No more so than Pitino's scoring system in those 15-point games. "If we were ahead 14-13," says Jackson, "he would say they were up 12-9. We got in an argument about it. But how can you argue with the boss? I stopped playing with him. He couldn't stand to lose."
Jackson endured harsher trials than that with Pitino. He followed Pitino to the Knicks, and on the eve of the '89 playoff series with the 76ers, Jackson returned to Purchase following a 2½-week road trip that ended with a red-eye from California. He was drained and looking forward to an evening with his wife and one-year-old child. Knicks assistant Jim O'Brien had just taken the coaching job at Dayton, leaving the staff a man short, so Pitino told Jackson that he wanted him in Philly that night to scout the Sixers—a team New York had already played six times and knew as cold as Barkley's shiny pate. Jackson choked up when Pitino told him to go. "Rick, I just can't do it," he said. "I haven't seen my wife. I'm exhausted." He started to cry.
Pitino bristled. "Will you knock off the f———crying!" he said. "Get your ass down to Philly. This is the goddam playoffs!" As Jackson left, Pitino turned to Willard and said, "Is he really that upset?"
Pitino recalls the episode with remorse. "I don't know what made me do it," he says. "Afterward I felt terrible, but I didn't blink."
Jackson is among scores of former assistants and players who have felt the sting of Pitino's wrath and danced like marionettes at the end of his wires, and the remarkable thing is that so many of them feel affection for him and gratitude for his willingness to have shared what he knows. Today, after a year as head coach of the Knicks and two more as top man at Wisconsin, Jackson has reached the top management ranks of the NBA. Working for Pitino required "great sacrifice personally," Jackson says, but then, "I am where I am today because of him. He taught me the trade."
No one has felt the heat of Pitino's ambition more than his wife, a captive from Gotham, living in exile in Kentucky. For years, whenever the Pitinos went out in Lexington, Rick had to plead with Joanne to be more diplomatic with folks who approached their table. Inevitably someone would ask her how she liked Kentucky. "Oh, I don't like it," she would say. He would kick her under the table. "Oww!" she would yell. Feigning surprise, he would mutter, "I'm sorry. Did I step on your foot?"
She had nothing against Lexington, Joanne says, but New York was her home, and that was where she wanted to be. Rick had ripped her out of Providence and then out of New York. "I was so furious with him that I wanted to aggravate him," she says. "I was deliberately not nice to people." She is more comfortable in Kentucky now that Rick has bought her a home in New York's Westchester County, which she visits once a month. "It's my New York fix," she says.
Joanne has seen a softening in her husband. It began when Daniel died. Even today, eight years later, Rick gets a catch in his voice when he remembers Joanne cradling the child in the emergency room in Providence. "There's no easy way to handle that," he says. And eight months after Daniel died, Rick's father died of cancer.
But now the family has a sense of place and permanence that it never knew before. Joanne spends most of her time raising the five children, and the simple geometry of Rick's life confines him mostly to the four miles between Memorial Coliseum and his house off Tates Creek Road. He has no idea when his time in Kentucky might end. "Nobody thought I'd be here seven years," he says. "I thought I'd be here five. If I last 10 years and haven't won a championship, I'll be the first to say, 'You've got to make a change.' That's what people here want. If we won that, I might be here forever. But I won't be consumed by that."
He is in a place he has never been as a coach. His team is so rich in talent that at times it resembles a semipro operation in some covert NBA farm system. Of course, part of Pitino's reputation is that he always takes players further than their talent should allow. "As a rescuer, you have no place to go but up," he says. "But now I think we have a legitimate shot at being a dominating team. I've never had that before."