As a character to behold, a face of the sport, Pitino was undeniably compelling and endearing, an avowed workaholic who could coax the comatose into a trap-press frenzy. But even a recreational game of tennis with him produced crazily spun shots that made you wonder: Which way will this guy bounce next?
In the wake of the latest allegations brought by the F.B.I. against Pitino’s Louisville program, accusations that have apparently cost him his job and possibly his career, the question for those of us who have known, followed and extolled him across the decades can only be: Much worse than spin, was it all a big lie?
His meteoric career did launch, after all, with him being implicated in eight of 64 violations levied in 1977 by the N.C.A.A. against Hawaii, where Pitino had served as an assistant coach and interim head coach.
Always there were whispers, rumors and in-the-know eye winks around Pitino, as well other big-name coaches, as the powerhouse Division I programs doubled down on their Faustian bargain with the basketball shoe companies, the A.A.U. bag men, the agents and the assorted street hustlers.
All of them now apparently in the cross hairs of the F.B.I.
Pitino dodged other bullets, including a messy extramarital and extortion entanglement and the sordid revelation in 2015 that prostitutes had infiltrated his program. The latter earned him a slap on the wrist, a five-game suspension for the coming season, while the transgressions were written off as the contrivance and failings of an underling.
Not surprisingly, Pitino has expressed shock at Louisville’s being caught in the F.B.I. dragnet, and again denied any knowledge of impropriety involving $100,000 of Adidas that was to be funneled to a Louisville recruit.
Right, and Larry Bird was wearing skates, not Converse, while doing figure eights between jump shots at the old Garden.
Stylishly dressed and coifed, Pitino was a next-Gen disciple of Hubie Brown, who hired him as a Knicks assistant coach in 1983 and presciently bragged to beat reporters, “This guy’s going to be great.”
Much like Brown, Pitino preached the game with a booming, authoritative voice, promoted an up-tempo, fun-to-play system and wasn’t shy in telling you how hard he worked. When he returned to be the Knicks’ head coach in 1987 after an unlikely, emotional run to the Final Four at Providence College after the death of his young son, Pitino couldn’t stop talking about sleepless nights watching game film after game film in preparation for the next opponent.
Finally, the New York sports radio host Christopher Russo couldn’t take it anymore. “For God’s sake, please, take a nap!” he screamed on the air one Sunday morning.
But Pitino knew one speed, one style. His chaos-inducing system — as it turned out, the opposite of Brown’s — was successful in New York, returning the Knicks to the N.B.A. playoffs in 1988 and winning 52 games the next season, into a second-round playoff series against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
All season, Pitino had resisted the overtures of his general manager, Al Bianchi, which was a doomed marriage of salty New Yorkers and personality opposites that was arranged by Madison Square Garden executives.
A pro basketball lifer, Bianchi had wanted Pitino to devote more time to a half-court offense, insisting he would need it in the playoffs. He was right; Jordan was a one-man press wrecker. Bianchi, who had waited forever for his crack at running a team and believed the Knicks might have gone to the finals that season, fumed after they lost to the Bulls in six games.
Pitino, tired of the intraoffice hectoring, bolted for Kentucky, a sanctioned-ridden program, another reconstruction job.
By coincidence, Bianchi called recently, wondering if I would look at a book proposal he had put together — tentative title: “Journeyman.” He is 85, living out west and not letting go of his grudge against Pitino, whom he long ago took to calling “the high-powered guy.”
“With him, there was only one way to do it, and he wanted complete control,” Bianchi said. “But don’t get me started on that.”
With complete control should come total accountability. And those are the terms of engagement that Pitino must finally live by.
Is he gone from the game, never to return? He is 65, the lines of age having hardened his famously boyish face. But before writing him off, remember there are always programs looking for a booster shot, a sweet, creative talker, the kind who once convinced the Knicks’ rookie Mark Jackson that he was practically the point guard equal of Magic Johnson.
Pitino always believed he was at his best as the underdog. When I called him in 2012 to ask what Bill O’Brien might expect when trying to put the football pieces back together at Penn State, Pitino said his most gratifying career experiences had been the Providence Final Four run and his first year at Kentucky, when a stripped-down team managed to win as many games as it lost.
By the time we spoke, he had won a national title at Kentucky in 1996 and was a year away from another at Louisville in 2013. So had he fed me another line? More spin?
Several people I spoke to who are close to Pitino said they believed it was the God’s honest truth. Earlier that season, Pitino had returned to Providence to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1987 run with his former players, including the point guard (and current Oklahoma City Thunder coach) Billy Donovan.
“He came to the bar to be with the guys for about three hours, and it was good to see him laugh so hard again,” said a friend, Jodi DiRaimo, who added that as the years went by, Pitino’s work was “nothing like it was in ’87. Now it’s all about the big time.”
The expectation of high-end success, creating the pressure to land the next prize recruit.
DiRaimo had owned a restaurant in Providence, then moved with Pitino to Lexington to partner in another. They called it Bravo Pitino. It is long gone now, along with all believability in the coach.
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