PHOENIX – Rick Pitino looks old these days. Cheeks sunken, eyes encircled with darkness, salt finally joining pepper, Pitino is on the cusp of 60 and beginning to resemble it. The past few years put an end to his Dorian Gray imitation.
Beyond the usual grind of coaching – Pitino, with his 6 a.m. practices followed up by another session at 2:30 p.m., tends to put the maniac in maniacal – he watched the sordid particulars of his personal life leak to the public, one embarrassing detail at a time.
He cheated on his wife of more than 30 years, Joanne.
In an empty restaurant during a sexual encounter he said lasted 15 seconds.
With a woman named Karen Sypher, whom he paid $3,000 for an abortion when she claimed she was pregnant.
After which she tried to extort him for millions of dollars to keep the affair secret.
Rick Pitino survived NBA stints in New York and Boston. He thrived at the most basketball-rabid school in the country, Kentucky, before leaving to immense criticism. He weathered a few lean seasons at Louisville to lead the Cardinal to the 2005 Final Four, his sixth. Not until Karen Cunagin Sypher tried to ruin his life – like she claimed Pitino had done to her – did his eternal youth fade, did the shiny façade of Slick Rick dull enough to make him look like the rest of us, only in a nicer suit.
And here is Pitino now: older, maybe wiser and better – or maybe it's just our narrative reflex to believe adversity begets such things – and undoubtedly still a great basketball coach, one win away from taking what looked like an ordinary Louisville team to another Final Four. The West Regional is the fourth-seeded Cardinals' to lose after dispatching top-seeded Michigan State, and Pitino must vanquish his greatest mentee, Billy Donovan, and his seventh-seeded Florida Gators to lock in a golden ticket to New Orleans.
The rebirth of Pitino comes as Sypher spends her days in jail, serving a seven-year sentence, insisting her guilt came as a result of a conspiracy among Pitino, her lawyer and the judge, releasing a book called "Guilty Until Proven Innocent" in which she alleges Pitino raped her. More than a year and a half after the trial and almost eight years since the restaurant, Pitino continues to juggle its baggage amid that of what he said truly saddens him, the death of his infant son Daniel in 1987 and the loss of Joanne's brother, Billy Minardi, on Sept. 11.
"It wasn't like 9/11 or losing a child," Pitino said, "something that you have to face and you move on. And so we all have. You all have those experiences in life – I don't know about extortion – but you have bad problems in your life. I got through it."
Familial support helped. He and Joanne remain married. His son Richard is a Louisville assistant. And basketball – the thing that for years not only buoyed Pitino but defined him – gave him enough of an escape where he could forget the awkward jumble his life became, even if for only a couple of hours.
Pitino remains at the top of his profession alongside Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski, the only other active Division I coaches with at least 600 victories and winning percentages higher than Pitino's .731. The only others on that list: John Wooden, Jerry Tarkanian, Lute Olson, Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith.
From the 26-year-old wunderkind coaching Boston University to the 34-year-old who helmed a Donovan-led team to an improbable Final Four to a 43-year-old who won a national title with Kentucky to a 49-year-old NBA washout to today, Pitino has built his career on being better by working harder. His attention to detail is legendary, assistant coaches fearing their turn to do a scouting report on an opponent lest they miss a minute detail. Pitino's tape sessions were long, his practices longer, his knowledge of everyone – his guys and his adversaries – almost frightening.
It's how Pitino, with perhaps not a single NBA player on his roster, has Louisville on the precipice of a Final Four expected to teem with pro prospects. Players come to Louisville to play for him, not because the city or the school have any particular magnetism, and he has molded this team in his image.
"I'll do whatever 'Coach P' wants me to do," Louisville point guard Peyton Siva said. "If he told me to put a tutu on in front of ESPN, I'd go do that. I trust my coach and I know he won't put me in no bad situations."
Siva arrived in Louisville amid Pitino's bad situation – "I brought that upon myself," Pitino admitted – and people around college basketball wondering whether it would force him out, not because of the deed as much as the dirty bomb it detonated: caterwauls that Pitino, a devout Catholic, was a hypocrite, and Sypher's son standing in public with a rainbow-colored sign that read, "What's the price of an abortion?"
"There was some doubts, some questions," Louisville co-captain Kyle Kuric said. "We didn't know what he was gonna do. Is he gonna stay? Is he gonna say, 'I'm done. I've had a great career.' I don't think he wanted it to come down to that. He loves basketball too much. He loves coaching too much."
Men such as Pitino are too proud to go out like that, cutting and running after getting done dirty. Sypher wiles away her time at the Federal Correction Institute in Marianna, Fla., spending days pulling weeds and nights in an 8-by-10 cell. She has an appeal May 31. Her son tweets about her. Otherwise, she has vanished. The book isn't selling very well.
The biggest lesson learned, Pitino said, was "to turn the other cheek" – unfortunate turn of phrase notwithstanding. "Don't try to explain yourself. Don't try to tell the truth, tell your side. Just move on."
So he did. He laughs more now, Kuric said, and players interact more with him than before. Pitino often reserves that for after their careers, his personal relationships with so many former players still in full bloom, though his softening was clear Friday when Kuric showed him a picture on his phone. It was of the Dos Equis guy, with a caption below it, "We don't always beat Michigan State, but when we do, Gorgui hits a 3."
Pitino guffawed, the image of 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng knocking down the first 3-pointer of his career against top-seeded Michigan State in the Sweet 16 still fresh. This rag-tag team with its half-baked offense won the Big East tournament with its defense, locked down the Spartans with its defense and now must contain a rollicking Florida offense that hit more 3-pointers than any team in the country.
Of all those who have graduated from Pitino U., none is dearer to his heart than Donovan. Pitino cried when Florida won its first national championship. He relishes the chance to coach against him because even if Louisville loses, one of his best friends gets to go to the Final Four. And he appreciates the support Donovan lent during the low moments of the trial and the humiliation therein.
Still, Pitino won't let up. Kentucky may await, and the possibility of a rematch against the Wildcats, a showdown against John Calipari, a civil war-causing 40 minutes in the Bluegrass State – well, it titillates him and everybody who loves the game. Because when Rick Pitino is at his finest, able to coach like so few can, the game is better.
He may look old, famished, tired, gray. Survivors often do.
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