Remembering Rick Pitino’s NBA coaching career

Rick Pitino was placed on administrative leave and effectively fired as Louisville’s basketball coach today, amid the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball.

If it’s ever possible for him to resume his coaching career at some point in the future, I’m not sure that there’s a place in the NBA for Pitino at this point in his career. But since it’s likely the two-time national championship coach is done at the collegiate level, let’s reflect back on his two short stints in the National Basketball Association.

New York Knicks (1987-89)

Pitino took New York to the playoffs in each of his two seasons with the Knicks. It was quite the accomplishment for a rookie coach, considering the team had missed the playoffs and failed to crack 25 wins in each of the previous three years under Hubie Brown. Pitino certainly benefited from budding star Patrick Ewing staying healthy during this stretch, something Ewing couldn’t do his first two seasons in the league.

In Pitino’s first season, the Knicks went 38-44, their best record in four years, and they stole a first-round playoff game from Larry Bird’s Celtics before falling in four games. In the 1988-89 season, with Ewing having one of his best career years, New York had its best season since it won the title in 1973. The Knicks won 52 games, but after sweeping Charles Barkley’s 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, they were ousted in six games by Michael’s Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

After that season, a 36-year-old Pitino, who always said he would return to college coaching after stints at Hawai’i, Boston U and Providence, stepped down as coach of the Knicks and took over at Kentucky, which was going through a scandal of its own at the time.

“I feel you have to know who you are. In my mind, I’m a college basketball coach, and that’s where my heart is.” -Rick Pitino

Boston Celtics (1997-01)

After a successful eight-year run at Kentucky that included a trip to the NCAA tournament in each of the six seasons the Wildcats were eligible, and a national championship in 1996, Pitino decided to give the NBA another try. The Celtics were coming off of what is still the worst season in franchise history, where they went 15-67 under M.L. Carr. Pitino was intrigued by the “glorious tradition” of the franchise and the “challenge” of turning things around. A $70 million contract over 10 years didn’t hurt either.

In four seasons, Pitino was unable to coach the Celtics to a winning record however, and his .380 win percentage in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season is the seventh-worst in franchise history. Overall, he went 102-146, with his best season being the first. He turned Carr’s 15-win team into a 36-win team, but that was as good as things would ever get. Pitino’s attempt at reviving Boston was a failed experiment, and he resigned 34 games into the 2000-01 season.

“It’s heartbreaking to me, what’s happened here. I love the Boston Celtics and I’ll always be a fan. … This organization has treated me like royalty since I came here. But you know, I’ve been going at this pretty hard now for 3 1/2 years and I haven’t seen many results.” -Rick Pitino

That spring, Pitino returned to college basketball, taking over as coach of the Louisville Cardinals, a position he’s held until now. His time at Louisville was incredibly successful, winning a second national championship in 2013 and confirming his place among college basketball’s coaching elite. But his time at Louisville was also marred by scandal after scandal, and this latest investigation is apparently the last straw.

If a return to the NBA is ever an option for Pitino and the decision makers at the NBA level, there’s reasons to believe it can be either successful or a complete failure. Personally, I’m a fan of team’s bringing in young and upcoming coaches, especially rebuilding teams that are usually the ones in the market for a coach. At 65 years old, I don’t think Pitino fits that mold, making a return to the NBA unlikely. But all it takes is one executive to believe Pitino is the man to take his team over the top, so maybe we haven’t seen the last of him.

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