This article appears in the December issue of Louisville Magazine. Photos by Gail Kamenish
University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino’s weekly press conferences are always popular destinations for reporters — not just because he offers lively answers to questions about his team and upcoming games, but also for the way Pitino sometimes adds historical anecdotes and broader social observations to questions that started out just about basketball. Working with an idea originally suggested by Louisville WTGK radio host Joe Elliott, Writer Bill Doolittle recently sat down with Pitino in his office at the YUM! Center practice facility on the U of L campus to talk about . . . well, to talk about anything and everything – except basketball.
Bill Doolittle: I interviewed guard Terry Rozier on media day and he said you read the players a chapter from your book (The One-Day Contract) on social media. And I thought you could talk about that a little bit — kids today, your players and technology.
Rick Pitino: “I tell my players every time they go out in public, every time they meet people, every time they meet with the media, to do a commercial on your virtues. I’m afraid they can’t do that because social media has so ruined their lives that they can’t verbally communicate. They can’t articulate their message the right way. So when it’s graduation time, when the air is let out of their basketball, they can’t go to human resources in an interview and impress. Because they’ve been so used to texting, so used to Instagram-ing. Every time they communicate, it’s by electronic media.”
Even when they’re in the same room.
“When they’re at the dinner table, they’re doing it. At a party, they’re doing it. They can’t even interact at a party with each other because they’re constantly texting. My players spend an average of four hours a day with social media, and they’re impacting no one and their lives aren’t being impacted. And my message to them was, ‘Why not take a few of those hours and put them to good use, to get ahead in life?’ Will they listen? Well, they’ll listen to my 15-minute dissertation. But I want it to be food for thought for them. Why don’t you be different from the rest? Because every basketball team in the nation, they’re doing the same thing.”
And that goes for any kid today.
“Oh, even more so than my players is the everyday high school student.”
Your players seem well spoken.
“On Dec. 1, they’re going to bring me anywhere from $200 to $300. I’m going to open up an Ameritrade account for them, and they’ll learn to trade equities. And Will Scott, who played for us (2006-’08) and is now on Wall Street, he’ll pick out the stocks for us.”
Will they have an interest in that?
“It’s their account.”
Do you find that kids today need somebody like a coach to guide them through life stuff?
“I think so, because most of the kids that we have are from backgrounds that would not teach them these things. They’re just trying to make ends meet, put food on the table, pay for their rent and housing. Parents of my players would never think of teaching them about the interest rates on a credit card, why you pay it off each month. Those are things they’re not going to get from their parents. They are going to get a lot of love, a lot of attention, but they’re not going to get those things. That’s where I come in.”
You’re in homes where there’s not a lot of wealth and then, as a person of stature in this community, you’re in some of the richest homes. You see it. Do you notice a big divide in this country between rich and poor?
“It’s a caste system, more so today than ever before. The wealthy have gotten wealthier and the poor have gotten poorer. And the middle class is not coming up; it’s moving down. It’s quite obvious. My world for 11 months a year revolves around people without means. I would say for two weeks a year — one week I go to Saratoga, one week I go to Del Mar — I see a whole different world out there.”
Student-athletes have no money, for the most part. Sometimes they’re sitting in a classroom next to somebody who does. But is that a positive thing — throwing people into one melting pot?
“Louisville is a little bit different from most universities. Louisville is basically a blue-collar school. If you were at Ohio State, that may be true. But at Louisville, I would say that maybe 90 percent of students are working to put themselves through college or come from blue-collar families who have to work hard to pay for tuition. So Louisville is a little bit of an exception. I would say that Kentucky is an exception, as a state. Because it’s not an overly wealthy state.”
Do you like living here?
“It’s the finest place I’ve lived, because it incorporates everything that I want in my life. I like good restaurants. I like the Thoroughbred industry. I like very little traffic because I grew up with traffic. So it offers me everything that I want in my life and then, if I want an amenity, I go to New York or I go to Miami, where I have residences. So I can get away from the basketball world, so to speak.”
We don’t have paparazzi chasing you around here, but I’ll bet in New York you get recognized.
“I do, but in New York they’ll yell something from the street, shake your hand, but when you go out, everybody is in such a rush to get where they have to go that they just don’t notice. Now if you go to a Knicks game or you go to the theater, somebody may say something. But when you’re out at a restaurant, everybody does their own thing.”
So you have places you can go where you can just step away.
“Miami is the best for that. Miami is the best.”
You’ve been in horse racing for years. I’ve covered you since Cam Gambolati had horses for you. You had horses in the Breeders’ Cup. People everywhere say horse racing is in trouble, that it’s dead. What is one radical thing horse racing can do?
“We need some form of casino gambling in the state. Why should we give the money across the river to another state? It’s in every state surrounding us. It’s not stopping Kentuckians from gambling, so why not have slots that would produce higher purses for the horses? If anybody should have slots, it’s Kentucky, because the purse structure should go up in the home of horse racing. Why should New York’s purses or California’s purses or Florida’s purses be higher than the breeding capital of the world?”
Beyond horse racing, you meet celebrities, successful people — politicians, doctors, business people, actors. Can you tell us about some of those associations?
“I played golf for a long time with Jack Nicholson. Laughed all through the rounds. He’s a big basketball fan. I’ve played with Steve Wynn, the casino person. I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life with people like that, and the better person they are, the more I’ve enjoyed it. So I try to take away the Hollywood or Las Vegas part out of them and see what kind of person they are. I make decisions on how they treat me. Jack was a lot of fun to play golf with. I’ve played with a lot of professional golfers who are great to be around. I played last year with (Kentucky PGA tour veteran) Kenny Perry, and I judge Kenny Perry not as a golfer but as a person. And the person is better than the golfer, and he’s a great golfer.”
Photographer Gail Kamenish: People had all that fun with you and The Godfather. Have you ever met Al Pacino?
“I’ve got a great story about Al Pacino. When I was in college, I had a summer job as a night watchman. My father was the superintendent of an industrial building. I lived in his locker room. I had a cot. I would sleep in the morning when I got off at 5 o’clock until lunchtime; then I would go play at McBurney YMCA (then) on 23rd Street in Manhattan. On Saturdays, Al would come over, and I would choose Al into our games just because he was in The Godfather. He couldn’t play. He was too small.
“Years later, my wife is trying to get in to see him on Broadway. And she was using a friend of hers who was a producer on Good Morning America to get her backstage to see Al. I said, ‘You should have asked me.’ And my wife thinks she knows everything about me, but she didn’t know the story I just told you. And I said, ‘You know I used to choose him into games.’ She said, ‘No, you did not.’ I said, ‘OK, use Good Morning America.’ She came back and I said, ‘How was the show? Did you get backstage yet?’ She said, ‘No, she couldn’t get me backstage.’”
So what did you do?
“I picked up the phone, and I called up the box office. I asked to speak to the manager. I said, ‘I’m Coach Pitino. I used to coach the New York Knicks. Knew Al a long time ago, and I’d like to speak to. . . .’ Right away, he says, ‘Louis is his manager. Here’s his number.’ I called Louis and said, ‘I’m Rick Pitino. I used to coach the New York Knicks.’ He said, ‘I know who you are, Coach.’ I said, ‘My wife and myself are big Al Pacino fans and we’re coming to your show, and she’d like to get back and say hello to him.’ ‘No problem, Coach.’ I went back to her and said, ‘No problem — we’re going to see Al. We just have to stay in our seats after the show lets out and Louis will come and get us and bring us backstage.’ So we’re sitting there, sitting there, sitting there. Finally the usher says, ‘C’mon, you gotta move out.’ I said, ‘No, we’re meeting Al’s business manager.’ He says, ‘That’s what they all say. Get outta here.’ So Joanne says, ‘Yea, Mr. Big Shot, where’s Louis?’ And as we’re about to leave, Louis comes out and says, ‘Coach, come on back.’ So we went back and met Al. I was talking to (the actor) Elliott Gould, who’s a Knicks fan, and she’s talking to Al about Scent of a Woman and doing the tango, and there he was, showing her how he learned to tango. Oh, she was in heaven.”
Did she meet anybody else like that?
“The same thing happened with a guy she just adores today, Hugh Jackman. We got backstage to meet Hugh Jackman. And it was because my son worked on Wall Street, and the person next to him, his brother was in the show. And listen to this one: His brother happened to be an ex-UK football walk-on. So we got backstage because of that. We spent 20 minutes with Hugh Jackman. He may have been the nicest celebrity we’ve ever met. He was so engaging, so nice. I couldn’t believe it. My wife, she won’t go see Wolverine, but everything else he’s in, she’s there.”
Could you run us through an average day during the season?
“When I get up, I think, ‘OK, we’re going to master this day. This day is going to be something very special.’ Then I jump on the elliptical. I listen to music on the way to work. It’s not a long ride — 10 minutes. I generally stop at Starbucks. Now I have a new routine. I don’t go to Starbucks as much. I bought a blender. I make myself a healthy drink. And then we go to a morning meeting. Then we go to our practices in the morning. That takes us up to noon. Then I have a serious workout at noon. Then in the afternoon, I go over practice schedules. I do some business, office work, from 1:30 to 2:30. And then we get ready. Each day I give the players 15 minutes of a different topic, unrelated to basketball. And then we do basketball.”
What Terry Rozier was talking about, would that be part of the 15 minutes?
I see the scene as Mr. Chips or something like that.
(He laughs.) “When we go out together socially, the players, it’s just laid-back time. It’s, ‘Let’s talk. Where are you at with your life and what are you doing and who’s your girlfriend? Is it serious?’ Those types of discussions.”
That must be fun for you.
“It is fun. I worry about them the same way I worry about my children. I worry a lot about Chane Behanan (recently reinstated to the team from suspension). I do worry about him. And on a Friday or Saturday night, I hope he’s at the right party. Just like you did with your children. You’re looking at your watch, although you don’t know what time your players are getting home sometimes. You know what time your children are getting home. It’s the same type of concern. It’s really no different.”
You’ve mentioned Pitbull a few times. Who is Pitbull? Is he a DJ?
“Armando Christian Pérez. You’ve never listened to Pit. . . . You HAVE listened to Pitbull; you just don’t know you have.”
I’m a classical-music guy, so I don’t think I’ve listened to Pitbull.
“Yea, you have. You have listened to him, though. I have him in my iPod.”
Kamenish: I’ve never heard of him either.
“You’ve never heard of Pitbull? You both have. You just don’t know it.”
You’ve tossed his name out in a press conference, and I didn’t want to interrupt to ask.
(Pitino plays a Pitbull song on his iPhone. As the song blares, Kamenish notices from Pitino’s office window Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell with a girlfriend. “That’s Patrick Ewing’s daughter,” Pitino says. Then he cues up another Pitbull song.)
Do the players think you’re hip?
“(Pitbull’s) more of the Miami scene. He’s a Cuban-American, and he’s a rapper. Maybe the biggest one today.”
(He selects yet another Pitbull song.)
OK, you’ve answered my question on him.
“I just want to make sure you know who he is. . . . He’s coming to a game this year.”
Are you going to sing with him? Are you going to wear your famous white suit?
“Not to that game. My son and I met him backstage, and he was the most regular guy. Just a great guy. He was so over-the-top nice.”
You said that you had a job in college as a night watchman. Horse trainer Nick Zito told me he once sliced bread in a bakery in Queens, where he grew up. And people had these regular jobs when they started out, and I just wondered if you got something out of it.
“I just looked to earn money. I worked as a caddie. I worked as a night watchman. I worked as an elevator operator. So it was just to make money. No internship at that point in time.”
Then you played college ball at Massachusetts and were a pretty good player. But at some point along the way, one of those days, you decided you wanted to coach. How did that happen?
“I signed a professional contract to play in Italy. And in Madison Square Garden we lost in triple overtime to Jacksonville in the NIT. Hawaii won in the opening round; we lost in the 9 o’clock game. We were back in the hotel, and Howard Garfinkel, who ran a five-star camp and ran a recruiting service, said to me, ‘You’re wasting your time going overseas to play. You’ll play five to seven years. You’ll come back and nobody will remember you. Why don’t you go into coaching?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I still want to play.’ Joking around, I said to him, ‘You see that guy (then-Hawaii head coach Bruce O’Neil) over there?’ This is when Hawaii Five-O was on TV and very popular in the mid-’70s. I said, ‘Get me a job with that man, and I’ll stop playing.’”
So you ended up getting a job in Hawaii.
“I talked to (O’Neil) and asked how you get into coaching, and he said you start as a graduate assistant and work your way up. So I had (future Hall of Fame coaches) Hubie Brown and Chuck Daly write a recommendation for me. I’d worked with them at the five-star camp.”
(But O’Neil didn’t have any openings on his staff. Pitino was about to go to Italy when O’Neil called and said his graduate assistant had decided to go to law school. He had an opening.) “I said, ‘Can you give me 24 hours?’ He said, ‘Not any more than that.’ This was a Saturday and he needed somebody by the following Friday. I called him back the next day and decided to take it. I was named a full-time assistant about three months later.”
So was that it? You never wanted to do anything but basketball once you got into coaching?
“Once I got into basketball, it consumed my life. I’m into a lot of things, but I spend no time with those other things. Outside of owning Thoroughbreds, we own car dealerships, Papa John’s (franchises), Dunkin’ Donuts, Outback Steakhouses. But I’m an absentee owner.”
What’s your best advice for young people?
“You have to be realistic about your skills and talents. Sometimes people chase a passion — my ballplayers, for instance — and they really should put their skills and ambition into something that’s attainable. I don’t try to tell them you can’t be a pro. But know when it’s time to get on with it. Not to be going from Luxembourg to France. Let’s get on with your life now and use your education to be a success somewhere else.
“You measure yourself by your players’ success — and not just basketball success. I had a young man named Will Scott, who started with Goldman Sachs and is now at a boutique firm. And Brad Gianiny (2003-’07) was a walk-on, and he’s doing very well on Wall Street. Luke Hancock and I just had a discussion about that. I said, ‘Luke, you can go overseas and play, try to make it with a pro team, or you can network this town and you’ll get yourself a fine job and maybe be a Junior Bridgeman someday.’"
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