Joanne Pitino knew the time was upon her again. She had sensed it coming through those tinted evenings in Manhattan when the limo would fetch her and her husband, Rick, outside Madison Square Garden, and the crowds would cheer from the sidewalk as the couple climbed inside and began the long drive home to Bedford, N.Y., 35 miles north of the city. She felt it even after Rick had turned the New York Knicks around and had them trapping and pressing and running opponents out of the Garden. She saw it in the sleepless, raccoon hollows of Rick's eyes, in the long silences of those rides back home in the gloom.
It was the spring of 1989, and Rick Pitino, after two years as coach of the Knicks, was trapped once again in his own frantic press and was casing his office for exits. He had grown up in Queens, and coaching the Knicks had always been the job of his dreams, but he had been consumed by a front-office power struggle that had left him feeling isolated and exposed, and he had started to regret that he had ever come back to New York. Forget that he had taken just two years to disinter the cadaver in the Garden, reviving a Knicks team that had gone 24-58 the year before he had gotten there and now was racing through a 52-30 season on its way to the playoffs; forget that Knicks home games lifted off like rock concerts, rattling the girders in the arena.
"He would sit in the limo all the way home and would not talk," Joanne says. "The Garden was hopping, and he was winning all those games at home, and it should have been a happy time, but it wasn't. He was so sad. He really felt unwanted."
She sensed that he was gone already, and all that remained for her to do was to dread where he would be taking her next. By late April, as the Knicks were getting ready to face Charles Barkley and the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs, the new athletic director at Kentucky, C.M. Newton, had heard from mutual friends that Pitino might consider the coaching job in Lexington. The Wildcats basketball program, long suspected of corruption, had pushed the envelope so hard that, well, the envelope had popped open and $1,000 in cash—intended for the father of a Kentucky recruit—had spilled out. That was in March 1988, and in the scandal that ensued Kentucky basketball lay suddenly in ruins, facing NCAA probation. In April '89 Newton was hired to raise it from the ashes. Pitino had rescued every team he'd ever coached, from Boston University to Providence College to the Knicks, and none needed more rescuing than Kentucky. So Newton headed for Bedford, and Pitino turned to his wife.
Joanne has a New York sense of humor reminiscent of comedienne Joan Rivers's, but she saw nothing amusing in Newton's visit. She had been raised in suburban Long Island, and there was no way she was heading off for the wilds of Kentucky, like some settler in a Conestoga wagon, just so her shaman-husband could rattle his gourds among the true believers while most of her family remained back East.
Rick regaled her with tales of the long and storied tradition of Kentucky basketball. "I'm not going," Joanne said. "I don't even know where Kentucky is."
He told her tales of the white fences and the beauty of the bluegrass. "I'm not going," she said.
He added tales of the citadel of hoops built by the Baron himself, Adolph Rupp. "Don't you realize," Rick pleaded, "that this is the Roman Empire of college basketball?"
"So? Go yourself," she replied. She had been through all this before. Only two years earlier she had sat in her white Mercury Sable outside Alumni Hall at Providence and waited grimly as Pitino conferred with college officials about whether he should take an offer to coach the Knicks. He had just crowned one of the most surpassing coaching feats in college basketball by taking the Friars to the 1987 Final Four. The team had gone 11-20 in 1984-85, the year before Pitino arrived, and did not have a single dominant player. After that Final Four the Knicks had approached Pitino but had not made a formal offer. At one point, tired of waiting, Pitino had set a May 1 deadline for the offer, but it passed without a word from New York. So, on June 4, he signed a five-year contract with Providence.
He was 34, and in a city peopled largely by Italian-Americans, he had risen to the status of folk hero—the celebrated paesano who had turned basketball around at Providence, the closest thing Rhode Island has to a big-time franchise. He nearly owned the town. Joanne had been elated when he signed on again. After years of moving she saw Providence as their permanent home. They had built their first house there. "This was our Camelot," she says. They had filled the house with family and furniture and friends. Their six-month-old son, Daniel, born with a heart defect, had died in his crib in early March, four days before the Friars began their magical run to the Final Four, and he was buried in Providence.