The darkest day in NCAA hoops history is only the beginning

This was a couple of years before Al McGuire’s laugh and his voice would finally be silenced by the leukemia, he was sitting in a New York saloon and talking about old times that weren’t necessarily good times.

“Referees, you can reason with them,” McGuire said. “It’s when the District Attorney comes knocking at your door that you start worrying about more than getting slapped with a technical foul.”

McGuire was speaking about the awful winter of 1951, his senior year at St. John’s, when the lid was blown off college basketball, when Madison Square Garden was exposed as a den of iniquity, the wise guys getting their hooks in the sport — and its players — and not letting go until it was Frank Hogan, the Manhattan D.A., coming with a different set of tendrils.

“These were kids I’d known my whole life,” McGuire said. “And they’re on the front page of the papers like gangsters and presidents.”

College basketball nearly perished thanks to those point-shaving scandals, first in 1951, later in 1961, but always managed to come back from the terrible headlines and peripheral characters.

But the sport has never known a darker day than Tuesday, when the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office announced the arrest of four Division I basketball coaches and six other men on bribery and fraud charges.

McGuire thought Hogan was a tough nut to crack?

Compared to the Feds, he was handing out parking tickets.

“We have your playbook,” New York FBI Assistant Director in Charge William Sweeney said at a news conference. “Our investigation is ongoing, and we are conducting additional interviews as we speak.”

Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Joon H. KimAP

Added Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, ominously: “Our investigation is ongoing. And we are currently conducting interviews. If you yourself engaged in these activities, I’d encourage you to call us. I think it’s better than us calling you.”

There is no gentle way to assess what happened in our town today, less than 50 blocks from where the sport’s last crisis began. The 10 men arrested were, by all accounts, the layup line of this mess. More may follow. And when the FBI is done, it’s hard to fathom what the sport may look like.

What’s clear now, for sure, is that one of the game’s established blue bloods — the University of Louisville — is in the FBI’s crosshairs. Originally referred to in the FBI complaint as “School #6,” but easily identified by the report’s description, Louisville later issued a statement:

“Today, the University of Louisville received notice that it is included in a federal investigation involving criminal activity related to men’s basketball recruiting.”

That’s awful news for Louisville, and quite possibly a death knell for the career of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, who played his high school ball at St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay and later coached the Knicks before taking the University of Kentucky job in 1989 after UK had nearly been handed the death penalty by the NCAA.

Pitino already has survived two sordid scandals that almost nobody else would – an extortion revelation in 2009 stemming from an extra-marital affair, and then an alleged prostitution ring run by one of his former assistant coaches that landed the Cardinals on probation, will force them to vacate victories, and was going to cost Pitino the first five games of this year’s ACC season via suspension.

Now, it is impossible to see how Pitino ever makes it out of this week with his job, and the same goes for his boss, AD Tom Jurich.

And that’s just one school. There are others, and the FBI hasn’t even started putting the screws to anyone yet. The NCAA has long been seen – quite properly – as a toothless sheriff, with no subpoena power and little to offer in the way of real ramifications. Cheating on the recruiting trail in college sports may be distasteful, but it isn’t illegal.

But bribery? Fraud?

Those are crimes. And the Feds have a better winning percentage than Geno Auriemma.

And basketball coaches – so many of whom were reportedly huddling with assistants Tuesday, trying to figure out if any tentacles could lead to them – are notorious deal-makers by trade. And that’s when it’s trying to lure a power forward to campus. If jail time is on the table instead?

It’ll look like the griddle at Waffle House with all the flipping.

“The madness of college basketball went well beyond the madness of March,” Kim said Tuesday, and those dozen words rocked the very spine of a sport that thought its worst scandals were things of the past. Think again.

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