When Rick Pitino was pursuing the Sacramento Kings coaching job this spring, the franchise's uneasiness with his candidacy pushed beyond the fact that he was trying to beat a scandal out of town, that he wanted millions of dollars in a down economy. As much as anything, the reason Pitino doesn't have an easy escape hatch back to the pros has borne itself out in the controversy at Louisville: his crew of sycophants and enablers – with and without basketball credentials – who accompany him job to job, restaurant bar to restaurant bar.
Suddenly, the emperor has no clothes – mostly because they're still scattered all over the floor of a restaurant's backroom.
Beyond Pitino's ill-fated dalliance with a blonde townie and the $3,000 to bankroll an abortion, there are several layers of issues which offer disturbing reminders of what comes with the hiring of Pitino in the pros.
First, there was the personal assistant, Vinnie Tatum, watching the door for him during his escapade in 2003. That's one thing. But here's the story that's getting too little attention but speaks prominently to Pitino's world: His assistant equipment manager – a pseudo-make-believe position given to his driver with the Boston Celtics – took a stunning, sobering bullet for his boss. Six months after Pitino's "indiscretion" with Karen Cunagin, crony Tim Sypher married her.
Maybe Pitino didn't order it, but he had to think it was a good idea. It would've never been allowed otherwise. Pitino must have feared her on the loose, feared the information she possessed. He had to want her quiet, wanted her looked after, and this was the easiest way.
What a dysfunctional, bizarre universe that existed at Louisville. Yet those are the lengths his yes men will go to stay on the payroll, to protect the mythology of Rick Pitino.
This is how it works with Pitino, and this is the reason he'll never again get offered anything but a lousy NBA job for a lousy franchise. Privately, his employees called him King Lear (as well as "The Aging Prom Queen") when he was with the Boston Celtics. He had a fiefdom of sham basketball minds and cronies who took over the Celtics and bombarded general manager Chris Wallace daily with insane and ill-informed trade proposals.
Only now, no GM wants Pitino. Why take the chance of him undermining them? Why waste money hiring all his buddies?
Pitino promised the Kings that he could fit his ego into a franchise's front-office framework, but it was hard to believe. He didn't want to be emperor anymore, just a coach. If he just wanted to coach, Pitino could be good in the NBA. He did an excellent job in his two seasons with the New York Knicks in the late 1980s, and terrific work his first season with the Boston Celtics. But this was long ago in the NBA.
For so long, Pitino has been about image and appearances. He demanded the personal character and discipline of those around him that he never demanded of himself. He rode underlings to drop pounds and look the part, like him. At Providence, he scheduled newspaper interviews at predawn hours to foster the belief he grinded 18 hours a day, that he was the hardest-working coach in America. His own personal life a mess, he was spitting out self-help books to tell everyone how to live life. Pitino believed he was the franchise player with the Celtics, a flawed premise of an ego drunk on power and excess.
Success is a choice, his best-selling book blared.
Apparently, so is self-destruction.
The model for the elite pro coach is San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, who has four NBA titles and no self-help books, no speaker's fee. "It's a player's league," Popovich once told me. "I think it's very important for a coach to make sure that his players believe 100 percent – and not with lip service – that it's about them. Coaches are going to do everything they can to create that environment for them. It's not about creating an environment for us. It's a privilege to be able to coach these guys.
"We make enough money."
As a college coach, Pitino's ability to produce NBA players has become suspect. He convinces recruits he'll prepare them for the pros, but he never took a Dwyane Wade(notes) – as Indiana's Tom Crean did at Marquette – and made him a superstar. Maybe Louisville keeps Pitino, maybe the president buckles to public pressure and makes him take a sabbatical. Whatever happens, no one believed Pitino's promise to stay at Louisville as long as they'll have him.
He's tried to get back to the NBA, and he'll try again. Nevertheless, several NBA executives on Wednesday rejected the idea that his embarrassing episode won't hurt his pro candidacy, too.
"It's like people don't think NBA teams have rules, regulations and things that their employees have to answer to," one respected NBA general manager said. "These issues with Pitino would also be issues with an NBA GM and owner."
Pitino was patting himself for telling the truth on Wednesday at his news conference (even unconscionably invoking 9/11 as a sympathy card) and making a promise he'll never keep: I'm going to coach at Louisville until they won't have me anymore.
Well, no one believes him. It won't be long until this scandal and John Calipari's arrival at Kentucky push him back onto the pro job market. For now, there's no promise of a soft landing in the NBA. The emperor has no clothes and nowhere to go.
- Rick Pitino