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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Athletes will learn from Dwyane Wade’s mistake

The mentality of today’s athlete is in the midst of a reconstruction. Actually, that mental shift is probably in its last stages of being complete.

No longer do athletes need the glamour of big market, prestigious franchises behind them to become recognized as household names. They also don’t need to stay with the same team that drafted them to create a cult following. Thanks to social media, athletes are more accessible than ever, and if they’re good enough, people will care.

Where an athlete plays is less important than how much that athlete is making and the legacy said athlete leaves behind. And in decision making, legacy is no longer superior to the amount of money an athlete makes. They’re equals.

We’re seeing evidence of this attitude shift with the struggles of teams like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers to attract big-name free agents such as LaMarcus Aldridge. In the past, a player like Aldridge might have jumped at the opportunity to play for one of those teams, and only after he’d been verbally chastised for leaving Portland, but in today’s NBA no-one is blinking an eye at his decision. He’ll likely end up with another small market team like San Antonio that offers him the money he’s looking for along with the chance to play a major role in winning championships.

Every player won’t be as fortunate as Aldridge to have the opportunity for both rings and money, but those players will join the team that has the most money, not the one with the best chance to win – unless it’s a veteran like Paul Pierce.

This shift is creating a culture where loyalty between athletes and organizations almost doesn’t exist, and that’s to no one’s fault. It’s business.

The Miami Heat should appreciate the fact that a player the caliber of Dwyane Wade took numerous pay cuts to allow other great players to earn enough money to want to join the Heat and compete for championships. But now that he wants some of that money back, it’s a problem? Apparently so. This is because franchises have never been completely loyal to the athletes.

Most sports organizations are about staying ahead of the bullet, not biting it. That’s why a team like the Indianapolis Colts can cut Peyton Manning before he was ready to hang it up.

It’s about time athletes started doing the same thing.

Paying Wade could go a long way for Miami in drawing other free agents in the future. It shows that you’re still one of the organizations that can be trusted. It’s a place players want to play. If you snub perhaps the greatest player in franchise history and one of the best of all time, who’s still playing at a high level, and has never been the highest paid player on the team, what message does it send to Kevin Durant who the team wants to pursue in 2016.

But then again, if players are going to become more cut throat anyway, maybe the Heat shouldn’t care. Paying Kobe Bryant doesn’t seem to be helping the Los Angeles Lakers in their pursuit of free agents.

The fact is, players cut from the cloth of Wade and Tim Duncan (who has also been underpaid the majority of his career) are a dying breed.

The business savvy of players like LeBron James has cultivated an environment where the athlete controls the conversation of business. Russell Wilson is trying to create that same environment in the National Football League.

Unfortunately, Wade is a few years too late. He allowed Miami to spend his money on other players, and they have no obligation to give that money back. Sure, it would be the moral thing to do. But then again, there are no morals in big business.

A lot of athletes are going to learn from Wade’s situation, and less will be willing to take massive pay cuts over the course of their careers. Will winning be less important? No. But it won’t be more important either.

Fans always want players to say the politically correct things and put revenue on the back burner to winning but don’t expect the same thing from the owners. I don’t blame an athlete for putting his finances first. Carmelo Anthony did the right thing by taking every penny he could from New York. If Los Angeles wanted to overpay Bryant, I don’t blame him for taking every dollar. Guess what? It’s not Anthony or Bryant’s fault their teams can’t attract free agents. Management isn’t doing their job.

New York was terrible long before Anthony got there. And Los Angeles did the right thing by keeping an all-time great, but they clearly overpaid him.

For years, professional sports organization have controlled the narrative of an athletes contract. If you perform up to expectations, great it worked out. If you exceed expectations, sorry we’ll re-negotiate at a higher cost next time you’re a free agent – but there isn’t any back pay. In the NFL, if you don’t perform up to expectations, you get cut and the team isn’t obligated to pay out the rest of the contract.

We’re seeing a shift where the burden of a contract is becoming that of the owners and not the players. That’s the way it should be. Let the billionaires worry about money, not the young man/woman being paid a small fraction of those billions to live out his/her dream.