Publish date:

Relationship of Boeheim, Pitino a memorable product of Big East


NEW YORK -- The professional relationship between Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim began in the lobby of the Sheraton in New York City in 1976. It was Rick Pitino's wedding night, and he'd retired to his hotel room with his bride when Boeheim called from the lobby with an urgent request.

Boeheim, a bachelor at the time, hired Pitino as an assistant coach in the lobby that night and kept him down there for four hours. He convinced him to cancel his honeymoon and fly to Cincinnati to sign a skinny forward named Louis Orr.

"I just said to him," Pitino recalled Friday night. "'I'm going to take it, Jim, I just need to get upstairs.'"

There's a full-circle feel to Louisville playing Syracuse for the Big East title in this nostalgic Big East Tournament. From that hotel lobby in 1976 to the national title game in 1996 to New York for the final Saturday night of the full-throttle Big East Tournament, the careers of Boeheim and Pitino have been intricately intertwined.

And as Pitino spun story after story of Boeheim's garish wardrobe, poor temper and even having a "degenerate" harness handicapper for a roommate, it reminded everyone once again how this tournament has been so awash with nostalgia that its overshadowed most of the action on the floor.

Louisville used a late charge to pull away from Notre Dame, 69-57, led by Russ Smith's 20 points and Peyton Siva's seven steals. But by the time the time Syracuse's electric overtime game with Georgetown came to an end, the intensity exhaled out of Madison Square Garden. The night, like so many this week, became awash in the past instead of engrossed in the present.

Pitino's postgame press conference topped anything from the MSG night cap, tracing his friendship with Boeheim from hopeless bachelor to present day. Most hilarious were some fresh details to the often-told honeymoon anecdote. Pitino said that after he hit the recruiting trail to woo Orr, his wife moved up to Syracuse and lived with Boeheim's three housemates for two weeks.

"One was a bartender," Pitino recalled. "The other one was a degenerate harness handicapper. And the other guy was an insurance salesman."

Joanne Pitino spent the better part of two weeks cleaning up after them but came to enjoy their company.

SI Recommends

"One guy come back with all these stories of what he could have won, the bartender had all these stories about the patrons and the insurance guy was striking out," Pitino said.

Rick Pitino served as an assistant for Boeheim for two years. He was hired because Boeheim was enamored with the way he taught man-to-man defense at Five Star Camp. (That's ironic, of course, because both Pitino and Boeheim became zone devotees.)

During the 1977-78 season, Syracuse won the Carrier Classic against Michigan State. Former Syracuse forward Marty Byrnes led the Orangemen -- when they were still called that -- to a victory but didn't win the MVP. Boeheim was so steamed at the snub that he rolled up a stat sheet and threw it at the head of a local writer. (Sadly, this was long before YouTube).

"You voted for Earvin 'Magic' Johnson?" Pitino recalled Boeheim saying. "And he threw the thing. 'How could you possibly do that over Marty Byrnes?'"

Pitino kept the barbs flying, saying that Boeheim never went to a nice restaurant, didn't know anything about wine and reigned as "the all-time worst dresser in the history of coaches." (He said Boeheim tied Wimp Sanderson.)

"Then he marries Juli, and he's wearing expensive clothes, knows wine and every restaurant he goes to is a great one," Pitino said.

The two coaches bumped into each other at the Arlington Club in New York earlier this week and immediately joked that they'd be eating at Denny's at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro in two years when Louisville enters the ACC.

With Boeheim pondering retirement, Saturday's game has a chance to offer a few finals. After all his years coaching at MSG with Providence and the Knicks, Pitino knows he doesn't have many games left here. Syracuse plays here nearly annually in the regular season, but certainly Boeheim's remaining trips here can be counted on one hand. (Louisville will return here in three years, as Pitino said Louisville has agreed to play a big-name non-conference opponent here. He declined to say who, other than it wasn't St. John's.)

While there will be cameos, there's a feel that Saturday night will be the bookend to a coaching relationship that began in the Sheraton lobby more than 35 years ago. A conference rose and fell along the way, giving a week of weepy nostalgia one final fitting wrinkle.

"If you look back on it, you look to a period of history where we had the best basketball conference in the best place in the best city," Pitino said. "And we all let it go."

Last call comes at 9 p.m. Saturday night. After that, only the stories will remain.