often come back. No. C.M. Newton did his due diligence. Kentucky couldn’t afford another scandal when they handed the keys to Rick. Something had changed after his arrival in Louisville.
I have a theory and it’s open to debate. I think he never expected to be dealing with the monster up the road that John Calipari created. He had helped start Cal’s career — and here John was usurping his bluegrass kingdom — his once-upon-a time fairy tale. His Camelot. I think watching the erstwhile UMass and Memphis coach revolutionize the game with his one-and-done philosophy, stealing the spotlight, ate at his pride even more than the losses to Kentucky’s new Lancelot.
In 1997, he went back to Garfinkel’s Five Star Camp and lectured the young men there:
“The second thing that goes hand in hand with discipline, we always tell the truth to each other. Even though the truth hurts. Now, you’ve all been watching this and you’ve all been reading about it — the president of the United States. Every time he lies, his approval rating goes up ... And then when he admitted it, it went up another 7 points. Why? Because the economy’s good. People don’t care whether he’s telling the truth or not. But, that’s not your game. That’s not our game. You see, the thing about it, when you tell the truth, whether you’re in trouble, whether you’re wrong, the truth becomes your past. And everybody drops it. When you lie and distort the truth, it becomes your future. And now, it catches up with you.”
Where you bound on such a cold, dark afternoon?
Where Rick Pitino goes from here is anyone’s guess. Somewhere down the road, you hope he takes his own advice, comes clean, tells the truth and makes all this his past. For now, he’s living his future. He was last seen getting into an SUV, driving down one last Kentucky road. It seems so long ago that he was the Pope of Lexington. Now, he’s the loneliest of figures, heading to points unknown, with nary a road sign to show him the way.
And Kentucky rain keeps pouring down.