The Pitino Derby
When Rick Pitino was coach of the New York Knicks in 1987-88 and '88-89, his basketball smarts and I-want-full-court-pressure-and-I-want-it-now freneticism enabled him to stand out amid the giant shadows of the NBA's superstars. As a result, during his seven years at Kentucky. Pitino has been the candidate for just about any NBA job, the man who has represented hope for even hopeless franchises. Each time Pitino has said no to an NBA offer, he has become even more desirable, the forbidden fruit whose nectar holds the secret to success.
Thus, it came as no surprise when the New Jersey Nets, one of the hopeless, offered Pitino a five-year, $20 million deal in late April. Pitino listened, surveyed the jumble of Nets owners trying to direct that aimless franchise and politely declined. But within weeks, two events occurred that forced him to rethink his decision: Antoine Walker, his gifted young sophomore forward, announced he was going pro, and New Jersey's ownership settled on one voice, that of Henry Taub, a friend of Pitino's. In addition, Pitino is facing a lawsuit that could make life in small-town Lexington messy. He is one of four codefendants in a $2 million sex-discrimination suit filed by JoAnn Hauser. a former Kentucky team trainer. Hauser alleges that Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton reassigned her to the women's team so Pitino could hire Edward Jamiel, with whom he had worked at Providence. All of that is why, at week's end. Pitino was seriously considering an offer from the Nets to be general manager, coach and part owner.
The absolute power being offered to Pitino largely explains why a man who could have his pick of NBA jobs may choose to work for a franchise with a losing legacy. The lure of coming back East is part of it too. Pitino grew up in New York City, and he and his family felt comfortable in Providence, where he was head coach in 1985-86 and '86-87. That makes him a natural choice to be the savior of another franchise in ruins, the once-proud Boston Celtics, but the Celtics have never offered a coach, general manager or team president any sum close to $20 million.
And so it's the Nets who are poised to win the Pitino sweepstakes. They are hoping he can take a club devoid of All-Stars and turn it around. That challenge, say friends, has him energized.
If Pitino does leave Kentucky, he'll have some explaining to do to young Jamaal Magloire, a 6'10" center from Toronto who signed with Kentucky last week, having been wooed away from Purdue by Pitino's charm. Last Wednesday at the New York Athletic Club, where he was receiving an award for leading Kentucky to the national championship. Pitino was called away from the dais to deliver one more recruiting pitch to Magloire on a cell phone.
What does Pitino say to Magloire now? Just what Magloire would have said to Pitino in two years if he turns out to be as good as everyone thinks: Nothing personal, but this is a business, and I have to think of myself and my family first. Ciao.
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