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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – There were practice plans on Rick Pitino’s desk, but much more than basketball on his mind Tuesday afternoon.
An ESPN “Outside The Lines” report had dropped earlier in the day, like a ton of bricks. The report featured the first on-camera interview with Katina Powell, the madam who wrote an explosive book alleging that she provided prostitutes to University of Louisville basketball players and recruits and was paid for their services by staff member Andre McGee. The OTL report largely supported Powell’s claims, citing five unnamed former players and recruits who say they attended on-campus parties that included strippers who were paid to entertain and have sex.
The contents of “Breaking Cardinal Rules” were first reported by Yahoo Sports on Oct. 2. The book was released digitally the next day. Hard copies are now available – and so was Powell, at last, on Tuesday. To percussive effect.
At the Swain Student Activities Center, a TV in the food court was turned to the ESPN report. Down Floyd Street in his office, Pitino was frustrated, aggravated, wounded – and struggling mightily with the university gag order put in place while the school, the NCAA and local law enforcement investigate the allegation.
Finally, he decided he had to say something, and he said it to Yahoo Sports in person and to ESPN via conference call.
“The NCAA has asked me not to say anything on this matter and I will abide by it,” Pitino said. “But I will say one thing: There’s only one person who can speak on this matter, and that’s Andre McGee. He owes it to his teammates, coaches and the university to tell the truth. The truth has got to come out, and it can’t just be to the NCAA. He’s the only one with any answers.
“Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. ... Obviously by what people are saying, something did go on, but there’s only one person who knows the truth. Everything else is absurd. I don’t care about the legal issues. If he’s done something wrong, he has to own up to it and do his penance.
“We know on the other end of the book, this is all about money. People will say and do anything for money. If these things are not true, and I keep using the word if, only one person who can give these solutions to these problems. ... This is not only an NCAA issue here. It’s more than that. There’s more to it. His teammates that believed in him, his coaches that believed in him, the community that believed in him, put our trust in him to do the right things. If he’s done the wrong things, he needs to own up to it. If he hasn’t, he needs to say it’s a lie.”
Pitino then searched his phone for a text exchange with his nephew, Willie Minardi – son of the late Billy Minardi, for whom the Cardinals’ basketball dorm is named, the site of many of the sex acts alleged to have occurred between 2010-14. Willie was a Louisville student at the time when many of the alleged encounters took place.
“I lived in the dorm for two years,” Willie Minardi texted his uncle. “I never saw anything of what is being accused.”
Others have said the same thing – Luke Hancock, who lived in Minardi Hall for three years and was the Final Four Most Outstanding Player in 2013 when Louisville won the national title – has said publicly he saw none of what was described in the book.
But there also have been reports that quote sources substantiating the book’s claims – by CBS Sports two weeks ago, and by ESPN on Monday. “Outside The Lines” said it examined and verified Powell’s cell phone records of text conversations with McGee.
With Powell finally surfacing after weeks off radar, McGee now is the last main character in this tawdry melodrama to remain silent. That might be on advice of his Louisville-based attorney, Scott Cox. Whatever the reason, McGee’s reluctance to speak leaves the public record short of complete.
And absent that, Pitino is struggling to maintain business as usual while a mushroom cloud hovers over his program. So is Louisville’s passionate fan base.
The OTL report was impactful enough Tuesday that the local ESPN radio affiliate blew off network programming to extend its own local discussion of the scandal. As one caller mournfully put it, “I’m kind of devastated right now, I’m not going to lie.”
A city that fills 22,000 seats at Louisville’s state-of-the-art, downtown arena, the Yum! Center, and many of the 24,000 seats at rival University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in Lexington, is deeply invested in college basketball. There is no city more passionate about the sport. And while the blue denizens have taken prurient and gleeful interest in these revelations, the red denizens are reeling.
If this scandal results in the retirement of Rick Pitino – which would be very much against the wishes of athletic director Tom Jurich – it would be a major blow to the Louisville fan base. If the scandal results in vacating the 2013 national title, it would be a knife to the heart.
Returning to this town the day after the Cardinals defeated Michigan for the title, the euphoria was palpable. Car flags were everywhere. Championship T-shirts flew off racks at stores. Some 27 years after the second and last national title won under Denny Crum, the city’s immense pride in its flagship team was overflowing.
It could still be done here. The Cardinals were finally back on top.
Now 2 ½ years removed from that feat, the euphoria is replaced by dismay, disgust and a dread fear of what the ultimate cost will be for the alleged sins of Andre McGee. Amid that turmoil, Rick Pitino is hoping that his former player and staffer will speak the truth.
Without clarity and closure, the tension will continue unabated at the basketball facility on Floyd Street.
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