Basketball Short Story
College Basketball Scandals - 3
The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal,
and the Big Business of College Basketball
, Michael Sokolove (2018)
The 2017 scandal involving apparel companies was not the first scandal in college basketball.

Read part 1 | Read part 2
As (Athletic Director) Tom Jurich worked to finalize Louisville's new contract with Adidas, Rick Pitino was still putting his team together for the 2017–18 season. By his own high standards, he was in a slump. The previous year was a rare moment when his squad underperformed. Louisville had an excellent regular season, winning home games against archrival Kentucky and vaunted Duke. They prevailed at Syracuse, an accomplishment for any visiting team. But after earning a No. 2 seed in the Midwest region, the Cardinals could not survive the first weekend of the tournament, losing to seventh-seeded Michigan. The year before that, Louisville was ineligible for the tournament—fallout from Strippergate. The university declared that it would not compete in the postseason in hopes of avoiding even stiffer penalties from the NCAA, a common tactic known as a "self-imposed ban," but one that irritated Pitino. He thought it implied that he had done something wrong. In the upcoming season, however, five of his top players were returning, a good base in an era of college basketball when talented underclassmen on highly ranked teams routinely enter the NBA draft. In addition, Pitino had a top-ten recruiting class coming in, one of his best in years—and that was even before Brian Bowen Jr. began to look like a possibility. Pitino, in fact, thought he was done recruiting for the year. "We've got the best recruiting class we've had in sixteen years," he said. "We got everybody we wanted."
Bowen is the son of a white mother and an African American father, Brian Bowen Sr., a former high school basketball star who became a cop in Saginaw. Bowen Sr. trained and mentored his nephew, Jason Richardson, when he was a promising young basketball player coming up in Saginaw. ...
When Richardson went off to start his freshman season at Michigan State, the Bowens moved from Saginaw to East Lansing to be near him. ... East Lansing was where Tugs was born and where he became his father's next basketball project. ... Jason Richardson stayed two years at Michigan Statee, helping lead the Spartans to a national championship in his freshman season, before setting off on a long and lucrative NBA career. He played fourteen seasons and earned $105 million in salary. ...
Brian Bowen Jr. never presented as the next LeBron James—that's a much smaller subset—but it was apparent from even before he hit his teens that he was a college prospect and possible NBA player. ... When he played locally, he was always the best player on the court, bigger and faster than whatever competition he faced, and he could easily weave his way past defenders on the dribble or just shoot over them. He scored 48 points in his first game in middle school. ...
Bowen cracked the starting lineup at Arthur Hill High School in Saginaw as a freshman, which no one had done for years, and attracted intense attention from college coaches and the media. ... After his sophomore season, Bowen left Saginaw and enrolled at La Lumiere prep in La Porte, Indiana. Michigan's state high school athletic board has some of the most restrictive rules in the country concerning where and when players can compete, and he wanted to be able to play in the made-for-TV games that ESPN and other commercial interests staged between the best high school teams. La Lumiere was a national power, but not what is sometimes referred to as a basketball factory, or a "pop-up basketball school"—schools created for basketball that sometimes do not even hold classes. (They outsource their academics to some nearby institution, or have their students take classes online.) ...
If Bowen (or his father) were looking to increase his national profile and make himself an even hotter basketball stock, his transfer to La Lumiere accomplished that. But so did a couple of his other moves along the way. One was making it clear that despite his cousin's legacy at Michigan State, and the fact that he had a long-standing scholarship offer from coach Tom Izzo, the Spartans did not have an inside track. ... Like every player of his stature, Tugs was almost solely focused on what college program would best showcase him to the NBA and prepare him for pro success. ...
But by the spring of any given year, most of the best players are formally signed. Bowen kept extending the process. The more players who committed, the more interest there was in him. He indicated he would make a decision by the end of January 2017, either in a press conference to be televised by ESPN or in a special video for the website Bleacher Report. "They've hit me up about it," he said, but there was no announcement and he remained on the market. ...
The site FanRag headlined a post in late May: "Where will Brian Bowen—the last uncommitted 5-star recruit—land?" It pointed out that he was the last of the top twenty recruits left and that there was only one other uncommitted prospect among the top hundred. "So what's the holdup for Tugs?" the story asked. "Simply put, no one knows." It listed five possible landing spots—none of them Louisville—and threw in Texas as a long shot because he had lately been retweeting a lot of Longhorn players.

L-R: Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich, Brian Bowen Jr.
As some of the nation's most famous college basketball coaches called him, texted him, sent him letters, and attended his games, Tugs let his father respond to his suitors and help him winnow them to a list of contenders. The family also brought an advisor into their circle: Christian Dawkins, a Saginaw native whose own father had been Draymond Green's high school coach. Dawkins was young, still in his early twenties, but he knew dozens of college coaches, and even NBA scouts and general managers. Tugs trusted him. He figured Dawkins could guide him—let him know how to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. ...
Tugs let his recruitment drag on for a very long time, way past when other top recruits had committed, and then finally revealed his choice in a more low-key way, on Twitter. "Happy to announce my commitment to The Ville," he tweeted under his handle, @20Tugs, signaling that he was signing with the University of Louisville. His father followed up with a tweet of his own. "Congrats, Tugs," he wrote. "God has blessed you." ...
Louisville figured out how to monetize basketball better than any other university in America. It sold hard liquor in its NBA-quality arena and marketed high-dollar premium seats and luxury boxes to affluent Louisvillians. The U. of L., as it is known locally, not only made more money on its basketball team than any other school in the NCAA, it wasn't even close: Louisville was out in front by $7 million. A visionary athletic director, Tom Jurich, leveraged the success of the basketball team and its charismatic Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino, to elevate the rest of the athletic program. He raised money with ease and built stadiums, arenas, ballparks, and practice facilities ...
Louisville used a series of middling conferences as stepping-stones to climb all the way up into the powerhouse Atlantic Coast Conference, alongside bluebloods Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia. ... Louisville was an example of how to build an institution of higher learning out of an athletic program. ...
Rick Pitino, in the summer of 2017, was on the cusp of his seventeenth season as Louisville's basketball coach. He is a New Yorker by birth, which you could still clearly hear in his accent, and a wiseass by personality type. ...
Pitino touted his control over the Louisville basketball program, down to the smallest detail, and claimed to be aware of every morsel of information. "If one of my players has a beer in Louisville," he once said, "I know about it." ...
There's not a coach in big-time college basketball whose program is totally pure. It's not possible. But Pitino came to Louisville relatively clean, with just one blemish on his record—NCAA violations from way back in the mid-1970s when he was an assistant, and then briefly the interim head coach, at the University of Hawai'i. At Louisville, though, he survived two tawdry, embarrassing scandals. The first one was personal in nature: a sexual assignation in a restaurant, after closing time, with a woman he had just met for the first time earlier in the same evening. The episode came to light, in great detail, after she tried to extort him and was prosecuted in federal court—with Pitino in the role of star prosecution witness. The second scandal was even worse because it involved his players. In what became known as "Strippergate," a local escort revealed that one of Pitino's assistants had paid for parties at the basketball dormitory, where she and other women, including her daughters, danced and had sex with high school kids on recruiting visits as well as with some current players. Even though the parties went on over the course of four years, Pitino insisted that he had no knowledge of them. Not many coaches could have emerged from the first scandal without being fired. It's possible that Pitino is the only one who would have survived two affairs that sordid. But he was winning games and packing Yum Center to its 22,090-seat capacity. His team was the engine of the athletic department, and to a large extent, the university itself. ...
Like most successful sports figures, however—coaches or players—Pitino was a champion at compartmentalizing, blocking out distractions, even ones he may have been responsible for himself. He had reason to be excited about the upcoming season. His roster was stocked with talented upperclassmen as well as a rarity, a five-star recruit—Brian Bowen Jr. Tugs was the very last of the premium high school prospects in the class of 2017 to commit to a school, and he seemed to enjoy the speculation about where he might finally land. No one guessed Louisville, because it had not been on his list and was not among the schools Bowen traveled to in his five official visits permitted by the NCAA. ... When he finally announced his choice, one headline read: "Bowen Once Thought Headed to Michigan State or Arizona, but Louisville Comes out of Nowhere."
Even Pitino said he was shocked. He couldn't believe his good fortune! In his telling, Bowen's decision was a gift that fell from the heavens, like one of those letters informing a recipient of some large sum of money left by a distant relative. "We got lucky on this one," he said. "They had to come in unofficially, pay for their hotel, pay for their meals. We spent zero dollars recruiting a five-star athlete who I loved when I saw him play. In my forty years of coaching, this is the luckiest I've been."

To be continued ...