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Perspective | Rick Pitino still thinks he’s the main act

Perspective | Rick Pitino still thinks he’s the main act

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

The hottest ticket in men’s college basketball rolled into Washington on Wednesday night: the Rick Pitino Postgame Dramedy Tour, the must-see event of the 2023-24 season. Available for those with a media credential or anyone with access to stable WiFi, the show comes with a decent warmup act; it always follows some form of Big East basketball. But anything related to St. John’s on the court pales in comparison to what happens after the horn, when its coach takes the microphone for his one-man performance.

Earlier this season, the veteran coach casually quipped about feeling like he wants to kill himself whenever he loses a game (because, sure, let’s make lighthearted jokes about suicide, Coach). Another time, he advocated for the disbandment of the NCAA enforcement staff, again after a loss. Then when Pitino lost another game Sunday, he used his meeting with reporters as a therapy session. He reminisced about the good ol’ days when he went 102-146 as the Boston Celtics’ coach, and described his first season at St. John’s as “the most unenjoyable experience I’ve had since I’ve been coaching.” He complained that his Red Storm rentals (a.k.a. the players he picked up in the transfer portal) “hear but don’t listen.” He even called some of them out by name for being “slow laterally” and “physically weak.”

And after many in the audience panned this latest act, Pitino opted for something a bit more crowd pleasing. Following a 90-85 win over Georgetown, Pitino took his seat inside a backroom in Capital One Arena and solemnly began: “I’m going to be quick with this.” He then spoke for four minutes uninterrupted, mostly coming across as a coach humbled — even though two days earlier, he was unapologetic about his inflammatory comments.

Rick Pitino, a throwback to the time when the coaches ruled the game with the flick of their tongue.

It has taken a while for a transcendent men’s Division I team to emerge this season, and when Connecticut finally did, the Huskies promptly lost by 19 to Creighton. Furthermore, there are no breakout stars; Zach Edey, the giant at Purdue who collects national player of the year awards and can dominate, hasn’t captivated when it matters because his team has a habit of choking during March Madness. The inconsistency among the best teams and dearth of a Caitlin Clark-esque player in the men’s game have opened the door for this collision between the classic and modern eras.

Once upon a time, the larger-than-the-game coach could have been a cult leader, he wielded so much control. Now the name, image and likeness era and the transfer portal have shifted the balance of power. Pitino, 71, is one of six septuagenarian head coaches in D-I men’s basketball. Those coaches have seen everything in basketball. Everything except this era. Freedom of movement. Players unionizing and earning salaries for their services — lucrative deals that still don’t rectify the fact that they’re an unpaid labor force.

So when Pitino calls this particular season his “most unenjoyable,” a sentiment he hinted at again even during his long-winded mea culpa Wednesday, his words align with a time when coaches have to do more than recruit and build a program. They are operating one-year teams for transient players while also pleading for more money and better facilities to attract them. While Pitino said he never should have called out his guys by name and apologized to the players, the fan base and, in an attempt to be funny, the “evil refs” who stole three wins from St. John’s this year, he also mentioned: “I’ve been really, really frustrated this year for a lot of different reasons.”

Not everyone can be Miami Hurricanes Coach Jim Larrañaga, who at 73, led his merry band of transfers to last season’s Final Four. After taking the St. John’s gig, Pitino brought 10 transfers into an untenable situation, which he began complaining about back in November. Two of those players — Jordan Dingle and RJ Luis Jr. — sat mostly stone-faced behind the table Wednesday while listening to their coach try to clean up his mess. Just after expressing his thoughts about being “really, really frustrated,” Pitino gestured at Dingle, then Luis in explaining how he wanted the guys he had thrown under the bus the previous game: “I recruited this man. I recruited this man.”

“It was all me,” Pitino continued. “And I’m really, really proud to have them, but I totally apologize to them for doing that. It was no intent. I was very calm, very collected, and I wasn’t ripping them. That wasn’t my intent, but words matter.”

It’s a surprise Red Storm players followed Pitino to D.C. on Wednesday. But there they were, for the latest installment in their coach’s least enjoyable season ever, a tilt against a floundering Georgetown team.

Before the game, St. John’s players ended their layup line with a dunk show. Chris Ledlum, the graduate player Pitino called out by name for being “slow laterally,” tried going between his legs and missed. On the next attempt, as he tried to transfer the ball quickly from his left to right hand, it went flying and ricocheted off the shot clock. Then Ledlum attempted a 360-degree dunk, and that failed, too. Finally, Ledlum announced “watch out!” and finished a windmill, eliciting a howl from his teammates. “Slow laterally” perhaps but at least persistent.

During the game, Pitino mostly appeared as a calming influence on the sideline, hands behind his back or crossed over his gray blazer with the white pocket square. He completed the look with a button-down shirt and no tie — a nod to the past when coaches dressed like authority figures and not the casual kings of today. At one point, Pitino twisted the cap of his water bottle back and forth while his team worked through an offensive set on the far end. When the possession ended with a bucket, he set the bottle down and focused on the defensive end, where — again, using his words here — the “nonathletic” and “slow laterally” players in his rotation went to work. By the time the Red Storm’s lead ballooned to 21, its athleticism and foot speed didn’t seem to be a problem at all against this version of Georgetown.

Coaches are no longer the headliners in this sport. Their faces won’t be on the marquee when the Madness arrives. But even in an era with more parity among programs and more freedom for players, in which his peers have lost the spotlight, Pitino’s act is still going.

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