Billy Reed | Columnist
LOUISVILLE (WAVE) – I wasn’t looking forward to reading author Michael Sokolove’s “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino,” mainly because I’m sick and tired of one of the saddest stories I’ve ever watched happen.
But because the people who run the Kentucky Book Fair (Nov. 17 at the Kentucky Horse Park) had asked me to be on a program with Sokolove, I was obligated. And then I was grateful because the book is certainly worth reading.
I'm sure Pitino fans will quickly point out that Sokolove has previously done two books with Kentucky Coach John Calipari, it's obviously tainted and biased. We all know how we love our UK vs. UofL conspiracy theories, right?
But I found no evidence that Sokolove had any hidden agenda. The book is well-written and well-reported. I found a few nits to pick, sure, but otherwise it's professionally done and a valuable guide through UofL's three-year trip to hell and back.
The book apparently was triggered by the FBI's shocking announcement last fall that it had been conducting a secret investigation on the relationships between shoe/apparel companies and big-time college basketball. The investigation included wiretaps, informants, and FBI agents posing as shoe-company agents.
Although no UofL coach was arrested or indicted, it quickly was obvious that part of the investigation was how five-star recruit Brian "Tugs" Bowen seemed to fall into Pitino's lap in July 2017. He had never listed UofL as one of his finalists. Pitino said it was the luckiest thing that had happened to him in 40 years of coaching.
Soon after the announcement, Pitino was fired, followed quickly by Athletics Director Tom Jurich. The university and community were in total upheaval. It took the steady hand of David Grissom, chairman of the UofL board, to bring in the right people, beginning with interim AD Vince Tyra, to put Humpty Dumpty back together.
The book does not include any sensational new revelations. It discusses Jurich and Pitino in a measured way, neither condemning nor condoning them. Rather, Sokolove seems to see them more as victims of a corrupt system and their large egos.
He tells us the history of shoe-company involvement in college basketball. When the fledgling company Nike signed Michael Jordan after he left North Carolina to turn pro before his senior season, the war was on and Converse, which had dominated the sneaker market since World War II, was one of the first casualties.
Today the college market is shared by Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. The initial FBI charges involved only Adidas schools, but investigators hinted that the Nike and Under Armour schools would be mistaken to relax.
UofL's part in this mess came more or less on the heels of two other scandals that rocked the city – the Pitino trial charging Karen Sypher, who had sex with the coach after hours at a Louisville restaurant, with extortion, and "Strippergate," the name applied to the sex parties in the basketball dorm arranged by Pitino staff member Andre McGee.
Pitino did not suffer any consequences from his "affair" with Sypher – who, by the way, was convicted and sent to prison for several years – but "Strippergate" was a killer. After UofL self-imposed some penalties, the NCAA piled on, putting the basketball program on probation and vacating the 2013 NCAA championship.
And so did the once-proud program graced by Charlie Tyra, Peck Hickman, Wes Unseld, Denny Crum, Darrell Griffith and many others become a poster child for everything that's wrong about big-time college hoops.
It was painful to revisit the mess. But Sokolove pulled it together in a logical and understandable way. He also fleshed out some of the shady characters who emerged from the investigation – flesh peddler Christian Dawkins, Adidas executive Jim Gatto, and various others from the hoops underworld.
It also offers some insight into just how corrupt the system has become. It's all about the money, of course, and the parasites don't just include the AAU coaches and the "street agents." They also include college coaches and even parents who are exploiting children for their personal benefit.
The most sympathetic person in the book is Brian Bowen Jr. All he ever wanted to do was play a year or two in an elite college program, then go to the NBA. But unknown to him, his dad was working the shoe companies for money, which is probably the reason he had to wait until the last minute to sign.
According to Sokolove and news reports, Adidas eventually promised him $100,000 to go to UofL. But he had received only $19,500 when the scandal broke. His son was told he was no longer welcome at UofL, transferred to South Carolina, was ruled ineligible there and is now overseas, preparing for the NBA.
I'm now looking forward to appearing with Sokolove on Nov. 17. I have some questions I'd like to ask him, and he may have some to ask me, considering how long I've been around UofL athletics and how well I knew Jurich, Pitino, and some of the other principal characters.
As I've said many times, I have absolutely no axes to grind with Jurich and Pitino from a personal standpoint. Each always has been kind and generous to me. I was never part of either one's inner circle, but I always enjoyed their company when the opportunity presented itself.
I know a lot of people in Louisville feel the same way. And that's what makes this mess so dang hard. Until now, the UofL basketball program always has been a source of pride to the community and I believe it will be again.
Until then, however, the behavior detailed in Sokolove’s book will continue to hurt the entire community any way you want to measure it. The tough part is that it’s hard to build anew when the old clouds still are hovering overhead.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular sports columns to WAVE3.com.