That time Rick Pitino told me off

Screen Shot 2018-08-30 at 2.30.49 PMThe only thing I resent more than authority is a man’s lush head of hair.

Yet there I was, roughly 20 years ago now, calling after then-Boston Celtics head coach Rick Pitino – a pompadour in a power suit – in the sweltering visitors locker room at Chicago’s United Center.

This would have been the NBA’s ’98-99 lockout season, or maybe a year later, and Pitino’s Celtics – despite having just manhandled a faceless post-Jordan Bulls squad – were adrift. I was there to chronicle the mediocrity, loitering postgame among the sweaty seven-footers and cinder-block walls in my idiotic full-length leather coat, dripping silently and wrestling with my young-man’s lizard brain over how to phrase a difficult question.

A newbie sportswriter, I was cocky enough to know I had talent and anxious enough to despair that my career still wouldn’t amount to a hill of shit. A natural introvert with all the neuroses of a classic Type A, I was the perfect candidate to land on a slot desk at a weekly paper in some dusty, two-stoplight town. Ostensibly faking it ’til I made it as a reporter, I was actually content just existing another moment without being exposed as a fraud. I half-apologized when I asked a Celtics p.r. man for help setting up an interview, and when Pitino emerged from a back room a few minutes later, visibly irritated, I tepidly introduced myself. Or tried.

“You can just ask your questions,” Pitino blurted, not glancing up from the floor.

That froze me. I’d been working on a story about the struggles of college coaches who had moved on to the NBA – a trite but not-unreasonable topic. Pitino, who had led Providence to a Final Four and won an NCAA title with Kentucky, was botching it in Boston. Coaching style, player evaluation, team-building: you name it – all of it was questioned. Pitino was in the midst of losing the city, and the notoriously caustic local media was crawling up his ass.

Perfect. A subject I already had known would go over like a hang-gliding rhino was now weaponized. But because Pitino was essentially Patient Zero within the context of my story, there was no way out. I told myself to nut up, annoyed that I was in my own head to begin with, and began asking my questions. Respectfully. I asked Pitino what sort of obstacles a coach making the transition faces. Asked about the challenge of rallying grown men after years of lording as taskmaster over teenagers. Asked if the dynamics even mattered at all of if it was all an overblown trope.

Or I tried.

“Look,” Pitino said, cutting me short the instant he caught wind of my intent. His chin had snapped up and his eyes were now boring holes through me. “You may not realize this, but for two years I was the head coach of a little team called the New York Knickerbockers. And we did a few things while I was there.”

It was true. After that lightning-in-a-bottle Final Four run in ’87, Pitino jumped from Providence to the Knicks, whom he led to significant improvement in his second season as an NBA head coach: 50 wins and a division title. It was true he’d already tasted success after making the leap.

It was also true that I knew this.

Maybe the question sucked. Maybe I could’ve lobbed him a softball or two. Probably he’d just taken one look at my stupid coat and thought This guy’s an asshole.

“Next time maybe do your homework before coming in here and asking questions, OK?” he said, then stalked away.

It didn’t matter that I had. I suppose it never would have. The postgame coach interview is a Behind Enemy Lines sprint through a minefield that becomes slightly more navigable after a win. But only slightly. And not always. Christ, you never know. In the end, win … loss … homework … whatever – none of it mattered.

Not even my dumbass coat.

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