Rick Pitino the Outsider

Humility is the true key to success. Successful people lose their way at times. They often embrace and overindulge from the fruits of success. Humility halts this arrogance and self-indulging trap. (Rick Pitino)

When he was coach of the Boston Celtics, Rick Pitino was frustrated on many levels after a loss to the Toronto Raptors and famously said, “Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans”.  Eighteen years later, the circle has come back to the root. Rick Pitino is desperate to walk through the same door he famously sealed shut.  He wants a lifeline, a way to even out his fall from grace, if that is even possible considering his battered reputation. The college coach who had a NBA cup of coffee in the ‘80’s and 90’s is looking to reinvent himself and to rebuild his reputation. He can never coach in college again, scandalized as his name is, a slur and a meme for gross infractions and bending or breaking rules and plain negligent arrogance. The NBA has no such lines nor penalties, other than firing coaches after six games. The NBA and Rick Pitino? It’s a perfect marriage.

That is if anyone wants Rick Pitino.

No one can argue his basketball I.Q. He began in 1974 as an assistant at Hawaii and for a short time was the head coach. That led to joining his pal Jim Boheim at Syracuse. He was an assistant with the Knicks under legendary coach and ESPN announcer Hubie Brown, and a head coach at Providence where a young Billy Donovan (OKC coach) was his mega star. The Knicks and Celtics interrupted Kentucky and Louisville.   He won two NCAA titles, seven years apart but the 2013 Louisville title was stripped. There are 7 Final Four appearances on the resume but the 2012 and 2013 Final Four games were taken away. It’s the problem with Rick Pitino.

Rick Pitino is the problem.

One the one hand a superlative coach, gifted at taking the above average athlete and making him achieve, a master at motivation, details, and competitiveness, Pitino pushes kids into their dreams. He extracts the very best out of them, like turning water to wine. The NBA as it is currently constructed is a league of college kids, players who would be or should be juniors and seniors in college. They are so young. They don’t know what they don’t know.  It is the age group that Pitino excelled at leading.

But he’s the only coach to have a title vacated. He was embroiled in a scandal that cost him his Louisville job, smeared his reputation, had the Pitino haters saying I told you so, and brought him here, begging the NBA to hire him. Before the Louisville mess, years and years before, Pitino was accused of violations at Hawaii which caused the program to be put on probation. Of the 64 infractions, a NCAA report faulted Pitino for 8 of them. The violations were stupid NCAA rules that shouldn’t be rules like paying air fare for a student or making sure they had access to used cars or buying students food at McDonald’s. The implication that Pitino misled the NCAA and the university caused the report to recommend he not be associated with the program. That is what sticks now. Pitino’s fragile integrity.

Pitino vehemently denied the charges at Hawaii. “I didn’t make any mistakes. I don’t care what anybody says.” In retrospect, it is problematic as an excuse, Pitino playing victim. It was a template for future Pitino problems.  His words after the Hawaii investigation would be a road map for the Pitino culture. A leader announcing he is perfect, that mistakes just don’t happen when he is in charge. And then he follows it up with a dismissal to anyone who dares critique him. Arrogance early in his career would be a lack of accountability throughout.

But the NBA and it’s live by the three, die by the three tribal love fest means Pitino has something to offer. He was a proponent of the three point shot before it was en vogue. He saw it as the equalizer for the less athletic player, a way to even things up when you don’t have off the dribble drive by skills, when you can’t finish at the rim and through contact nor tear the rim with a slam.

Remember the Pitino Bombers? They were the Kentucky kids he incentivized to just launch three pointers to the horror of many purists.

So the NBA is a perfect fit when you consider scheme. But when you consider Pitino, it would be a disaster.

He left the NBA when Michael  Jordan was in charge of things and now it is a different game. The rule changes would be a Pitino plus. He would do best with a guard oriented team that played fast and liked to take a lot of threes. But the NBA media saturation is extravagant. Of all the sports leagues, the NBA has the strongest social media presence. Frankly, Pitino is too thin skinned to have every move he made analyzed and dissected through the social media meat grinder. There are no NCAA rules protecting him from the media crush.

In college, Pitino was the star. In the NBA, the players are the stars. He would stir the drink and then be asked to step aside while a LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Steph Curry takes center stage.

So, Rick Pitino be careful what you ask for.

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“Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they’re going to be gray and old.”

That could be Rick Pitino describing himself, gray and old. In September, he celebrated his 66th birthday. If he gets another shot in the NBA he will be 67 years old. The NBA is being led by the young. Brad Stevens (Celtics) is 42 years old, and Lloyd Pierce (Hawks) is 42 years old, and James Borrego (Hornets) is 40 years old, and Fred Hoiberg (Bulls) is 46 years old. Add in Luke Walton, Eric Spoelstra, David Fizdale, Igor Kokoskov, and nearly a quarter of the coaches are under 50.

But age isn’t the reason a Pitino hire is a long shot, absent the Cavaliers who are always desperate. Pitino, as much as he loves the 3-point shot, has been away from the NBA game for too long. Despite the optics, the NBA is more than 3-point shot happy. It is still basketball. It is still rebounding, points in the paint, getting to the line, iso-play, and the elite athlete that can win games by himself in the last two minutes. Despite his past NBA history, this is a new league. It is a new game. The players are different. The culture is different.

Whereas in the past the NBA needed a Pitino, they don’t anymore. Billionaires are waiting to buy in. Revenues have soared and so have players salaries. Television ratings ascend every year.

There are young NBA coaches not willing to abdicate and promising assistants as part of the pipeline, not to mention Stan Van Gundy and his brother Jeff lingering out there, waiting for a job to interest them. Why should Pitino get to cut the line? Because he has been flung to the bottom of the scrap heap and is persona non grata in college, that grants him privilege? Because once upon a time he won a title for Kentucky and he used to coach the Celtics? The NBA isn’t the go-to for the excessively punished seeking redemption. It is not a consolation prize. There is no atonement to be found here.

Rick Pitino has had a sweeping, extraordinary life with agony and ecstasy. The agony part is every parents nightmare: losing an infant son to a heart ailment. He suffered through the death of his best friend and brother in law in the 9-11 terrorist attacks. He has been the victim of extortion; a woman he was sexually involved with in an extramarital affair went rogue and there was a trial. But the ecstasy, his five children, his NCAA championship, a native New Yorker coaching the Knicks, resuscitating Louisville, all of it elevated Rick Pitino into the category of elite college coach.

There is a possibility that his former players who are NBA coaches may add him to their staff but it is unlikely to see Pitino at his age taking orders from Billy Donovan (OKC) or Brett Brown (76ers).

In wanting a do-over in the NBA, he said he wants to be part of a team again but that is mostly one sided for now. The NBA wanting Pitino is irrelevant. The NBA doesn’t need Pitino. For the first time in a very long time Rick Pitino is an outsider.