Rick Pitino is reputed to have a basketball mind far beyond his years, and he'd better, considering his head coaching experience equals the age of his 7-year-old son, and he has just taken over one of the most time-honored, if lately sorriest, franchises in the NBA. This reputation and an eager attitude impressed the corporate heads of the New York Knicks, who last summer named him head coach of a team that lost 175 games in the last three seasons, worst in the NBA.
The understanding among the Gulf and Western ownership was that the 35-year-old Pitino, freshly deified for leading Providence to the NCAA Final Four last year in only his second season there, could infuse the Knicks with some immediate hope and provide a glamorous future. Known as a quick-fix guy with abundant energy and feistiness, (he once chased a college referee through a tunnel after a game) his youth was not an issue so much as an anthem, the perfect sort to bring a new era to a musty, conglomerate-run operation.
But halfway through Pitino's first season as the youngest coach in the NBA, the new era has not begun. The Knicks took a 16-29 record into the weekend, just three games better than this point last season when they went on to finish 24-58, tied with New Jersey for last place in the Atlantic Division. Worse is their road record, 1-21 with a 16-game losing streak.
So maybe Pitino is not championed the way he was a few months ago and has even acquired some critics. But the clap-it-up guy remains, signing Providence guard Billy Donovan just for fun, getting tossed from games for his tantrums, and generally refusing to acknowledge his difficulties.
"Every job I've had has been the impossible task," he said.
Pitino's smooth-faced, button-down-collar persona was perfectly appropriate, even compelling, in the college ranks as he cured Boston University (1978-82) and Providence (1985-87). But how this will go over in the more complex NBA, where remedies are not found in a single season, is still unknown. Also, how he will fare in New York, an impatient town, is one of the more intriguing questions in sports. The Knicks are a gem of the city, and their championship seasons in 1970 and '73 still make cab drivers weep. But there is a violent outcry when they lose, as they have with such excess.
"It looks like you don't coach here too long," Pitino said. "So far it's been very pleasant and we're leading a good life. But if the record is the same come next year, it won't be that way."
Pitino may buy himself time with his considerable amiability, and a knack for cheering up the most depressed teams. The chief quality he has displayed over his young career, and which got him his current job, is a habit of ignoring drawbacks and getting uncanny performances out of questionable talent such as Donovan, who went from a pudgy point guard into a Providence legend. 'A Different Animal'
But Pitino's peculiar brand of good fortune is directly related to the fact he is a tireless worker. That, combined with his career mark of 133-73, made his youth not particularly relevant to the Knicks. "We never even thought about his age," Knicks President Richard Evans said. "We looked at his rate of success."
In some ways the Knicks are similar to Pitino's college teams, with players who average just 23 years of age. When Pitino puts on his baggy warmups and goes on the floor with them, he looks for all the world even younger than rookie point guard Mark Jackson. His youth can be an asset; this is a guy who speaks their language, and still gives pep talks. But there are also players on the roster who are almost as old as he is in Pat Cummings, 31, and the Bill Cartwright, 30.
"It sounds corny, but I think they miss that part of it," he said. "It makes them feel young. Guys like to stay young, they want to hear it."
But while some of Pitino's college methods may be refreshing, there is no question his new job is a far more difficult stretch than the transitions from Boston University coach to a brief stint as a Knicks assistant under Hubie Brown (1983-85), to Providence coach. As Cummings put it, the Knicks' head coaching job "is a different animal." The travel is incessant, and so is the fatigue, the egos are larger and the tempo is faster.
Pitino's transformation into an NBA coach is perhaps made more difficult because he is not the only addition to a franchise that had been in serious disarray despite its corporate backing. The club was overhauled last spring when Coach Bob Hill and General Manager Scotty Stirling were fired. From April 20 until the second week of July the Knicks had no general manager or coach, and a skeleton scouting staff directed them in the draft.
Finally, 30-year NBA veteran and Phoenix Suns assistant coach Al Bianchi was hired as vice president and general manager. A week later, after an 84-day search that included talks with Kansas' Larry Brown and North Carolina State's Jim Valvano, Pitino was hired.
"I think there are some people who were hoping we'd win 30 games," Bianchi said. "We all were hoping. But I just wanted to get to another plateau . . . It's a team in transition. And that kind of team is going to lose. That's not an excuse, it's a fact of life. So I'm happy with what we've done."
This is precisely the sort of job that appeals to Pitino, whose history is turning around programs two and three years ahead of schedule, then looking for something else to solve.
Pitino could have remained at Providence with a five-year renegotiated contract, which, at his request, contained no escape clauses. But the Manhattan East Sider in him who played guard for St. Dominic's High School in Oyster Bay, Long Island, yearned to coach the team he grew up with.
"I had apprehension because I already had a great job," Pitino said. "When you're happy, and you've been to the Final Four, you should probably stick around and enjoy it."
But Pitino has rarely sat still long enough to enjoy anything. The most famous Pitino story is told by Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who is generally credited with discovering him. Boeheim was so eager to hire Pitino, then a 23-year-old University of Hawaii graduate assistant, that he called him in a New York hotel room on his wedding night. Boeheim went to the hotel for a three-hour conference, and Pitino immediately left his honeymoon to recruit. His bride, Joanne, spent a week at the Boeheims'.
According to Boeheim, what Pitino has grasped that other young coaches haven't is work ethic, and an ability to transfer that to his players. He is a possessed laborer who puts basketball above virtually everything. "I have a total commitment," Pitino acknowledged. "There are very few things outside of my family and basketball."
He has demonstrated affinity for the up-tempo offense and pressing defenses. A one-time shameless shooting guard at St. Dominic's, he hates the slowdown style. As a coach he has let his players play, an appealing quality in a coach at any age. He has also driven them.
"The key to his success is that he can get the most out of people," Boeheim said. "Most people don't want to work that much, but he pushes them very, very hard. And he gets them to like it. He has a rare talent to keep the players on his side." Garden of Progress
Pitino's buoyant attitude has clearly helped the Knicks, a team with every right to be depressed. There are signs of improvement, even if the record doesn't indicate a whole cure. For one thing, they have become a solid home-court team, with a 15-8 mark and victories in nine of their last 11 games at Madison Square Garden. Also, Pitino's pressing defenses straight out of Providence have resulted in the Knicks leading the league in turnovers forced. Rebounding was a glaring weakness last season as they were beaten by an average of five per game, but they are now even with the opposition. They are also giving up five fewer points.
But mainly they are playing better. Blowouts, routine occurrences last season, have been few.
"If you go deeper than the record there's significant improvement," Evans said. "Even more than that is the way they're being coached and the attitude of the players. Maybe we haven't won but we've been in every game. The whole atmosphere is better."
Pitino has improved along with the team. Clearly he has had to make some adjustments, throwing out some of his collegiate ideas along the way. For instance when he was first named coach, he promised to use his full-court college presses full time. That was met with unmitigated skepticism by observers who know that an 80-game schedule won't allow consistent full-court pressure. Pitino gradually dropped the idea, although he still employs more than the usual ammount of pressing.
Ultimately, the NBA is a league that insists on superb talent in order to be competitive. And Pitino's success may depend on draft picks and trades as much as his own ability. If Pitino can't get the additional scorers he needs to help Patrick Ewing (19.6) and Jackson, chances are he won't be successful no matter how many pep talks he delivers.
"College is a coaches' game, but the NBA is a players' game," Bianchi said. "In the NBA you can be the best coach in the world, but you've got to have players."