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Thursday, March 15, 2001
Updated: September 13, 6:35 PM ET
Deconstruction of Rick Pitino Blvd. in Louisville

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

The great UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden once said that to all his friends among the college basketball coaching fraternity, he wished one national championship. To his enemies, he wished two.

Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino is knee deep in the courting process at Louisville.
Wooden was the sort of man you had to stay with.

The inference: two titles made alumni, boosters, fans, citizens, contractors, politicans and other pimps and 'ho's demand more, more, more, until it becomes impossible to fulfill all these open-mouthed, slobber-slangin' expectations, this ever-widening gaping maw of greed and mindless lust, which is the opposite of caring love.

Rick Pitino, on the other hand, said earlier in 2001, "I'm a wounded tiger," after he quit the Boston Celtics in the middle of the season. Took multi-millions to turn that NBA franchise around. He turned it around, all right. Pointed it right into the ground, then bailed out before impact, and took the only available parachute with him. They've done better since he left, righted the ship, didn't crash. They are the wounded tigers.

"I'm a wounded tiger," he said. Good sound bite, if nothing else. Good sound bites usually are nothing else.

Rick Pitino is not the sort of man you have to stay with, and he is not the sort of man who will stay with you. This hasn't deterred the University of Louisville from appealing to him to please baby please baby please take its men's basketball head coaching job and several trunks of money, from consorting with him, and him alone, and he alone with them (or so they think).

U of Lou is giving it up to Pitino, the job that was, in some ways, ably performed, at least for the first 15 years, by a man who was once Wooden's assistant, Denny Crum, whom the school is also paying, something like $7 million over the next 15 years, just to not coach.

Is anything wrong with all this? It's big-time college basketball. Of course there's something wrong with it.

Exactly 14 years ago, Rick Pitino sprang upon the public consciousness, such as he and it are, here in Louisville, at Freedom Hall, in the NCAA men's basketball regional final held at Freedom Hall. I was there, not as your honest correspondent R-Dub, but under the guise of Ralph Wiley, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan magazine.

I kept my eyes open. I'd been to Louisville before to "cover basketball," as it is put, watching the participants in The Derby Classic, a high school all-star game with an uneasy (to me) resemblance to the nearby Kentucky Derby itself. The Kentucky Derby itself was once won all the time by horses ridden home by black jockeys, back in the 1800s. Then they kicked 'em out, for between the black jockeys and the brown thoroughbreds, what were the more diminutive white men to do?

At The Derby Classic I learned that the University of Kentucky's "first black player," a 7-foot miscreant named Tom Payne, was brought by overseers many young women for him to inseminate, in Lexington, just like Riva Ridge or Secretariat were brought brood mares. All three, the horses and Payne, were out to stud. "Breeding basketball players," whistled an editor for a great metropolitan magazine, before cutting out that part of the article.

  Louisville went straight pimp. Rick Pitino. That's who U of L officials and alums lusted for. That's who'll make every thing OK. Two years from now, those same people will be asking, "Is this all there is?" And the answer will be "Yep."
  

But I was told this by a reputable source, then told again by a second teller (I had to pry it out of him), and I believed it. It wasn't the sort of thing I'd argue over or waste time trying to prove. Believe it or don't. Having not been educated to know the difference, Payne was later charged and jailed for raping a woman who had not been brought to him. This is part of the legacy of big-time college basketball in Kentucky.

Back to Pitino. In 1987, beating Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament was something that stood out on a young, unproven coach's résumé. But it was a little deceiving. It wasn't really Georgetown anymore. The Big Man, John Thompson, had already killed his bear in '84. The Hoyas had one good player -- Reggie Williams. Once he fouled out, Providence was in.

Young men named David Kipfer, Delray Brooks, Billy Donovan -- I remember them still, Donovan because he coaches Florida -- cut down the nets. Pitino got more than cut-down nets out of the deal. He left Providence. These are his coaching jobs since:

He was now at the pinnacle, or so it seemed. The only problem was that Pitino is one of those guys who has trouble coaching grown men. Sure, he had the college scam figured out -- tell some 18-year-old how much you need him, blind the A.D. with your big-time rep, your shiny résumé, schmooze the local boosters, spin the media by appearing to actually give a good hot damn about what they are asking, say things like, "I'm a wounded tiger."

So Boston wasn't the pinnacle, at least not for our little Ricky. He couldn't take the fans booing. He couldn't take losing. But Wooden always said it wasn't always about winning, because you weren't always going to win, not all the time. Character came from TRYING to win.

Pitino? He said Larry Bird and Kevin McHale weren't going to come walking back through that door. The guys he'd recruited at Kentucky, they'd given him that one national championship; for that he was given total control of the Celtics, and big money.

But there are horses for courses. A great coach knows that. He doesn't blame the same players who won him that national championship, got him that job, made him his money. He doesn't say that now all of a sudden they play no defense -- and if they don't start, he's quitting. So he gave it all up, not to retire, but to become "a wounded tiger" -- trolling, in other words, for the best college overseer job he could get. It's the work he feels best suited for, and on balance he's probably right.

But if he wanted to stay with the progression, he should've held out for UCLA, maybe North Carolina, but those positions on the back 40 are currently filled by hard and, when necessary, cruel men. Now, to me, it seems like the timing of Pitino's committing hari-kiri with the Celtics -- oh, didn't you know, Pitino fired himself from that job, he was team president, and fired the coach, himself?-- might have put him in line for a college job more his and his résumé's speed.

Indiana. Everybody knows the black guy -- what's his name, Mike Davis? -- he wasn't going to keep that job. Billy Packer told us that. Remember the jockeys at the Kentucky Derby? But it was up in the air earlier, about who might get it, before Steve Alford at Iowa came up. Might've been Pitino's speed.

Denny Crum
After two national titles, Denny Crum was run out of town ... and Louisville alumns began pining for Pitino.
But now Louisville has gotten back into clubhouse contention in the NCAA derby. Lousville is a player again. Conscience? What conscience? They didn't know they needed one. Not in this line of work. Do whatever you need to do to get off, whenever you can get away with it. A beautiful life principle, when you stop to think about it.

But that's the rule of college hoop, and who am I to judge? As long as nobody's getting hurt, right? No queasy feeling of just doing it to get back at University of Kentucky, hittin' the ex-spouse of the uptown neighbor who has more house, more yard, more everything, and who often snottily lets you know about it? No uneasy feelings of contributing to betrayal, of lying down with dogs and getting up with fleas? Helllll no. It's gooooood!

The very moral illicitness of it is what makes it irresistible -- making billions of dollars for virtually everybody else by whoring big kid basketballers without paying them a dime, pimping young men you have no intention of trying to educate, or even wanting them if they seem to have the desire for it. If they show any inclination that they want to be educated, or hint that an education might take, then they need to go to Princeton. Because this is Derby country.

Coach Wooden, I miss the hell out of you, man.

Few ballplayers at Louisville or Kentucky, whether under Crum, Sutton, Hall, Pitino, or Tubby Smith (still the best pure hoop coach in Kentucky, even after Louisville hires Pitino), have ever seemed to actually be letting college get in their way, anyway. Since they're oblivious anyway, why not let everybody else have some fun? How can you be against fun?

OK. OK, then. As long as we know the game. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Anybody who goes there to play basketball deserves, and richly deserves, whatever kind of exotic exploitation they will receive. And they might even convince themselves that they like it. Time will tell.

In a better world than this, which admitttedly does not exist, some others in the college basketball coaching fraternity might have liked to at least interview for the Louisville position. The man Pitino beat to make his rep and become rich was John Thompson, former coach at Georgetown. John Thompson III, did a fine job at Princeton this year, making the NCAA field despite many player defections when he took over the job at the beginning of the season after Bill Carmody left.

Do you think Rick Pitino could've taken Princeton to the tournament? Did John Thompson 3, younger, more energetic, with much to prove, and not much in the bank, even get a sniff from Louisville?

No. John Thompson 3 isn't as sexy as Rick Pitino. Especially in dim light. Louisville went straight pimp. Rick Pitino. That's who U of L officials and alums lusted for. That's who'll make every thing OK.

Two years from now, those same people will be asking, "Is this all there is?"

And the answer will be "Yep."

March Madness? I'll say.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."