Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
How Would History be Different if Rick Pitino Had Never Left Kentucky for the Celtics?
ATLANTA — In early May 1997, more than a month after Kentucky had lost to Arizona in overtime in the NCAA championship game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Rick Pitino called his players together for a meeting.
He told them he would be leaving Kentucky in order to return to the NBA as the head coach and director of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics, accepting a contract reportedly worth $70 million over 10 years.
Pitino, who had previously served as both an assistant and head coach with the Knicks, pinned some of his decision on his expectation that the Celtics would land Tim Duncan in the NBA Draft lottery.
“I remember him meeting with the team,” former Louisville assistant and current Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello told SNY.tv.
“He actually asked the players. He said, ‘Hey, if you guys have any objection…’. We weren’t going to stand in his way. We understood. We wanted him to go. We loved coach. We knew it was a great opportunity for him and we knew the impact he left on us and meant to us. We thought it was going to be a really special thing for him.”
At the time of Pitino’s departure from Kentucky, he had won one NCAA championship (with Kentucky in 1996) reached four Final Fours between his tenures at Providence and Kentucky and posted a college coaching record of 317-124 (.719).
But as Pitino heads back to the Final Four this weekend with Louisville — with a chance to not only win his second NCAA championship on Monday night at the Georgia Dome but to be named to the Naismith Hall of Fame that same day — we can only wonder what his career might have looked like had he not spent those four years with the Celtics.
Or those other four years in two stints with the Knicks.
The 60-year-old native New Yorker enters this weekend with 662 college coaching victories, compared with Mike Krzyzewski’s 957, Jim Boeheim’s 920 and Bob Knight’s 902.
Over the course of his 27 years in college, Pitino has averaged about 24 wins per year. So if you give him four years of 24 wins (96) for the time he spent with the Celtics, he would already have 758 victories.
If you give him another 96 wins for the four years he missed serving as an assistant and later head coach with the Knicks, Pitino would be at 854 wins heading into this weekend.
Last fall, Pitino signed a contract extension through 2022, just shy of his 70th birthday. So if you add on another nine years at 24 wins each, he would have 1,072 by the end of that contract (not including this weekend).
Boeheim would be 77 years old at that point, Coach K 75, and who knows if they’ll still be coaching.
“Jim will be back there [to the Final 4] 10 more times because he’s going to out-live every one of us,” Pitino cracked.
Not only would Pitino have significantly more wins had he stayed at Kentucky, he might have as much hardware as Coach K or Adolph Rupp, who own four apiece and trail only John Wooden’s 10.
“If he had stayed at Kentucky, he’d have four national championships by now, I really believe that,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told SNY.tv.
“That program that he built went to three straight championship games and was an overtime period away from a three-peat [96-98]. If he had stayed there, the idea that that program wouldn’t have sustained excellence over time when he’s done that at Louisville, that doesn’t wash. He’s an extraordinary coach as a tactician, as a recruiter, as a motivator, as an in-game coach.”
So what’s amazing here is that Pitino could still finish his career as the all-time wins leader — and win multiple NCAA championships — despite missing eight seasons to the NBA.
“It’s an absolute joke that Rick Pitino’s not in the Hall of Fame,” Masiello said. “It’s ridiculous. I mean, what he’s accomplished, what he has done for the game of basketball and people’s lives he’s affected and made better is what being a Hall of Famer is all about.
“He basically changed the college basketball game in 1987 with the 3-point line and the use of it. He then went on and had great success at the collegiate level, coaching one of the best teams ever in college basketball, the ’96 Kentucky team. He’s the only coach to get three of his teams to the Final Four. He’s going into his seventh [Final Four].
“And what people forget is he was very successful with the Knicks. He went 52-30 [in 1988-89], second round of the playoffs, won the Atlantic Division. More importantly, you look at his coaching tree, you look at his legacy, you look at what he’s done, I think it’s one of the biggest jokes in sports that he’s not in [the Hall of Fame].”
While Pitino looks back fondly on his time with the Knicks, he still regrets making that move to the Celtics, often saying he never should’ve left “Camelot” and that he did so in part based on the assumption that the Celtics would landDuncan in the NBA Draft lottery.
“I think I do regret leaving Kentucky because I took over a team with 15 wins banking everything on the Tim Duncan lottery, and once we didn’t get Tim Duncan I realized that leaving Kentucky was not a good move,” Pitino told a Miami radio station in February.
Duncan went to the San Antonio Spurs at No. 1 and helped them win four NBA championships and counting. The Celtics took Chauncey Billups at No. 3 and Pitino added his former Kentucky player Ron Mercer three picks later.
Mercer was a member of that ’96 Kentucky team, the only time Pitino felt confident about potentially winning a title.
“There’s only one time in my life I said, if we stay together, no ego comes into play, in 1996, I had eight NBA players on my team, and I thought we had a shot to get to a Final Four,” he said. “I didn’t even take it for granted. I knew we had to play very well.”
This Louisville team doesn’t have eight pros, but it is the favorite to cut down the nets Monday night even as it overcame Duke and the wrenching emotions of Kevin Ware’s gruesome leg injury in the Midwest Regional final.
After undergoing surgery earlier this week, Ware traveled here — to his adopted home of Atlanta — with his teammates and should provide an inspirational boost on the Louisville bench.
If the Cardinals get past upstart Wichita State in Saturday’s first national semifinal, Pitino will coach for his second NCAA championship Monday night at the Georgia Dome.
By that time, he could also be a newly-minted Naismith Hall of Famer, an honor he missed out on last season.
“He’s a tremendous coach,” Boeheim said. “He belongs in the Hall of Fame. Getting in is the only thing that’s important, it’s not when you get in. He belongs in the Hall of Fame based on what he’s done even prior to this year, not even counting this year and last year.
“I think there’s some backlash from NBA people sometimes. They have votes on this thing.”
“It doesn’t bother him,” Masiello said. “He doesn’t worry about indivadual things. He could care less. All he’s worried about is winning.”
One can only wonder how much winning he would’ve done in the college ranks had he not taken that detour to Boston, but amazingly Pitino is still on track to make history.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.