Rick Pitino: basketball savant, basketball survivor.
His name is mud in man caves and and saloons across New England. He is a bad memory of a dark time in Boston Celtics history. I mentioned him alongside M.L. Carr in a column carving up the 2021 Celtics a couple of weeks ago, and Carr objected, saying, “Do not put my name in the same paragraph with Rick Pitino.”
Pitino became a punch line in the college basketball world a few years ago after his latest scandal (this one involving an FBI investigation) got him bounced from a lucrative lifetime gig at Louisville. In addition, his 2013 NCAA championship at Louisville was vacated.
Still, Pitino could not quit, and his Basketball Jones took him to Athens. Like Michael Corleone in fictional exile in Sicily, real-life Pitino coached Panathinaikos for a season while things cooled down back in the States.
Now Pitino is back in the Big Dance with Iona, a school with a 1-14 lifetime NCAA Tournament record (the win was against Holy Cross when Jim Valvano and Jeff Ruland were Iona’s coach and star). Iona was the only NCAA school that would take a chance on Pitino. He is Norman Dale in “Hoosiers,” getting a shot at Hickory after nefarious activity banished him from every other coaching opportunity.
The Gaels barely got to know each other in COVID winter of 2020-21. They had two coronavirus shutdowns, one lasting 51 days and another that covered the final weeks of the regular season. Iona played only 13 regular-season games. Over one stretch of 76 days, the Gaels played five games.
They were the ninth seed in the low-major Metro Atlantic Conference but ran the table, winning four times in five days, and now they’re the 15th seed in the East Regional. They are scheduled to face second-seeded Alabama Saturday in the first round of March Madness. Do not count them out.
Pitino becomes the third coach to take five programs to the NCAA Tournament. He also has been in the Dance with Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville — making the Final Four with the latter three programs.
His connections to New England are many.
He played his college ball at the University of Massachusetts, teaming with Al Skinner for three seasons. Pitino was on the UMass freshman team when Julius Erving wowed the basketball world at Curry Hicks Cage.
Pitino worked as an assistant under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse before taking over as head coach at BU when he was 26 years old in 1978. His starting salary on Commonwealth Avenue was $19,500, but he also had unlimited use of a Renault LeCar, plus a one-time $2,000 tax-deductible moving expense.
He went 91-51 with the Terriers, sometimes complained about small crowds, and in 1982 sent me a letter on official Boston University Basketball stationery (embossed with his photo), tweaking me for my “sarcastic support” of the program.
“You probably would enjoy writing to a few hundred readers instead of the Boston Globe,” he teased. “I understand the Amsterdam News has an opening! (only kidding).”
Two years later, Pitino was Hubie Brown’s assistant coach at Madison Square Garden when the Knicks took the eventual world champion Larry Bird Celtics to a seventh game in the 1984 conference semifinals.
Three years after that, Pitino and star guard Billy Donovan took Providence to the Final Four. In 1996, Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats — a team with Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, and Walter McCarty — beat John Calipari’s UMass Minutemen in the Final Four at the Meadowlands. Pitino won an NCAA championship with those Wildcats, then came to Boston to “rescue” the Celtics in 1997.
His Celtic years are remembered much like Bobby Valentine’s term of office with the Red Sox. It was a total disaster from the start. Pitino came to Boston expecting to get Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick in the draft, but the Celtics were unlucky in the lottery, and they wound up with the Nos. 3 and 6 picks, settling for Chauncey Billups and Mercer.
Pitino’s first game was a dramatic win over the world champion Michael Jordan Bulls on a Friday night at the Garden. The new coach rented out the top floor of The Fours on Canal Street after the win, but it was all downhill from there.
He traded Billups in February 1998 without giving him much of a chance, and the Celtics finished 36-46. He went 102-146 in 3½ seasons before quitting in 2001. His lasting gift to Boston sports: Pitino selected Paul Pierce with the 10th pick of the 1998 NBA draft.
On the other side of the ledger, Celtics fans rightfully never forgave Pitino for appropriating Red Auerbach’s title of “team president” and reducing Red to “vice chairman of the board” on the corporate masthead. Pitino returned fire in a famous postgame press conference when he announced that Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale were “not walking through that door,” then said, “The negativity in this town sucks.”
It was Pitino who described Boston sports fans as “the fellowship of the miserable.”
I always kind of liked that one.
Fast-forward to 2021 and Rick Pitino is back in the NCAA Tournament while Louisville sits at home and folks in Boston are once again on the outside looking in. Pitino remains a basketball savant and survivor, a major player in a world we will never know or fully appreciate.
Let the Madness begin.