Rick Pitino and the Knicks: A Portrait in Dysfunction

The scandal in Louisville related to a pay-to-play scheme looks like it could finally end Rick Pitino’s long and diverse career.  Wherever he has gone, Pitino’s successes have been trumpeted and his failings (personally and professionally) have been equally spectacular.  Rather than review Pitino’s whole career, we thought it would be interesting revisit his time with the Knicks.  This was a brief stop but Pitino really packed in some highs and one low.   Pitino won quickly in New York but left quite abruptly with some recriminations on both sides.   The tenure was a nice microcosm of the whole Pitino Experience and offers a clear window of what makes him tick.  Let’s take a look and see what happened….

Did the Knicks really want Pitino?

In 1986-87, Pitino, who was only 34, had just led a seemingly untalented Providence team to the Final Four.  Pitino competed by being one of the first coaches to exploit the three pointer and by pairing that with a manic full court press.  That season, the Friars shot about 260 more threes than the second place three-point shooting team in the Big East (Providence took 665 threes).  They also weren’t just chuckers.  Providence made threes at a .421% clip, best in the conference (by comparison, Syracuse was second at .406% and no other team was over 40%).  Providence wasn’t the best team in the Big East (they tied for fourth at 10-6) but it was clear that Pitino had gotten way more out of his team than anyone could have reasonably expected and then they made it all the way to the Final Four.   Coming off of this surprise season, Pitino could have chosen to stay at Providence with long term security or used this event to go upwards in his career.  In June 1987, Pitino signed a five year-extension at Providence and seemed set in Rhode Island.

Meanwhile in New York, in 1986-87, the Knicks had just finished their third straight season of less than 25 wins.  They had one significant asset (a young Patrick Ewing), a few decent prospects (Kenny Walker, Gerald Wilkins, and a coming lottery pick), and perpetually injured Bill Cartwright.  Management cleaned house after the 1986-87 season and hired NBA lifer Al Bianchi as GM.  Bianchi was ostensibly tagged to choose his own coach but things didn’t quite work out that way.

In 1988, Mike Lupica and William Goldman wrote “Wait Till Next Year,” which detailed the Knicks’ negotiations with Pitino.  According to Lupica: “Al Bianchi confided to a friend that Larry Brown was his choice to coach the Knicks, even though Danny Manning was staying [at Kansas where Brown was coaching] and so, according to Larry Brown, was Larry Brown….[Bianchi] called Brown back and told him [MSG executive] Richard Evans, after waiting seventy –nine days to pick a new general manager, was picking the new coach himself.  It wasn’t Larry Brown.  Rick was the pick.  After all….Same Hot Boy, still hot to Evans.”

In 2003’s “Garden Glory,” Dennis D’Agostino interviewed Bianchi, who didn’t mention Brown but said the search was “between Rick Pitino and Jim Valvano.  And Valvano, God rest his soul, scared the shit out of me.  So we were left with Pitino, who I didn’t have a problem with.  I couldn’t open [the search up]; I couldn’t say, ‘I want to interview this guy, too.’  I think that was one of the sticking points with Rick.  I think he kind of thought that I didn’t want him.  I didn’t have a choice in the matter.  I chose him over Valvano.”

On the Providence side, Pitino had to tell the administration that he was leaving less than two months after signing a big extension and there were some hard feelings there too.  In an August 1987 Sport Illustrated story, one of the Providence new recruits set to play for Pitino, Chris Watts was not happy: “I was pretty upset when I found out he was leaving.  But he told me that coaching the Knicks was one of his dreams, and I don’t blame him.”  (Watts ended up being a reserve player for the Friars for four years).  In the end, Pitino was just another example of coach hopping that is quite common in the NCAA.

Pitino’s success on the court in New York

1987-88 did not start well for Pitino.  Despite the fact that Cartwright was finally healthy, the team still was bad.  They started out 0-5 and were 14-28 at one point, before rallying to finish 38-44 behind Ewing and Rookie of the Year Mark Jackson.  The season culminated with a showdown against the Pacers in Indiana, with the winner getting the eighth seed and the loser going to the lottery.  The Knicks won a close game and played the Celtics in the playoffs (New York even won a game against Larry Bird’s crew).  This strong finish got Pitino a lot praise for the quick turnaround (in retrospect, the Knicks would probably have been better off tanking against the Pacers, who went on to get the second overall pick.  The Knicks could’ve had Mitch Richmond or Charles Smith with that pick.  Still, New York did realize some value getting Rod Strickland later in the draft).

On the court, the Knicks did take a lot of threes (567 attempts good for third in the NBA) but they made them at a low rate (.316%).   In fact, the Knicks were only 20th (out of 23) in offense and really excelled on defense (7th).  So, the narrative at the time that Pitino had fixed them with the three point shot was not entirely true (though his press did help the defense).

In any event, the Knicks appeared to be on the upswing.  They traded Cartwright to the Bulls for the younger and healthier Charles Oakley.  At the same time, New York’s hated rival, Boston, lost Bird for nearly all of the 1988-89 season.   New York filled the void, winning the Atlantic with a 52-30 record.  In addition, the Pitino System was fully implemented.   The Knicks were first in the NBA in threes taken and made (they shot 386 for 1,147 as a team), though they still didn’t shoot them very efficiently (.337%) (the Knicks three point frequency led to the famous “Bomb Squad” poster which depicted all their guards as WW II pilots in bomber jackets (the poster was cool but it took a lot of chutzpah to put in Wilkins with his terrible .297% shooting from three).   As a team, New York was 6th in offense, 10th in defense and 5th in pace.

The Knicks had the third best record in the conference (tied with Atlanta), behind the Pistons (63-19) and the Cavs (57-25).  New York was thought to be a serious contender to make the Finals because Boston had imploded without Bird and the Knicks were 4-0 against the favorite Pistons in the regular season.  In reality, New York was a bit of a paper tiger.   Their SRS was fourth in the conference at 3.62 but there was a good argument that they might be a good match up if everything broke right and they played Detroit in the Conference Finals.

Everything did break right.  First the Knicks swept the Sixers in round one of the playoffs (memorably, the Knicks raised the douche factor very high by using actual brooms to celebrate after the last game of the series).   The Knicks were supposed to play that tough Cavs team in the second round.  Cleveland actually had the highest SRS in the NBA (7.95) by a pretty good margin and was considered the rising young team in the NBA.   Well, the Cavs went on to lose that famous series where Michael Jordan hit the clinching shot over Craig Ehlo.  At that time the Bulls were not title contenders.  In fact, they were only decent (47-35 record and 2.13 SRS)

In theory, Chicago was the better match up for the Knicks (at the time, the Knicks noted that the Cavs were dealing with a ton of injuries and expected the Bulls to win the series).  In either case, the Knicks looked a bit better on paper, though the Knicks already considered Jordan a force of nature who would be difficult to overcome.  Really, this was a pick ‘em series and the Bulls had the edge based upon having MJ.  Jordan demolished the Knicks (35.7 ppg, .550 FG%, 9.5 rpg, 8.3 apg, 2.5 spg, 1.3 bpg) and the Bulls won 4-2.  It was a great season for Pitino but things ended quickly.

Pitino splits from New York

In May 1989, the Kentucky Wildcats job came open after Eddie Sutton resigned when the program was charged with numerous NCAA infractions.  Kentucky reached out to a few hot young coaches, including Pitino.   Pitino considered taking the job publicly,  telling the New York Times that “[t]here’s a lot I like about [Kentucky].  The big question is do I want to give up the Knicks…. I would not be here, possibly leaving the New York Knicks’ situation – and a potential championship – if I did not believe that this program could be along the same lines as Duke and North Carolina.”  Even back then, there were reports that Pitino had committed NCAA recruiting violation as an assistant with the University of Hawaii in the 1970s.  Pitino dismissed this talk, stating that “[t]here’s no one in this business with more integrity than Rick Pitino….one thing you won’t have to worry about is cheating with Rick Pitino.”

Bianchi, for his part, didn’t exactly try to keep Pitino.  Bianchi told the New York Times that Pitino has “been talking for a year and half about going back to college, and you don’t want to hold someone who doesn’t want to be here.”  Pitino ultimately took the job with Kentucky and would go on to have an amazing run there.  In New York, the Bianchi-Pitino rift was all the talk but they both initially denied that the relationship was strained.

Later, however, they admitted they couldn’t stand each other.  In “Garden Glory,” Bianchi said: “[m]y initial problem with Rick was that he didn’t look upon me as someone who had been around and had some knowledge of the game, who knew the NBA, and [he didn’t want] to lean on me….he wanted to do the whole thing, which I knew would be no way.   And that’s where we got in trouble.  He did a good job; I’ve always said that.  You gotta know the nature of the beast, and you had to have some kind of trust factor, and I think that was never there.”

In 2012, Gene Wojciechowski wrote “The Last Great Empire” and about Pitino’s time in Kentucky.  The book described Pitino’s view of the situation: “Pitino explained that it would only be a matter of time before the Bianchi–Pitino combination unraveled.”  Pitino later learned that Bianchi was on borrowed time (he would be fired two years later by the Knicks) and his friend and Knick fan Stanley Jaffe would be part of the new management group.  Pitino said that Jaffe knew this in 1989 and “I couldn’t believe that [Jaffe] didn’t tell me….I would have stayed [in New York].”

So, where does the fault lie here?  Here’s some detached reporting on the Bianchi/Pitino relationship:

-Even before Pitino left, the friction was noticed.  In January 1989, the Orlando Sentinel reported on a “feud simmering” because Pitino resented Bianchi having control over personnel.  The article concluded that “[i]t appears that if any compromises are to be made, Pitino will have to make the gesture.”

-In May 1990, Sports Illustrated reported that “Pitino had left New York in a huff, partly because of philosophical differences with Bianchi over the Knicks’ offense.  Bianchi felt New York’s second-round elimination at the hands of the Bulls last season could have been averted with a better half-court game.”

-In April 1991, after Bianchi was fired, he was ready to criticize Pitino:  “The fact is [Pitino] was here to make a quick hit.  The one thing I remember him saying was: ‘You can’t trust those guys upstairs.  Get what you can while you can.’”  The same article mentioned that Bianchi fired his next coach Stu Jackson partly out of paranoia that Jackson was still speaking with Pitino.

-In “Garden Glory,” Jackson [who was Pitino’s assistant at the time] said that he remembered Pitino telling him that “there was no way he was taking the [Kentucky] job.  And I remember saying ‘You’re gone,’ right there in the car…you have to know Rick to really appreciate that.”

-But maybe the best recap of this relationship came from Strickland in March 1990 in the Chicago Tribune.  Bianchi had just traded Strickland (who was wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with either) to the Spurs in a widely panned trade.  Strickland said “Bianchi’s crazy.  He’d love for me to screw up in San Antonio.”  Strick didn’t love Pitino either:  “Pitino was totally unbearable.  I can take the screaming, but he tried to humiliate you, get you where it hurts. I remember once he told me I had the intensity of a mortician.”

There you have it….Pitino and Bianchi were unable to make the basic adjustments that two men who were having success should have been able to make.  Bianchi felt disrespected by Pitino (who had a huge ego even back then) and Pitino wanted to be king of the castle.   After leaving the Knicks, here’s Pitino’s career in a nutshell:

-He had an amazing run at Kentucky, winning a title and producing tons of NBA pros.

-Pitino left Kentucky for the Celtics in 1997-98 with total control of the organization.  Pitino crapped out in Boston, where he whined that he would not have taken the job had he known Tim Duncan wasn’t available (Boston only got the third pack even though they had tanked hard for Duncan).  He also compulsively traded players (he traded Chauncey Billups months after drafting him third overall).  In 2000-01, he left town for Louisville but not before complaining about the negativity of Boston fans (who can forget the famous “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door” speech?

-Pitino did great on the court in Louisville but had many off the court scandals relating to athlete benefits, as well as a bizarre blackmail scandal, all of which made his statement about his integrity in 1989 laughable in retrospect.

Pitino has been a successful mercenary coach with a dubious ethical compass and dubious loyalties.  There is nothing wrong with a coach protecting his own interests but Pitino seems a cut above the usual.  As Jackson said sardonically, “you have to know Rick to really appreciate that.”

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