Writer Michael Sokolove appears Thursday evening at Carmichael’s Bookstore to sign and discuss his new book, “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal, and the Big Business of College Basketball.” It’s a subject near — but not dear — to University of Louisville basketball fans and innocent bystanders who have found themselves swamped with Pitino bad news for three years.
For UofL, the trouble began with a sex parties scandal, followed the next year by a broader FBI investigation of bribery and illegal doings in college basketball — with UofL the biggest basketball name in a pay-for-play scandal that involved multiple schools, coaches, recruits, parents of recruits, street agents, shady “grassroots” AAU operators and the Adidas athletic apparel company.
Rick Pitino, the highly successful Louisville coach, was not indicted, and his school is classified as a victim. But Pitino, who survived the first scandal, and his athletic director Tom Jurich, were swiftly fired from their multi-million-dollar posts after the second.
UofL also took another body blow of bad publicity during the same period when top officials, including the university president James Ramsey, were accused of enriching themselves through the university’s foundation and endowment. That also had ties to the athletic department.
All awful, with the famous coach Pitino cast as the lead character in what amounted a Greek tragedy without Greeks. Sokolove follows the Louisville tale as a pathway through a broader examination of college basketball. That’s the Big Story of “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino.”
But you say you’ve heard all you can stand?
Don’t blame you, a bit. Both UofL fans and everyday citizens with no Cardinal Bird in the hunt are worn out with the story.
But the details that emerge in “Temptation” become fascinating reading as Sokolove’s story unfolds. The book is well-sourced and reported at a page-turning pace by Sokolove, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of five books.
Buying into the colleges
Almost every basketball fan “knows” about the involvement of shoe companies in getting their hooks into promising prospects and about the willingness of big sports schools to overlook almost anything as they rake in the cash generated by the sale of their sport — at the arenas, and in lucrative longterm TV contracts.
But one quickly sees in this book that common knowledge is more like knowing of — than actually knowing — the real story, which Sokolove has uncovered.
For example, it is a misconception to believe the shoe companies’ big goal is prospecting for potential professional basketball superstars who will sign endorsement contracts to promote the brand. That was great when Nike operator Sonny Vaccaro signed Michael Jordan decades ago.
But Jordan earned more than most of the rest of the pro stars combined and had an impact with Air Jordan shoes that will probably never be duplicated by another pro.
Nope, writes Sokolove, what the sports apparel companies really want is a connection to the colleges. It starts with those shoes, dancing so artfully up and down the hardwood floors of America’s top college teams.
“The real goal of the shoe companies, in their outreach to young players, is to build brand loyalty and enter them into a pipeline that leads to the college teams they sponsor,” writes Sokolove. “If the players make it to the pros and rock the shoe and gear in the NBA, that’s a bonus.”
Sokolove points out that when you walk into the University of Louisville bookstore, you find counter after counter and rack after rack of Adidas brand wear and gear before you ever bump into a book.
And those perfect advertising-age college kids wear their “Louisvilles” everywhere they go. So do their friends and family. All the team’s fans. Walking billboards for the school, but also for the Adidas brand.
One of Sokolove’s most fascinating sources is Vaccaro, the man who transformed Nike’s business from niche-market hiking and outdoor shoes to general sports shoe marketer to the world.
“When I was with Nike, I wanted a kid to go to a Nike (affiliated) school,” Vaccaro said. “I didn’t give a shit which one. Same with Adidas. Just go to some Adidas school, one where they win games and get in the tournament and get on TV. Otherwise we could give the money to Appalachian State if we just wanted to be good guys. But it’s a business deal, not a basketball deal.”
What colors are we wearing? They’ll tell us on Monday
Sokolove notes that Adidas pioneered the outrageous uniforms worn by Louisville and Baylor in the NCAA Tournament in 2012. Blinding neon colors that caught the attention of viewers. Remember those?
Louisville’s uniforms weren’t even the school’s Cardinal red, but some kind of a hot-orange pink. Human highlighters. How much did Adidas have to pay Louisville to get the school to abandon its school colors? Enough, evidently.
Baylor wore neon yellow, like the police tape around a crime scene. Only brighter. Oregon, a Nike team, wears uniforms only a Duck could love.
But everyone noticed the neon. Through the tournament all the commentators talked about it. This scribe even complained about it in print. Which, of course, is all the point.
Sokolove gets deeper into the visual side of the game in examining “spatting.” That’s the insider’s term for the common practice of winding tape around the top of a player’s shoes and continuing up the lower leg. Athletic trainers know it adds stability. Helps prevent ankle sprains, they say. And is often done to protect already injured ankles.
But the shoe companies don’t like spatting because it covers up the shoe logos so they can’t be seen on TV. The word spat refers to the old-fashioned spats that Fancy Dans wore over their shoe tops.
“Much attention was paid to the issue of spatting in the Louisville contract (with Adidas),” Sokolove reports. “Under the terms of the agreements, the student athletes are action figures festooned with company logos, and anything that covers up those symbols runs counter to the whole spirit of the partnerships.”
But if there’s a medical conditioning need?
The Adidas contract called for just a warning after a “first occurrence” of unauthorized spatting. But financial penalties for second and third occurrences.
Louisville signed a contract worth $160 million to hype the Adidas brand, and Sokolove describes a big donor’s dinner the night before the announcement to toast the contract signing. At the head table was Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, a UofL grad, and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
But Jurich seated acting president Dr. Greg Postel at a lesser limelighted table away from the important dignitaries. Postel was charged with cleaning up the athletic department mess. Not long after the second scandal hit, Jurich was sent packing.
In more ways than one.
Jurich and his wife Terrilynn, who had raised four children and sent them all to UofL, now live in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Sokolove doesn’t heap a lot of discredit on Jurich. He finds Jurich the man who made things happen. The man who stamped the university face forward with a string of brick athletic stadiums along Floyd Street that showed a fresh new face for the old “commuter school.”
But the writer understands that when Jurich stood by Pitino, and then things went bad for the second time, the athletic department architect had to go, too.
Sokolove visited with the Jurichs in Steamboat Springs, near Terilynn’s family home in Wyoming.
“At a dinner one night at a restaurant in town, they clasped hands and said grace. Tom Jurich had a couple of beers. Terrilynn had a glass of red wine. ‘I’m sorry,’ Terrilynn said at one point during dinner as she cried softly. ‘We really haven’t talked with anybody about this. But Louisville was our home. It’s where our family grew up together, and it was very painful to leave there.’”
The corporatization of street-level sleaze
But Sokolove has no sympathy whatsoever for the bribers and cons who locate the best prospects early and reel them into pipeline schemes that eventually deliver the top talent to the top-performing schools — with shoe company money financing the enterprise. Sokolove calls this “the less familiar element of the recruiting landscape — the corporatization of street-level sleaze.”
The author sees criminality in all of this the same way as the FBI and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. That’s the New York City district, where some of the biggest criminals are (hopefully) brought to justice. And in the hottest media glare. No place anybody would wish for their hometown college.
And he definitely empathizes with the young players, which brings the book to Brian Bowen Jr., of Saginaw, Mich., the smooth 6-7 star signed as the last big recruit of the high school class of 2017. Almost like he was waiting for something. Signed much to Pitino’s surprise.
The coach saw Bowen, affectionately called “Tugs” by his family and friends, as a special piece that would fit perfectly with a strong recruiting class and skilled veteran team to head back to the Final Four and basketball glory — before it all blew up in the coach’s face, with FBI wiretaps in Las Vegas hotel rooms incriminating Adidas as the funder of the funneling of Bowen to Louisville for $100,000.
But Sokolove finds Bowen’s story compelling — growing up under his father’s tutelage to become one of the most skilled players, if not the most physically imposing, in the ranks of recruits. Brian Bowen Sr. was an ex-Saginaw policeman who had already prepared his nephew Jason Richardson for stardom at Michigan State and the NBA.
“From the time he started playing,” Sokolove quotes Bowen Sr., “I made sure he could handle the ball with both hands. When he was 8 or 9 months, standing against the table, I made sure he used both hands to roll a ball around and develop that ambidexterity in both hands.”
The father bought a house with a full-court outdoor basketball court, then topped the concrete surface with a spring-like product called VersaCourt.
“He was looking ahead even then,” says Brian Jr. “If it would have stayed cement, I would have wrecked my knees and I wouldn’t have been able to amount to anything.”
Brian was sent away to La Lumiere Prep in LaPorte, Ind. Not a basketball factory, but a respected academic prep school with good sports. Among La Lumiere’s grads is John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
But always, every summer, it was AAU basketball — and that’s the world headquarters of athletic talent marketing.
In the end, Bowen never got to play at UofL. Never got to the showcase to become a top pro draft choice. Interestingly, however, Sokolove says the lad looked forward to playing in college more than the pros. Pretty sad.
The denouement of the hero coach
“The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino” doesn’t leave out Pitino. Or his roll in — or maybe angling around — the recruiting messes that plague college basketball. And UofL, which the author faults for not slamming the door on what he calls the “strippergate” scandal. And maybe still doesn’t get there’s a problem after the Adidas recruiting scandal.
“That strippergate thing is about as bad as can happen,” Sokolove says in a phone interview before flying to Louisville to debut his book. “I mean, four years of sex parties in the basketball dorm. Even if Pitino didn’t know a thing about it, it is such a terrible comment on the culture of this program.”
Sokolove says he isn’t sure the UofL administration saw what the rest of the country saw about its coach and school — with paid prostitutes serving underage boys.
“Everything about it is so awful that I don’t think (Pitino) should have kept his job after that,” Sokolove continues. “Specifically, Tom Jurich or the president of the school has got to say, ‘Sorry coach, this is hideous. This is awful. Thanks for the memories. We have to show you the door.’
“And the fact they didn’t is a big statement. It’s a statement that he could get away with a lot. And it explains why he thinks when a player’s recruitment went awry, and (the player) was paid, or his family was paid for his recruitment to play at Louisville, and at least one of his coaches seemed to have some involvement or some knowledge, he thinks he could get by with that, too. But it was finally too much.”
What, me worry?
That’s all stuff anyone could know. But Sokolove claims that after UofL nearly lost its accreditation because the president of the school was dipping into a modest foundation endowment meant to solidify the future of the school, the school still used foundation cash to buy out the contract of Xavier coach Chris Mack so Mack could be the next coach at Louisville.
Sokolove finds it incredible that Louisville could find the money to pay its baseball coach $1 million a year for the next 10 years. More security, the writer says, than most major league baseball managers.
But the football coaching staff is really a lulu for Sokolove.
“In some ways, my book is hard on Louisville,” says Sokolove, noting that he likes Louisvillians and their city. “But I should point out that nearly everything you see at the University of Louisville is just an outsized version of what goes on at the highest levels of the NCAA.”
Which brings the writer to football coach Bobby Petrino, very highly paid and stacking his staff with highly-paid assistants. Some make $1 million a year — as assistants do at higher ranked football schools.
“He (Petrino) has been allowed to build a coaching staff that includes his son and not one, but two, sons-in-law. Three altogether,” says Sokolove. “You know the real world does not operate that way. But NCAA sports operates that way, so Louisville is not the only one. But is there no one to say you can’t fill up what are public jobs with your family members? It’s a little crazy.”
Sokolove also is the author of “Drama High,” about a high school drama teacher preparing prospects for stage and screen. It’s a theme for the writer, mentoring.
And he notes — he better note, he says — that he is also the co-author of two books by University of Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“I’m sure that will probably come up in the Q&A Thursday night,” says Sokolove, with a chuckle.
The author’s signing and talk starts at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, at Carmichael’s Bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Ave.