Modern royalty flourishes in the commonwealth of Kentucky, and no one is more likely to have this status conferred upon him than someone who owns great thoroughbred racehorses or coaches college basketball at Kentucky or Louisville. Each field is a secular religion of its own, and by this standard Rick Pitino has been not just a prince but one of the most powerful Kentuckians of the last half century. ¶ A transplanted Yankee with an attitude (and accent) to match, Pitino rescued the University of Kentucky from the embarrassment of NCAA sanctions to win the 1996 national championship, and nine years later he led long-dormant Louisville to its first Final Four in nearly two decades. Horses in his ownership have twice run in the Kentucky Derby, the most prestigious race in the world. He has built his image—and has written four books—on the values of family, leadership and devout Catholicism. His name is iconic.
Or at least it was until last week, when further details about Pitino's part in a very messy affair became public. There had been a strong scent of scandal since May 12, when Karen Sypher, a 49-year-old former model and auto-glass saleswoman, was indicted on federal charges of trying to extort cash and services totaling $10 million from Pitino, 56. (Sypher pleaded not guilty at her arraignment.) Last week the odor intensified when the Louisville Courier-Journal obtained copies of police interviews conducted in July in which Pitino admitted to having had what he called consensual sex with Sypher after hours at a Louisville restaurant in August 2003 and then alleged that he later gave her $3,000 after Sypher said that she was pregnant by Pitino, was planning to have an abortion and needed money to pay for health insurance.
The resulting drama left Pitino sullied, Sypher facing prison and the university on the horns of a high-stakes dilemma. A $252 million, 22,000-seat arena is rising on the downtown skyline along the Ohio River, the future home of the Cardinals (beginning in the fall of 2010) that Pitino is expected to fill; and 80 miles to the east, at Kentucky, there is swift reconstruction being done by the relentless John Calipari, who was hired as coach in March to hang national championship banners in Rupp Arena and steamroll Louisville in the process.
The university threw its support behind Pitino in the days after the scandal broke. In statements Louisville president James Ramsey said, "We're all ready to move on," and athletic director Tom Jurich said he is behind Pitino "a million percent." (Ramsey said that Pitino had told university officials "several months ago" about the alleged extortion attempt.)
Even after the revelations last week, the school stood firm. In an interview last Saturday, Jurich said, "Right now, there is a stain, no question about it. One night he made a bad decision, and we've just got to deal with that. He's done wonders by his players; he's done wonders by the school. I think the body of his work is eventually going to outweigh everything else."
It will have to outweigh the emotional and divisive issue of abortion, complicated by Pitino's staunch and public Catholicism. At Louisville he coaches with a Catholic priest, his longtime friend Ed Bradley, sitting at the end of the bench. The Very Reverend William Fichteman, pastor of the Cathedral of the Assumption, the mother church of the Louisville archdiocese, said last Saturday before 5:30 p.m. Mass, "It's an embarrassment if indeed [Pitino], in any way, supports abortion. Anytime abortion is involved, it raises very serious questions for Roman Catholics."
But clearly Cardinals fans do not want to lose Pitino in the face of the state's impending basketball civil war, and there was little reaction apart from a call for Pitino's dismissal from Cardinals for Life, a campus antiabortion group. Many business leaders and politicians are connected to the Louisville basketball program, as financial or fanatical supporters, but none went on record calling for action against Pitino—perhaps because details about the abortion, like much of the Pitino-Sypher drama, are less than clear.
What is not in dispute is that Pitino and Sypher had sex on the night of Aug. 1, 2003, at Porcini, a Louisville Italian restaurant favored by Pitino and his entourage. Pitino, married for 33 years and the father of five children, and Sypher, a divorced mother of four at the time, have confirmed this. Beyond that, there is considerable disagreement.
When Pitino was interviewed by Louisville police in July, according to his lawyer, Steve Pence, who was present for the session, "Coach [Pitino] told the police that Ms. Sypher talked about having an abortion [and] said she had no insurance. Coach asked how much insurance cost. And she said, according to coach, $3,000. So Coach paid $3,000 for insurance."
Sypher, however, told SI, "I never saw any money from Rick and didn't ask for any money. He never offered to pay for anything. I had my own health insurance at the time." Sypher has also made two other claims: She says that Pitino raped her twice in August 2003, including the night when she became pregnant. Louisville prosecutors declined to press charges, citing insufficient evidence and the fact that Sypher did not come forward at the time. She also told SI that Pitino forced her to get an abortion. "Absolutely ridiculous," says Pence. Additionally, Sypher produced the recording of a voice mail that Pitino left on her phone before the abortion, in which Pitino seems to leave the decision in Sypher's hands, albeit while making it clear that her pregnancy has left him uncomfortable. ("I'm a high-profile person.... This is a very unfortunate situation," Pitino says on the tape.)