By Josh Cook
I’m a sports writer. I have been for 15 years. I’m very familiar with several different kinds of courts - basketball, volleyball and tennis.
But my Thursday morning trip to the U.S. District Court in downtown Louisville to cover a sports story was something new to me.
Of course this wasn’t just any story, it was the trial of Karen Sypher, who is charged with trying to extort University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino. And let’s face it, this really isn’t a sport story, it’s just an alleged crime that involves a sports figure, albeit one of the most recognizable figures (sports or otherwise) in the state.
That being said, some legalese is like Chinese to me. So it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t the only one facing that problem these days, and maybe I could try to explain Thursday morning’s proceedings the only way I know how - using sports.
So here we go...
Defense attorney James Earhart took a page out of Pitino’s book, literally, putting the full-court press on the Cardinals’ coach. At around 9:30 a.m. - ironically the same time that local media were being given a walking tour of the sparkling new downtown arena that will house Pitino’s team this fall - Earhart quoted a passage from Pitino’s most recent book - Rebound Rules: The Art of Success 2.0. In it Pitino talked about the work that the work of his assistants. And with that Earhart spring-boarded into asking if UofL sports information director Kenny Klein had been giving him daily briefings on the trial. Pitino said he hadn’t.
It’s often said that teams that press don’t like to be pressed. However that didn’t seem true Thursday morning of coaches who press. Pitino weathered Earhart’s early barrage of cross examination questions and fought back with some counterpunches of his own. He said that Sypher’s claim of rape was “devoid of credibility” and reiterated several times that “I never forced myself on Miss Sypher.”
Earhart and Pitino traded verbal jabs a short time later when, during another line of questioning, Pitino interrupted Earhart and told him that he was “here to give the truth.”
“I bet you are,” Earhart responded.
“Yes I am,” Pitino replied.
That was one of the rare times that Pitino exhibited the feistiness he shows on the basketball court. Under duress Pitino was Peyton Manning in the pocket, he was calm. But that should come as no surprise considering that Pitino used to face the media in New York and Boston on a daily basis. And while the UofL coach did seem slightly perturbed at times, it was no more so than when local television personality Bob Domine asks a zany question at a press conference and it was nothing like his famous “Larry Bird’s not walking through that door...” rant.
In fact Pitino seemed to toy with Earhart at times, like a Southeastern Conference football team might with a team from the Sun Belt Conference.
After repeated questions from Earhart in which he asked Pitino if he had taped any of his conversations with Sypher.
“I never taped any meeting,” Pitino said.
Earhart then asked about a conversation that happened on a specific day.
“If I didn’t tape any meeting, then I didn’t tape that meeting,” Pitino responded in a quip that brought laughter to the courtroom and even produced a slight chuckle out of the UofL coach.
Later Earhart asked Pitino why he didn’t report the two threatening phone he received to the authorities sooner than he did.
“We were trying to win a championship,” Pitino said of his 2008-09 Louisville team. “That was the most important thing in my life, not these false allegations.”
Finally something I understood. And it was also something that made you understand UofL’s numbing loss to Michigan State in the Elite Eight of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, Pitino reported the attempted extortion to the authorities the day after that defeat, a little bit better.
All in all it didn’t take me long to form the opinion that Earhart was like a baseball slugger swinging, but missing, for the fences with some of his questions. Or that Sypher has as much of a shot at winning this trial as the Pittsburgh Pirates do of winning the World Series, the Detroit Lions do of winning the Super Bowl or the Minnesota Timberwolves do of winning the NBA title.
However it also didn’t take me long to form the opinion that there will be no “winner” or “loser” in this trial. Pitino’s image is permanently tarnished, like Barry Bonds’ by implications of performance-enhancing drug use. Nope to me this trial is like one of those ties we watched during the recent World Cup - there will be no winner.
Photo courtesy University of Louisville