It’s not every day that a coach of the magnitude of Rick Pitino walks through the doors of Yad Eliyahu as he did last night when his team Panathinaikos visited Maccabi Tel Aviv in Euroleague action. Pitino commands the attention and respect of all those in his presence be it in a press conference, on the sidelines or just about anywhere he goes. He has already dazzled the fans and media from Athens to Barcelona and beyond with his passion for the game, his top notch story telling ability and of course his love for coaching and trying get the best out of his team and everyone around him.
The 67-year old had said that he would no longer coach after Louisville University fired him as the school was under investigation by the FBI for an alleged pay for play scheme involving his assistants and recruits at Louisville. The specific case involved an Adidas executive conspiring to pay $100,000 to the family of Brian Bowen Jr. to represent the brand upon turning professional. However, Pitino is a basketball coach and basketball coaches live to coach. So when a deal from the Greek powerhouse crossed his table after being out of the game for a little over a year he just couldn’t resist.
There was never a doubt that Pitino would coach again even after going through all the motions that his career was over according to Mike Rutherford from Card Chronicle, “There was no reason to believe him. He would absolutely coach again and somebody would take a shot on him. I still believe that a team in the US will take a shot at him either in the college ranks or the pros. He will be a head coach back here at some point there is no doubt in my mind.”
Coaching in Europe is something new for the former two time NCAA Champion, but so far he’s loved the excitement and action across the continent and in his new home arena of OAKA in Athens. “He’s enjoyed it so far and he’s been surprised at how passionate the fan base is. Every gym he goes to he talks about how the crowds remind him of big tier college games. He seems to be embracing the experience and loving it,” Rutherford concurred.
Maccabi Tel Aviv Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos chimed in about having Pitino in Europe, “He is a legendary coach and he’s respected a lot in Europe and in the United States. He’s one of the basketball teachers and we grow trying to learn from his system and his way of coaching. It’s a privilege for the Euroleague to have a big time coach here.”
Was it a surprise? “I’m not surprised that the connection of European basketball and NBA are as close as ever and there are many European coaches in the NBA. As we move along Basketball is getting more united.”
Kyle Kuric, his former star players at Louisville who is currently playing for Barcelona had high praise for his coach and credited his for making him the player he is today, “He is a tough and demanding coach but he expected more for you than you thought you could give. He makes you grow up and tap into your potential. We didn’t have all the top guys coming in but we played tough defense and we were in great shape and we ran teams out of gas.”
One of the players who faced Pitino in college was Hapoel Jerusalem’s Da’Sean Butler when he was with West Virginia. He described what it was like to play against him, “I never saw him panic and he was always very alert. He’s always observing and watching what is going on and making adjustments. He’s a great adjustment coach and that’s something I always admired about watching his teams play. If he saw something that another coach consistently did he would pick it apart and take advantage of it. He’s a very smart coach and he knows what he is doing. I was really excited to see that he was back coaching professionally.”
Maccabi forward Jake Cohen played against Louisville once while he was at Davidson in the NCAA Tournament and lost in a close contest in which he scored 24 points. “I was focused on being in the NCAA Tournament which was my childhood dream. It was amazing and to play against a legendary coach like Rick Pitino was very special. It was the culmination of many great things but unfortunately we didn’t get the win. It was the only time we faced them and we had to prepare so much because they play such a unique style and trapped all over the court. It was unique game for me and one that I’ll remember for a long time.”
Kuric was pleasantly surprised the he heard that Pitino was heading over to Greece and even had a chance to catch up with his former mentor when Barcelona played Panathinaikos, “I was surprised he ended up at Panathinaikos although I knew he was trying to coach again in the US. I knew he wants to coach and he will do alright. I hope he will be back in the college ranks and I know that is what he wants to do. He’s a great coach and I don’t see why he wouldn’t get a chance.”
Rutherford delved into why Pitino returned to the coaching ranks after saying he was done with the profession, “His entire life has been built around basketball, either playing or coaching it and then for the first time in his entire life that void was suddenly gaping he had no idea how to fill it. I think it’s really good that he took this job.”