Rick Pitino: Maharajah of the Blue Grass or Baron of Beantown?

May 1997

You're Rick Pitino, and you've got a juicy life crisis.

You're 44 years old, the Alexander The Great of your profession (yeah, yeah, yeah, ol' Alex was 33 when he checked out, but life was harder then), and you now have a choice: You can either extend your current status as the Maharajah of Blue Grass or you can take a shot at becoming the Baron of Beantown, with guaranteed riches whether you succeed or not.

You've been saying for the past two months or so that you're very happy at Kentucky and you'd need an awfully good reason to leave. Now you may have the reason. Or, if you will, those reasons. You're making serious money where you are, but the Celtics will be able to pay you more. And money matters. It matters to you, me, and just about everyone else on the planet except Mother Teresa and seven Trappist monks in Kentucky (who are probably UK diehards).

But I know your decision won't all be about money, because it's not as if you're on food stamps right now. The word is you're making at least somewhere between two and three mill a year, and it's probably closer to three. You're making money, and you've got a brother on Wall Street who has taught you how to invest. You could stop working right now and Joanne and all the assorted little Pitinos would be well cared for the rest of their lives.

You'll go for as much money as you can get, however, because money is the measuring stick in our society. It's a way of keeping score. If your protege from the University of Massachusetts could squeeze $ 3 million a year out of a team in the Jersey swamps, you can certainly extract far more from a Boston Celtics team in a desperate state. Based on what you've accomplished, both in the college world and, more important, in the NBA, you've got to be worth at least twice what John Calipari got. So go for it. Make them holler. They've got it. Make 'em get off some of it.

Ah, but you'll be rich either way, so it comes down to other things. I don't believe many people here fully understand what you'd be giving up if you should decide to leave the University of Kentucky and become head coach of the Boston Celtics.

They don't realize that you are in love with the ponies. They don't know that you own thoroughbreds and that you like spending time around the track. And they surely don't know that when you go to the Derby, as you will tomorrow, your modus operandi is to arrive in a private bus with a police escort because, because, well, because you are Rick Pitino, coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.

This year will be even better. You will undoubtedly wind up sitting with your good friend Seth Hancock, owner of Derby favorite Pulpit. But this is oh so typical of the company you routinely keep in Kentucky.

Only you know what it's like to be the most visible and popular person in the state. There is no such person here because our culture is entirely different. We have our own celebrities, but there is no totally dominant personality. There are visible politicians and star athletes, but no one whose celebrity rivals yours in Kentucky.

The basketball coach at Kentucky matters at any time, but you matter more than usual because you have delivered. You made them happy by restoring them to respectability in the wake of the calamitous Eddie Sutton regime and you made them ecstatic by winning the NCAA championship last year.

Here we are, on the eve of the 123d running of the hallowed Kentucky Derby, and what was the lead headline on the sports page of yesterday's Louisville Courier-Journal?


You, Rick Pitino, not Pulpit, not Concerto, not anyone else, are the obsessive sports topic in the state of Kentucky. But you already know that, which is one reason you like your job so much.

I'm trying to envision any Boston professional sports coach - let alone the Boston College basketball coach, the Boston University hockey coach, or the Harvard football coach - sashaying into town to announce the unveiling of a new brand of pasta attached to any of their names, the way you did Wednesday. It was, I am told, quite an entrance. You came blowing into Louisville in your black Mercedes, and you know you loved it because you were doing all this right in Denny Crum's backyard. He's got two national titles and you've got one, but no one remembers that anymore. You've got the personality and the pizazz and you coach at the right place. Oh, and when you got done, you motored directly to Valhalla Golf Club, site of the 1996 PGA Championship, and played a fast 18. I doubt if you had any trouble getting a decent tee time.

You came to Lexington eight years ago and, finding the town distinctly lacking in quality Italian restaurants, immediately opened your own. Now you've got more endorsements than Bill Cosby. You're pushing the cell phone, the car dealership, the pasta, the marinara sauce, and have I mentioned the coffee ("A wonderful Italian meal deserves a proper finish")?

I talked to people about your role in Kentucky society. "The most popular person in the state," says one. "He could run for governor and win. He's royalty down here."

"He's the king," says another. "You're truly talking about a monarch. He's been here eight years and he can do anything he wants."

Recruiting is a little down this year, but you've already got commitments from the top two juniors in the state and no one doubts that the talent assembly line will continue to produce great players for Kentucky as long as you choose to stay. "I like the winning aspect, and as long as I'm here, I believe we can contend for the national championship." You're Rick Pitino, and that's what you told me back in March.

You also told me that in terms of the NBA, Boston was "different." You told me that great satisfaction and glory would come to the man who could restore the honor of the famed Boston Celtics. Now the Celtics would like you to be that man.

You're Rick Pitino. Maharajah of the Blue Grass, or Baron of Beantown? It's your call.

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