Rick Pitino and Louisville Cardinals basketball are in the middle of a scandal that could affect both the former’s career and the latter’s future. And next week, on the day when coaches, players and reporters from the ACC all gather to discuss the upcoming season, Pitino will be in Louisville and his players will represent the team. That seems unfair.
Louisville announced Friday afternoon that Pitino will not attend ACC media day Wednesday in Charlotte. The news release said he has been advised by counsel to avoid the gathering and the questions that would accompany the trip until the smoke clears from the sex-as-bait recruitment scandal that arose when Katina Powell released her book, “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen.” The book claims that former Louisville assistant Andre McGee paid her to arrange escorts who offered sex to prospects and Louisville players for a price.
Instead, Louisville will send transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, both of whom joined the program a few months ago, in the worst “welcome to our team” gesture in college basketball. Someone at the university thought this was the best idea.
Well, it’s not. It’s a cop-out. A punk move. The kind of thing you do when you don’t want to deal with the issues you’ve been paid millions to address. Pitino can’t be a seven-figure coach in tailored suits and shiny shoes when he’s coaching the Cardinals against Kentucky and then suddenly turn into someone who won’t be available in Charlotte next week due to whatever legal nonsense the lawyers asked him to spew when he distributed this excuse.
He’s sending a couple of players who just want to talk about basketball — and weren’t around during the chapter tied to the allegations — to address a variety of nonstop queries related to a sex scandal.
Nah, that’s not how this works. That’s not how this should work.
The particulars of this case will be settled at some point. Louisville police, school officials and the NCAA are all investigating Powell’s claims. We still don’t know what’s true and what’s false. And until then, this thing is gray.
But to date, Pitino has controlled the message. He’s asked McGee to step forward and tell the truth.
He has been consistent and fervent in his proclamation that he didn’t know about any financial deal between Powell and McGee. On Thursday, he stated in a message to fans on his blog that he will not step down.
And now, he has decided — or the fearful attorneys behind him decided — that ACC media day is a bad idea.
No, sending two players without their head coach in the middle of this chaos is a bad idea. Telling the world that you’re not resigning and then, a day later, announcing that ACC media day will be a no-go is a bad idea. Asking McGee, your former assistant, to step up and tell everyone the truth but then refusing to discuss the matter yourself at a media day — an event that SMU coach Larry Brown and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim both attended in their respective conferences when they were under fire for NCAA investigations — is a bad idea.
Yes, Pitino would probably hit the “no comment” button in Charlotte a million times. But his attendance would remove the heat from a couple of players who won’t have the option to say: “You should ask our coach.”
This is bizarre. And if you’ve ever attended a Louisville news conference, you’d understand that. Pitino’s postgame conferences are unique. It’s more of a conversation than a traditional, stale Q&A with reporters. He’s often humorous and always blunt. He once told reporters that Wayne Blackshear had to “wake up” and get ready for his senior season. In 2011, he told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, then with CBS Sports.com, that he ignores “the paranoid” after rival coach John Calipari suggested that the state of Kentucky only bled blue.
Pitino is a verbal jouster. He’s quick-witted and direct. He has an answer for everything. If you lose to the Cardinals by 30 or you beat them by 20, he’s still there. Ready to talk. Ready to discuss the issues. Ready to face the music.
But next week, the only sound that Lewis and Lee will hear in Charlotte is a crowd around them simultaneously asking the same questions. Sure, they will be trained to hit reporters with a crossover whenever buzzwords like “Powell,” or “escorts,” or “sex,” or “McGee,” or “parties” are mentioned.
But they’ll be trapped by it all.
In those moments, on and off the court, players usually turn to their coaches for help.
Pitino, however, won’t be there.