By Aris Barkas/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Rick Pitino is a coaching legend. However, as Larry Brown just learned, this is not enough in European basketball. And like it happened with Brown’s case, Europe is Pitino’s last refuge.
If you are a US reader you can skip the following three paragraphs. Rick Pitino has been one of the best ever NCAA coaches, he is a member of the Hall of Fame and since September 2017, he is under federal investigation for allegedly “paying for play” recruits in Louisville, the ultimate sin in college basketball where all athletes are – or at least considered to be – amateurs. As a result, Pitino’s contract which ran until 2026 was terminated and unless a court decides otherwise, he lost 44 million US dollars. That’s not the first time Pitino’s had run-ins with the authorities.
In 2010, the coach testified in a federal extortion trial involving Karen Sypher, who went to prison after trying to get money and gifts from him in exchange for silence. The married Pitino admitted to having sex with the woman in a closed Louisville restaurant in 2003.
In 2015, the NCAA launched an investigation into a sex-for-pay scandal organized by former Louisville assistant coach Andre McGee that ultimately forced the Cardinals to vacate their 2013 national title and all wins from 2011 to 2014. Rick Pitino is at least a controversial figure.
It’s obvious that he can’t coach in the NCAA anymore, but Pitino couldn’t stay away from coaching. There were rumors about him trying to get an NBA job, but even if he knocked doors, he found them closed. After all, Pitino’s tenure in the mid-nineties with the Celtics as the coach/ president of the team is considered one of the low points in the history of the franchise and that was before all of the scandals.
Around the same time, Panathinaikos management decided that the team, which has underperformed so far in this season’s EuroLeague, needed a shakeup. Coach Xavi Pascual, who won two Greek league championships in the team’s bench after having a great run as the coach of Barcelona, was fired.
This was not a shock. There were rumors for quite some time about this possibility and even possible replacements were mentioned. However, none of those names, most of them Greek coaches, had the status needed for a powerhouse like Panathinaikos.
On the contrary, Pitino not only has the resume, but he is arguably the most important American coach in the history of the EuroLeague. Yes, he might be infamous, but this wouldn’t stop Panathinaikos’ owner Dimitris Giannakopoulos from hiring him. After all, Gianakopoulos has also his share of notoriety and ESPN took notice.
Pitino won't only be taking on challenge of coaching in a new league and new country in the middle of a season, but he'll have to navigate an owner with a volatile reputation and history. https://t.co/syP1vaY22J
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) December 20, 2018
Pitino’s hiring is a big gamble from all sides involved. Panathinaikos can end up being 11th in the 16-team league in the half-season mark if they lose at home to perennial title contender CSKA Moscow, currently the third team in the standings. Even if they get the win, they will be tied for seventh in the best case scenario.
And in general, losing is not tolerated in a team like Panathinaikos, which has won six EuroLeague titles and since 2012 tries to find its way back to the Final Four.
The Greeks hope that Pitino’s presence will improve the team, which includes former college stars Nick Calathes and Keith Langford. Pitino’s camp hopes that even a good half-season in the EuroLeague can open the door to the NBA.
The safe bet would be that the experiment will fail and even if Panathinaikos wins the Greek league against arch-rival Olympiacos, that may not be enough for both sides who have signed a six-month deal.
But if Pitino manages to turn things around and lead Panathinaikos to the Final Four for the first time since the days of coach Zeljko Obradovic, that would be an amazing redemption story, at least on strictly basketball level.