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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Pat Forde

Rick Pitino’s Winding Career Lands Him Back in the Garden and Winning in the Big East Tournament

Rick Pitino exited the court at Madison Square Garden with an index finger in the air, cheers ringing in his ears, a man returning to his element. He applauded the St. John’s Red Storm pep band for its efforts, then slapped hands with fans hanging over the railing. It had been a labyrinthine journey to this homecoming, the kind of March moment both the underachieving program and the aging coach envisioned a year ago when Pitino was hired.

This is why they did it. It was inevitable that Pitino would deliver here, a prodigal son returned to this cathedral of the sport.

In many ways, the Garden has been the sun around which Pitino’s basketball life has orbited. The New York native was a New York Knicks fan as a kid, a Knicks assistant and then the head coach in the 1980s. He brought the Providence Friars to the building for the Big East tournament from 1985 to ’87, then the Louisville Cardinals from 2006 to ’13.

Now, he’s back as the coach of St. John’s, which plays most of its regular-season games here—but this is different. This is the most celebrated of all conference tournaments. Pitino’s return is a full-circle milestone in arguably the most dramatic college basketball coaching career of all time, a florid epoch rife with glory and scandal, joy and heartache, triumph and embarrassment. He was 33 years old at his initial Big East tournament as coach of the Friars, 71 now leading the Red Storm.

Pitino and St. John’s won their first game in the Big East tournament on Thursday.

Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

Despite the accumulation of incredible scar tissue during his odyssey, Pitino’s basketball core remains robustly healthy. He is still a stone-cold winner.

The latest proof was St. John’s 91, the Seton Hall Pirates 72 in the Big East quarterfinals. The dominant victory was the Red Storm’s sixth straight, and it carried extra payload for two reasons:

  • It likely locked up an NCAA men’s tournament bid, which would make Pitino the only coach in men’s college basketball history to take six different schools to the Big Dance.
  • It marked an emphatic turnaround from a dispiriting loss to the Pirates on Feb. 18 that seemed to doom the Johnnies’ tournament chances.

Pitino all but declared the season over after that game, a classic moment of RP Theater for those who have seen that particular drama play out before. He lamented his players’ lack of quickness and lack of toughness and alluded to his assistants doing a poor job evaluating those players in recruiting. He included this flourish: “This is the most unenjoyable experience of my lifetime.”

Naturally, a six-game winning streak has ensued with this bunch of bums. It included Pitino breaking out a white suit for a home upset of the Creighton Bluejays, a callback to a white-suit stunt he pulled in 2008 with a Louisville team that needed to make a late run to turn around its season.

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Pitino was not playing a motivational mind game when he said what he said. He was simply being himself after a bad loss—hyperbolically declaring that the end of days is near because that’s what defeat feels like to him. Having covered him extensively over more than 30 years, this was merely the latest time he’s sounded like his team was irredeemably bad, when it really wasn’t.

“It wasn’t an act,” Pitino said Thursday. “I thought you all overreacted a little bit to me saying that we were a little slow laterally and we’ve got to get stronger. You should have seen what I said about my players at Kentucky back in the day.”

This is a fact. One example, pertaining to walk-on Kentucky Wildcats guard Cameron Mills, a great shooter but very slow afoot: “When I watch him shoot, I smile. When I watch him play defense, I want to commit suicide.”

The mood swings between victory and defeat remain a constant with Pitino, but so does the tactical and motivational genius. He ranks among the all-time coaching greats, which is why his career has been able to endure a succession of personal and professional mishaps.

He’s been to seven Final Fours at three schools and won two national championships, becoming the only coach to win titles with two different programs. He’s also been blackmailed by a woman with whom he had a late-night tryst in an Italian restaurant; he’s had two of those Final Fours and one of those national titles vacated by the NCAA for rules violations; and he was fired as coach of the Louisville Cardinals after the program was caught up in the FBI investigation of corruption in the sport.

His career is vast and contains multitudes.

After being fired at Louisville in 2017 at age 65, it seemed reasonable to assume that we’d seen the last of Pitino in college basketball. He was exiled to coach professionally in Greece, then got another shot—this one with the Iona Gaels in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a long way from the spotlight. Pitino quickly and inevitably asserted his superiority at that level, winning two MAAC regular-season titles and two tourney championships in three seasons.

That tenure at Iona cleansed Pitino’s résumé sufficiently to make him hireable at St. John’s, a proud program desperate for a return to relevance. The Johnnies haven’t been to the NCAAs since 2019 and haven’t won a game there since ’00. That’s also the last time they advanced to the Big East tourney semifinals—until now.

With a bye into the quarterfinals, fifth-seeded St. John’s came into the game against No. 4 Seton Hall in a must-win situation from an NCAA standpoint. But, as Pitino pointed out, his team had essentially been in must-win mode for the previous five games as well. This was just a continuation of elimination basketball.

And nothing brings out the best in Pitino like tournament time. He came into this game on a personal seven-game Big East tournament winning streak, having won the thing at Louisville in 2012 and ’13. He’s won 14 conference tournaments, and his lifetime NCAA tourney record is a spectacular 54–21, if you count all the games the NCAA vacated.

Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway had one of the greatest March runs ever a couple of years ago, when he took the No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s Peacocks to the Elite Eight. But he ran into a true March master Thursday.

“March is what it’s all about in college basketball,” Pitino said. “We told the guys, ‘You’ve got to play your best basketball going into March.’”

To assist in that, Pitino tweaked his offense this week to a more up-tempo setting. He knew that tension can set in when a team plays slowly in a half-court setting, and he knew that a slower game would benefit Seton Hall.

“I want you to go out and try to score 100 points tonight,” Pitino told his team. “I want you to play racehorse basketball.

“I feel that takes the pressure off teams. When you’re in the open court and you’re running and you’re having to move the ball, pass the ball and cut, you’re not overthinking in the half court. Don’t play to fail. Play to attack.”

St. John’s got out and got busy in the first half, shooting 60% from the field. Then the Red Storm started the second half with a defensive flurry, making steals and deflecting passes and pushing their lead to double digits. Seton Hall made a series of runs but finally cracked in the final five minutes, giving a large St. John’s fan contingent more to cheer about than they’ve had in 24 years.

The old guard is so happy that Walter Berry, one of the great players on the last St. John’s team to make the Final Four—way back in 1985—sought out Pitino and hugged him afterward. Pitino has been around so long that he coached against Berry and that Red Storm team while at Providence.

Throughout this must-win game, Pitino was the orchestra conductor bathing in the spotlight. Hands folded behind his back—as they were at Providence, at Kentucky, at Louisville, at Iona—he bellowed instructions on every possession. Cocksure as always on the sideline, he made an official laugh with one quip and then made his family laugh with another, talking directly to daughter Jacqueline and son Ryan during one timeout.

“Get off your phones,” he told them. “This is a big game.”

As is often the case at tournament time, the pied piper of the game brought his entourage to the arena. Vinny Tatum, former student manager for Pitino at Kentucky and later a staffer at Louisville, was sitting courtside. Jimmy Minardi, Pitino’s brother-in-law, was a few chairs down. St. John’s mega-booster Mike Repole—like Pitino a thoroughbred racing enthusiast—was behind the bench.

By game’s end, Pitino was slapping hands with all of them and hugging his kids. He snuck a kiss to his wife, Joanne, before the final buzzer.

Their lives have been intertwined with this tournament in glorious and heartbreaking ways. There were the three Big East titles at Louisville, but also an awful moment in 1987 after Providence was eliminated by the Georgetown Hoyas. The Friars’ bus was headed back to Rhode Island when they were pulled over by a state trooper with tragic news: their 6-month-old son, Daniel, who had been ill since birth, had died.

That was 37 years ago. So much has happened to Rick Pitino since then. For his career orbit to carry him back around the sun—to the Big East tournament and Madison Square Garden—is the latest chapter in an utterly unique life story.

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