- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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In an excerpt from "The Last Great Game," Gene Wojciechowski tells the story of how Rick Pitino decided to leave the New York Knicks for the Roman Empire of college basketball -- even though the empire was in ruins. Little-known fact: Had Pitino been told one secret piece of information, he would have never ditched the Knicks for UK.
More than anyone, President of the University of Kentucky Dr. David Roselle understood how the scandal, investigation, and sanctions would traumatize the university and its followers. But he also recognized who the real victims of the scandal would be. So during the darkest days of the controversy, Roselle visited the UK locker room and spoke to the remaining Wildcat players.
"I know it's very, very tough on you right now," he told them. "The public is on you. I think, I hope, and I believe there will be a day you'll be able to say to yourself, 'I am glad I accepted a scholarship to be a basketball player and student at the University of Kentucky.' I think you'll see that day."
Given Kentucky's NCAA transgressions, just having a season was no small feat. And athletic director C.M. Newton soon informed Roselle that Pitino had agreed to visit Kentucky. There was still hope.
The owners of the Knicks had other ideas. Despite general manager Al Bianchi's tepid response, some in Knicks management didn't want Pitino to talk to Kentucky. Pitino was summoned by representatives of Gulf + Western, parent company of the Knicks (and New York Rangers and Madison Square Garden) and told not to take the interview. And then, says Pitino, "the most interesting thing happened."
Pitino's next-door neighbor in Bedford -- a bit of a misnomer, given that you sometimes couldn't actually see your neighbor's house through the heavily wooded acreage -- was Stanley Jaffe, famed Hollywood producer of such films as "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Fatal Attraction," and "The Bad News Bears." Pitino knew Jaffe very well. And Jaffe was a huge Knicks fan.
Shortly before Pitino was scheduled to leave for Kentucky, Jaffe pulled up in his Mercedes.
"Rick, I don't want you to leave," Jaffe said. "I want you to stay with the Knicks. You gotta trust me on this."
"Stanley, you're a producer of movies. What do you mean, trust you?"
"I can't go into any further detail. You need to trust me. I don't want you to leave."
"Stanley, I'm gonna go there. If I like it, I'm gonna go. I think it's in my best interests."
"Rick, can you just trust me?"
"I do trust you, but you're a producer."
"Gulf and Western buys all my movies." (Paramount Pictures was another of Gulf + Western's holdings.)
"Stanley, I appreciate it." Pitino shrugged off the odd conversation and went back to his preparations.
On Monday, May 22, Pitino flew to Lexington. While at dinner at the city's well- known Coach House, he was approached by Jerry Tipton of the "Herald-Leader." Would Pitino care to comment on a 1977 NCAA report implicating him in eight of 64 rules violations that led to two years of probation for the University of Hawaii?
At 10 o'clock that night, Newton knocked on the door of the condominium where Kentucky officials had hidden Pitino for the trip (no more Radisson hotels for candidates). He had heard about the incident at the restaurant and was aware of the Hawaii/ NCAA story that would appear in the next day's "Herald-Leader." He was there to cut his losses.
"We're in so much trouble here, we can't have the slightest thing go wrong," Newton said. "I'll have a plane take you back [to New York] in the morning. I really want to apologize for everything."
Pitino was furious, but also relieved. He could return to the Knicks and try to outlast Bianchi. He wouldn't have to battle his wife Joanne over a move to Kentucky. He wouldn't have to deal with the reconstruction of a gutted program.
At 6:30 Tuesday morning, Newton called Roselle. "Have you read the paper yet?"
Roselle had not, so Newton gave him the broad strokes of the Hawaii infractions story. He told Roselle he was putting Pitino back on an airplane.
"Well, I'd like to meet him," said Roselle, who had spoken with Pitino on the phone several times in recent weeks. "Don't send him away."
At 8 a.m., as Pitino was packing his bags, there was another knock on the condo door. It was Newton again.
"David Roselle wants to meet with you," said a beleaguered Newton. "Would you do me one favor and just meet with him?"
"C.M., I don't know "
"Look, I just need a favor, Rick. We'll take you home right afterward."
Pitino and Newton drove to Roselle's office later that day, unsure how the situation would play out. Newton believed in Pitino, but was convinced that the Hawaii story had ended the courtship. Roselle had other ideas.
Roselle was surprised by the Hawaii report, mostly because UK had contacted the NCAA during its background check of Pitino. He was concerned about the "Herald-Leader" story, but it wasn't a deal-breaker. He liked Pitino. More important, he trusted Pitino and trusted Newton, the man who had made him Kentucky's first choice. If Pitino had made some mistakes as a low-level assistant more than 10 years earlier, Roselle could live with that. He was certain Pitino was the coach Kentucky needed.
Preliminary negotiations began, with Roselle insisting he would deal only directly with Pitino. He was hiring Pitino, not Pitino's agent, so why complicate the discussions with a third party in the room?
Roselle asked Pitino what would be an acceptable contract length. Pitino said five years was the standard. Roselle said he would give him a seven-year deal.
"Two of the first years should be on us, not on you," said Roselle, referring to the NCAA's two-year ban on postseason play.
Newton was thrilled by the meeting and the job offer. But Pitino still had to convince Joanne. There was also the matter of calming the media storm regarding the Hawaii story. In an earlier news conference, Pitino had told reporters, "One thing you won't have to worry about is cheating with Rick Pitino. It didn't happen in Hawaii as far as I'm concerned." Newton had added, "I have absolutely no questions about Coach Pitino's integrity or compliance, or so on, as head coach throughout his entire head coaching career."
As it turned out, Joanne had been listening to P.J. Carlesimo that night at dinner at Bravo Gianni. She had heard their friend rave about Lexington and the people at UK. She still didn't want to leave New York, but she had no objections about Lexington.
What she couldn't understand is why Pitino would walk away from the Knicks. It was his dream job. He had the players. And he had turned them into title contenders. But Pitino explained that it would only be a matter of time before the Bianchi–Pitino combination unraveled.
"Look, Joanne, you've got to trust me on this one," he told his wife. "It's not a question of if I go or the GM goes. It's a question of longevity in this business -- and I'm not going to have that longevity with the Knicks."
(Nearly two years later, Pitino got a phone call alerting him to a news story about to appear that he would find interesting. As would be reported in the next day's New York papers, there was a major shakeup at Madison Square Garden, and among other changes Bianchi was ousted and replaced by Dave Checketts. The prime mover behind the changes was soon introduced as the president and chief operating officer of the Garden's corporate parent. The new president's name? Stanley Jaffe. "I couldn't believe that he didn't tell me, because obviously things would have probably changed if he did tell me," says Pitino. "I would have stayed [in New York]. I just didn't put two and two together that a movie producer and my next-door neighbor was going to be the head of Paramount.")
Pitino returned to New York, met with Knicks management, and told them he was taking the Kentucky job. Newton then sent associate athletic director Gene DeFilippo and his wife, Anne, to pick up the Pitinos on the school's private plane. On June 2, he was introduced as Kentucky's 19th head basketball coach. Pitino was a Yankee, but he was now their Yankee.
"You know how it is in Kentucky," says Oscar Combs, founder of the widely read "Cats' Pause" and cohost of the UK pregame radio show. "You're only a Yankee down here if you're losing."
Pitino's arrival in Lexington was considered a major coup by most fans. It came about a week after an issue of "Sports Illustrated" hit the newsstands with a cover photo that was provocative and memorable in its jarring simplicity. It featured a basketball player, his back to the reader, with his head bowed down and a ball held against his right hip. On the back of his blue jersey, where a player's name usually would be stitched, was the word Kentucky. The headline hanging over the player's head was "Kentucky's Shame." Inside was a damning and poignant analysis of the program's sins and the penalties it would have to pay for absolution. Wrote SI's Curry Kirkpatrick: "Proud, elegant Kentucky stood threadbare, stripped of its medals and conceits, dispossessed of image and reputation, exposed as a common NCAA felon."
"One thing I promise," said Pitino during his introductory news conference, which was telecast live statewide. "You'll see us on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" again. And we will be cutting down certain nets. It won't be for what you saw last week. That's yesterday's news."
Tiny flecks of spit flew from Pitino's mouth as he spoke. Cameron, who was standing nearby, could see them silhouetted against the TV lights. He also could see the faces in the crowd, spellbound and astounded by Pitino's audaciousness. The new coach warned UK fans to do whatever was necessary to buy season tickets, because "they're going to be the most precious things in life sometime."
It was a halftime speech to the commonwealth, a one-man pep rally. His words resonated with those who lived and died with Big Blue. For at least one day, Kentucky was Kentucky again.
Reprinted from "The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds that Changed Basketball" by Gene Wojceichowski with permission from Blue Rider Press, a member of The Penguin Group (USA). Copyright 2012 by Gene Wojceichowski
Book excerpt: Gene Wojciechowski tells the story of how Rick Pitino came to coach at Kentucky.