NEW YORK – Rick Pitino bought a powerboat in the summer of 2017. A 32-footer. Open cabin with wraparound seating. A real beauty. In the mornings, he’d take it into the Atlantic and “just look around and listen to music by myself.” At dusk, he’d set out across the Miami River, “go to a restaurant, tie it up.” This is what men with his means and in his station of life do, he thought. This was how he would spend these years. Under the sun. Wind in his hair. Louisville behind him.
Within a year, he sold the boat.
Then came two years wandering the Euroleague as coach of Panathinaikos, a Greek professional team. Then, three years coaching Iona College, a small Catholic school in New Rochelle, N.Y., riding the bus to league games at Quinnipiac and Mount Saint Mary’s.
And now Pitino, who turned 71 in September, is sitting in the passenger seat of a rented Volkswagen Jetta, wearing a sweatsuit in the morning chill of a New York autumn, stuck in a.m. gridlock. We’re crawling to the Upper East Side, where he and his wife, Joanne, have kept an apartment on 65th Street since the late ’80s, back when he coached the Knicks. That was roughly a lifetime or two ago, but who’s counting anymore? Of all the things he could be doing this morning, Pitino is instead here, in this car, on Sixth Avenue, catching a ride uptown after appearing on the “Boomer & Gio” show to promote an exhibition basketball game between St. John’s and Rutgers.
Inside WFAN’s studio in Hudson Square, the new St. John’s coach was in his element. Pitino’s mic went live, and he spun some classics. How, when he coached the Knicks, he remembers “Vinny from Bensonhurst” and “Mike from Bay Ridge” calling the station to say he should be fired. How St. John’s is a sleeping giant. How he’s hatching a plan (seriously) to play Duke at Arthur Ashe Stadium next season. How he’s going to use college sports’ name, image and likeness (NIL) revolution to his advantage. “If this is the game, we’re going to play it.”
Hosts Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti delighted in it all. Afterward, Giannotti, whose mother is a St. John’s grad and a “bat— crazy fan,” told Pitino the city is desperate for him. The Yankees and Mets stunk. The Jets and Giants stink. “I can’t remember us ever talking about the Johnnies at this time of year,” Giannotti says, brows raised.
Depending on how you count, St. John’s is the 12th head-coaching job of Pitino’s very long, very strange, highly controversial and insanely successful basketball life. This tally, for instance, includes a little-discussed stint as interim head coach at the University of Hawaii in 1976. These parts of his bio feel like forgotten books lost in a library. Pitino’s first job as a full-time head coach was at Boston University in 1978-79. He was 25. That year, he beat a 37-year-old Northeastern coach named Jim Calhoun. He lost to a rising young coach named P.J. Carlesimo and to older guys like George Blaney and Tom Davis and Dom Perno.
A few things have happened in the four decades since. The Knicks and the Celtics. National titles at Kentucky and Louisville. The Hall of Fame. Millions upon millions of dollars. A sex scandal. Extortion. Side hustles — horses, books, investments. Wins. Vacated wins. Recruiting violations. The FBI. The war with the NCAA. Lawsuits. Fame. Infamy.
This season, for some reason, Pitino is starting over yet again. Iona was his last job, until it wasn’t. Now he says it’s St. John’s. You can take him at his word, but as it often goes with Richard Andrew Pitino, you can never be so sure.
“Oh, it is, it is,” he says in the car, interrupting. “God, I hope it is.”
Maybe. We’ll see. It’s difficult to grasp how any person can exist with such extreme contours of Pitino. He is beloved by some, loathed by others. He’s considered perhaps his generation’s greatest coach, and its most controversial. And unlike so many of his contemporaries — Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, so on — he’s still out here looking for his next win.
The question is: When you’re 71 and starting all over, where is it you’re trying to go? There’s a tidy narrative that casts Pitino as a twilight rental come to infuse once-proud St. John’s with winning. He can relive some Big East glory days, put the Johnnies back on the map, then set sail toward a sunset.
A few days in the man’s orbit say otherwise.
Remember, there is no boat.
If spending three days with Rick Pitino, be prepared for the self-loathing that comes with being outpaced by a grandfather of 14. It’s a Tuesday morning, and Pitino has already put in a 5 a.m. workout at his luxury fitness club, met with his assistant coaches, mapped out the afternoon’s practice session, and is now on the court for four separate hour-long player development sessions. It’s 8:45 a.m. Pitino calls out every drill for each wave of three or four players. All will get up over 300 shots, mostly on the move. They’ll be drenched. This is conditioning as much as it’s skill development.
Pitino wanders over now and again. Watching one exhaustive drill, he recounts the time he convinced Celtics general manager Danny Ainge to draft Terry Rozier based on how he performed in this exercise. “This one separates guys,” he says. This is part of the ride. Everything Pitino does comes with an accompanying story pulled from the recesses of his basketball mind.
Back on the court, Pitino calls out the next drill. No notes. “It’s all in here,” he says, pointing to his head. Then a familiar pose — Pitino, hands clenched behind his back, head cocked to the side, wide blank eyes seeing everything. One session, then three more. Then a two-hour afternoon practice, when Pitino wears a cordless microphone and serves as the only soundtrack.
“I don’t think there’s another head coach in the country who spends more time on the court than him,” says assistant coach Steve Masiello, who is admittedly biased, but also potentially right.
Everyone around Pitino talks this way. They speak of him as a warlock. A defiance of age and time and energy. Following practice, he will venture from Queens to Manhattan for a dinner auctioned off by one of St. John’s NIL collectives. That, of course, will go well into the evening. The next morning, he’ll return to the gym for a 5 a.m. workout. Same thing the next day. And the next.
In August, during a huge family vacation at Sea Island, Ga., Pitino worked out every morning, played golf every afternoon, went on walks with his grandchildren, and had three or four too many drinks each night. He went to bed after everyone. Woke up before everyone. And did it all over again.
“He has an absolute obsession with maximizing every minute, every second, of every day,” says Richard Pitino, Rick’s 41-year-old son and head coach at the University of New Mexico. “It’s kind of annoying.”
That obsession is now centered on a group of 13 players assembled mostly from the transfer portal over 56 days last spring. Player development is the key to everything in Pitino‘s world. While his long-standing caricature has centered on his style (suits), his persona (brash) and his defensive philosophies (swarming), he is, at his core, a hands-on coach. His greatest feat isn’t taking five programs to the NCAA Tournament. It’s continuously turning average players into good players, good players into great players, and great players into action heroes.
This is why, regardless of what you think of him, it’s hard to argue with how his system works at the college level. His first team at Boston University went 17-9. The next year, it went 21-9, winning the old Eastern College Athletic Conference. His first team at Providence won 17. The next won 25, reaching the Final Four.
His first team at Kentucky went 14-14. The next went 22-6, winning the Southeastern Conference. His first team at Louisville went 19-13. The next went 25-7, landing an NCAA Tournament bid. His first team at Iona went 12-6 in a COVID-shaped season. His next went 25-8, winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
There’s no magic trick. Everything goes back to the time on the court. Each second of obsession. This new St. John’s roster is adjusting to what that entails. Or trying to. One luxury it has is an on-court leader, Daniss Jenkins, who already spent a year as Pitino’s point guard at Iona, leading the MAAC in assists. He speaks fluent Pitino and, while watching teammates in a recent workout, leans over to conclude, “I don’t know if a lot of these dudes really knew what they were signing up for.”
Joel Soriano, a 6-foot-11 All-Big East selection last season, is one of only two holdovers from former coach Mike Anderson’s roster. Soriano considered pursuing professional basketball this season, but Pitino and Masiello took him to dinner last spring, asking for one more run at St. John’s. “I started thinking about what I could accomplish with Pitino,” Soriano recalls. “I figured if I have the season I had last year, but it’s with him, and we win? That’s different. People will notice.”
So Soriano agreed, imagining himself starring for the revamped Johnnies. Then, though, came offseason workouts. The film session when Pitino told Soriano he isn’t good enough to play for St. John’s Prep in Queens, let alone St. John’s University. The time Pitino told Soriano there’s a reason his previous teams at St. John’s and Fordham didn’t win with him. This preseason, Pitino demoted Soriano to the second string in preseason practices.
Added all up, Soriano at times has wondered what the hell he’s doing this for. He’s not the only one. St. John’s brought in high-profile transfers from Penn (Jordan Dingle), Harvard (Chris Ledlum), Connecticut (Nahiem Alleyne), Kansas (Zuby Ejiofor), Oregon State (Glenn Taylor Jr.) and Massachusetts (RJ Luis Jr.), along with two promising freshmen (Simeon Wilcher and Brady Dunlap). Most of these players have never seen anything like Pitino.
“Everything’s changed here,” Soriano says, sitting in an empty Carnesecca Arena. “You have to be perfect.”
The day prior, going through his player development session, Soriano saw Pitino conversing off to the side. He glanced at the coach after each shot. When shots fell with Pitino’s back turned, Soriano shook his head. A 23-year-old with four seasons of college experience desperately wanting to prove himself to a Hall of Fame coach.
“He’s the most honest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Soriano says. “Any little thing, he’s on your ass. It’s been very overwhelming. I’ve had nights just, like, contemplating, damn, I came back for this? But I know that’s all in my mind. I’m just trying to stay positive.”
Soriano understands what’s happening. That he’s being tested by a coach with 835 career wins in college basketball — the ninth-most ever, the most among active coaches, regardless of which ones the NCAA counts.
Thinking on all of this, Soriano uttered the ultimate adage so many have conceded when it comes to Rick Pitino and the sport of basketball.
“The results,” Soriano says, “will all be worth it.”
Because everyone wants in on the show, ESPN sent Seth Greenberg and a camera to St. John’s in late October for a live “SportsCenter” hit. Pitino and Greenberg chatted like old friends because they are. They’ve known each other since the ’70s, when they were teenagers at the legendary Five Star Basketball Camps in Pennsylvania. In a casual interview, Greenberg mentioned the glaring need for on-campus facility upgrades at St. John’s. Pitino agreed and joked that athletic director Mike Cragg “is gonna have a heart attack at all the money we’re gonna spend.”
Then Pitino added, “That’s OK, we’ll find another AD.”
He laughed the way an old guy laughs at his own joke. Hysterically. Greenberg laughed, too, but also gave his buddy that look. You know the kind. The eye-raising, head-shaking whoa-boy type. Pitino immediately put up the flaps, saying no, no, that he was kidding, that he loves Cragg. None of this stopped the internet from cutting the video shy of Pitino’s walk-back and creating a nice clip of a Machiavellian coach steamrolling his athletic director.
Rick Pitino: “Mike Cragg is gonna have a heart attack at all the money we’re gonna spend. That’s ok, we’ll find another AD” pic.twitter.com/VT64X9CgKq
— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) October 26, 2023
The clip was sent to Cragg, who eventually spoke to Pitino, who said it was all in fun. A week or two later, Cragg says, “That was him joking around. His personality, you know? It’s not even worth putting in your article.”
Greenberg has seen all this before. “Rick being Rick,” he says. “The king prince. (St. John’s) is gonna have a hundred of these things with him.”
Postcards. They’ll all be postcards of life with Pitino. If you take him, you get him in all his parts. You get a 70 percent spike in year-over-year season-ticket sales. You get the unease of him saying and doing whatever he wants. You get a program that wins, near instantly; a program built in the image of a puppet master who refuses a curtain.
It’s been seven years since Pitino coached in the spotlight. Those seasons in Greece and at Iona were spent in anonymity (by his standards), as if the basketball gods demanded penance for the kingdoms he’d left behind in the preceding five decades. Seeing his return to the stage, some might buy him being more subdued, more measured.
Any such anticipation is comically misguided.
St. John’s has already rearranged athletic department positions to afford administrators’ availability to react to Pitino’s whims. He recently wanted to know the marketing plan for the program’s Madison Square Garden opener against Michigan on Nov. 13. Cragg had the department’s marketing and ticketing team deliver a personalized presentation. In October, a few days before the Rutgers exhibition, Pitino and a friend put up the cash to print T-shirts for the first thousand fans at Carnesecca Arena. Did the marketing folks know any of this? Nope. Did he have permission to use the school’s trademarked logo? Probably not. But everyone rolled with it. When a high-ranking university official was subsequently asked if there’s anyone at the school to tell Pitino “no” to any of his ideas, the only response was a laugh.
Pitino was hired by university president Rev. Brian J. Shanley and his executive leadership. Shanley was previously president of Providence College, a place Pitino has held dear since that 1987 Final Four (the first of his seven). Shanley oversaw major funding pumped into the Friars’ basketball program. While St. John’s generated dossiers on a few possible coaching candidates, Pitino was the only target.
Shanley hired him to replace Anderson, who went 30-46 in the Big East over four seasons, never reaching the NCAA Tournament. The school terminated Anderson’s contract for cause, citing a failure to monitor his program, and refused his $11.4 million contract buyout. Anderson responded that the school needed the money to hire the “scandal-mired” Pitino. He’s suing the university for nearly $45 million. The case is still in arbitration.
Pitino signed a six-year package worth roughly $20 million.
This is the new face of a university tethered to three identities: Roman Catholicism, New York City and basketball. Largely a commuter school for much of its history, St. John’s used the supposed stigma as an advantage. As Pitino tells it, a generation of city-born basketball players were granted financial aid for housing, only to gladly pocket the cash while living at home.
Hall of Fame coach Joe Lapchick established the university as a basketball power during the post-Depression rise of the college game. Another Hall of Famer, Frank McGuire, succeeded him. Then Lou Carnesecca became the school’s patron saint, coaching the likes of Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson, Walter Berry and Malik Sealy, and taking the Johnnies to the 1985 Final Fours.
Then? Purgatory. Nine coaches in 21 years. A 505-426 record among ’em. Brian Mahoney, Fran Fraschilla, Mike Jarvis, Kevin Clark, Norm Roberts, Steve Lavin, Mike Dunlap, an unfortunate falling out with a would-be storybook savior in Mullin, and, finally, Anderson.
The program slipped into irrelevance. It hasn’t won a Big East title since 1992. It hasn’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 1999. As the Big East has been reshaped and reborn in recent years, the Red Storm has ridden along as an incidental hanger-on.
Now, the place is putting its faith in Pitino. A son of the city. A Sicilian. Born in Manhattan in 1952. The son of a building superintendent (Sal) and a hospital administrator (Charlotte). He moved to Cambria Heights, Queens, at age 6, then to Bayville, on Long Island’s north shore, at 14. He was a standout point guard at St. Dominic High in Oyster Bay.
More than five decades later, sipping a large cappuccino with skim milk in a cafe off Park Avenue, Pitino is talking about returning St. John’s to its gilded age. He makes it seem like he can do so with sheer will, but the school’s on-campus facilities are that of a middling Atlantic 10 program, and it will take years to reshape the place to high-major college basketball’s current standards.
These feel like major issues. But Pitino only shakes his head.
“See, I don’t think so,” he counters. “Nowadays, I think St. John’s is no different than UCLA. We can get the same players they can get. Why? NIL. Prior to that? Yeah, different worlds. But now? All the kids are getting paid.”
“What’s the difference between St. John’s and Kentucky now? Nothing.”
Pitino pulls over a chair during practice to ask, out of nowhere, about Jay Wright. Why’d he leave Villanova? Why’d he get out of the business? Rick can’t imagine why Jay walked away after all that success.
“How old is he?” Pitino asks.
“Just over 60.”
“Yeah, still young,” Pitino says. “I wonder if he’ll get back in.”
This new era of college basketball – the transfer portal with rosters rebuilt anew every season, NIL collectives and empowered players – is unrecognizable to coaches of Pitino’s generation. Some left the game before getting wrapped up in all this. Others have railed publicly or privately over a system that no longer makes sense to them. Some have adjusted, sure. Plenty haven’t.
And then there’s Pitino.
When the 3-point line was introduced to college basketball in 1986, a 34-year-old Pitino saw it as his muse. He could already coach a defense that starved opponents of oxygen. The 3-pointer, dismissed by other coaches as a gimmick, gave him the same power on offense. Led by a young guard named Billy Donovan, the Friars led the country with 8.4 made 3s per game in ’87, fueling a stunning run to the national semifinals.
NIL is Pitino’s new 3-point shot. When Pitino was hired, Shanley promised a dazzling new practice facility, upgraded offices, all the game’s modern trappings. Pitino responded, “That’s great, but the most important thing right now is the NIL.”
St. John’s had multiple collectives established last year, but the money didn’t exactly flow. The school estimated it ranked in the bottom third of the Big East in available NIL money. Then came Pitino. He estimates he’s spoken at or participated in more than 30 NIL fundraisers since taking the job. He set the goal of generating a pool worth roughly $2-3 million in available funds for this year’s team.
It’s now believed St. John’s – a program with only five NCAA Tournament appearances this century – ranks in the top third among Big East brethren in NIL payouts.
This is what, even in the modern era, Pitino can deliver. Known for eclectic and expensive tastes — thoroughbred horses, memberships to some of America’s most exclusive golf clubs, fine restaurants, multiple houses — he says he now spends “most of my free time” raising money for the NIL. He estimates 40 percent of the money he’s raised at St. John’s has come from donors unaffiliated with the university. They’re friends, business partners, supporters; those who dot all his concentric circles. They’re sending checks from Tennessee, and Florida and, yes, Louisville.
“That makes him really unique in this space,” says sports attorney Darren Heitner, the legal counsel to St. John’s Flat Top Fund collective and a prominent voice in NIL legislation. “He has the cache. He has the network. He has the connections. He has a name that basically transcends the university that employs him. Anyone who has that has a major advantage. The only question is if they use it and exploit it.”
That’s not a question when it comes to Pitino.
Unlike many others, Pitino neither complains about nor cares what NIL money or the transfer portal means to any supposed sanctity of collegiate athletics. He thinks the NCAA is corrupt, anyway, so what’s the difference? If anything, his concern is maintaining cash flow when donors eventually tire of writing non-tax-deductible checks year after year. Those are problems for next season, and the season after that. “How are we gonna sustain this thing?” he wonders.
Spoken like a man thinking about his future.
So, some simple math. Rick Pitino is raising gobs of NIL money, getting top talent to St. John’s, coaching at Madison Square Garden, and returning his hometown school to prominence, all while operating with the energy of a much younger man, and commuting from the comforts of his home on Winged Foot Golf Club in Westchester County. Doesn’t all this add up to a swan song that sounds an awful lot like a new beginning?
“Well, look, Father Time is going to catch up with me eventually, right?” Pitino says.
Some would argue Pitino’s hourglass ran out years ago, and he simply turned it over.
That’s because everything around Rick Pitino is seemingly surrounded by deep philosophical questions about responsibility and redemption, about the cost of winning often being a Faustian bargain, about who someone says he is versus who some believe him to be. The complications of his life and career will always be with him. That while Pitino long maintained no knowledge of money being funneled to recruits or strippers in dorms, what happened at Louisville was a total disaster. That his personal history includes moments of self-destructive behavior. That his endings are rarely uncomplicated.
One evening in the NoHo section of Manhattan, Pitino has a table reserved at Zero Bond, a private club with, according to the New York Times, a $5,000 initiation fee and a $4,000 annual payment for members over age 45. Pitino mentions that Taylor Swift and Aaron Rodgers have come through recently. This, he says, is the place. A friend of his joins for dinner and is desperate to get in, but the waiting list to join is impossibly long. Pitino says he’ll put a word in.
Here, things make more and more sense. Few people have ever enjoyed wearing their own skin as much as Rick Pitino, and seeing him walk through this place, all eyes following him, explains what he’s been working his way back to.
Pitino says he stopped caring about his critics a long time ago. In the next breath, he turns so many conversations into unsolicited rebuttals and rationalizations. Pitino profoundly cares how others see him.
But that pales in comparison to something much larger. And that’s how Pitino sees himself.
Which brings us back to that boat.
That version of Pitino, in his early 60s, hoisted up in the helm seat, steering through the water, looking for somewhere to go, was lost. Fired by Louisville, he bunkered in Miami and contemplated life off the court and out of the limelight. Today he recalls watching NBA games alone at midnight, and Joanne telling him he was drinking too much, days rolling by without reason, and Joanne telling him, yes, please, go take that random job in Greece to do something with yourself. It was the first time he ever felt lazy, the first time he ever wasted time, the first time he ever aged.
Pitino has spent every day since trying to get as far away from that place as possible.
“I think that he thinks if he’s sitting idly, that he’s going to age,” Richard Pitino says of his father, “but if he lives life the way he is, that he’s going to stay young.”
In a season-opening win against Stony Brook last week, over 5,000 fans gathered in a sold-out Carnesecca Arena to pull a burial shroud off their favorite program. Pitino took the floor in a black suit, a burgundy tie and with a familiar fire. The Johnnies won, led by 22 points from Soriano, their starting center.
This week, time has come for a return to the Garden, and a primetime matchup with Michigan.
Pitino on a stage. Where else would he be?
(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; photo: Rob Carr / Getty Images)