New Iona coach Rick Pitino — who has also been at the helm for the Knicks and Kentucky Wildcats and was ousted by Louisville amid a scandal before coaching in Greece — takes a time out for some Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby. Q: Where is the level of your PHD — passionate, hungry, …
New Iona coach Rick Pitino — who has also been at the helm for the Knicks and Kentucky Wildcats and was ousted by Louisville amid a scandal before coaching in Greece — takes a time out for some Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.
Q: Where is the level of your PHD — passionate, hungry, driven?
A: I would say it’s no different than the first day I took over the Knicks, and I was probably in my early 30s then. It’s even more so today because I’ve learned two important facets of basketball — I learned what not to say and what not to do, and I learned what to do. Experience teaches you those two things, or three things. The EuroLeague really helped me develop a total different mindset with offenses. It was a great learning experience for me. I think it’s the best form of basketball there is to be played on offense. Defensively, their standards don’t hold up to the way we play it.
Q: The mindset is different in what way?
A: The passing, the cutting. … They play with a 24-second clock, but they’ll move the basketball sometimes six, seven passes in a span of six, seven seconds, to create movement and good shots. It may end up in a pick-and-roll like we do, but they’ll create all that movement because their defensive rules are just like college. They can sit in the three-second lane.
Q: So what style will Iona be playing?
A: We’ll play EuroLeague offense with full-court pressure defense.
Q: So Iona will be fun to watch?
A: Oh, very much so.
Q: What is your definition of a winning disorder, and why you’ve been afflicted with it?
A: I think it’s not so much a winning disorder as much as a competitive disorder. I’m not a good golfer, but if I play golf … you would think I was playing for the national championship. It’s just a competitive thing that every time you do something, you’re trying to win. And the one thing I’ve learned throughout the years is to be a good loser, give credit to the other team, move on and just try and play the game.
Q: What would your Final Four picks have been?
A: Kansas, Gonzaga, Dayton … if they would put Kentucky in the East I would have gone with probably Kentucky, because they were really starting to play better.
Q: How far could Seton Hall have gone?
A: I think Seton Hall coulda got to the Elite Eight, because they had maturity, they had great scoring, they had great shot-blocking, [coach] Kevin [Willard] does a phenomenal job. I think they would run into one of those high-powered teams that would overpower them in a few positions, but they were really a terrific basketball team. It’s a shame, I thought Dayton had a great basketball team.
Q: Do you think Myles Powell will be a pro?
A: There’s a player I love in the EuroLeague; he should be in the NBA, his name is Mike James. He’s the leading scorer in the EuroLeague. Myles Powell reminds me of Mike a little bit. Do I think he’ll be in the NBA? I think he’ll try out with a team, but I think he’ll be a terrific player over in Europe and make a lot of money and be very successful. Could he play in the NBA? I’m sure he could, but I don’t think he’s somebody you’re gonna say he’s definitely gonna make it, but he’s a very talented young man and I think he’ll get a good shot at the NBA.
Q: How good of a pro will UNC’s Cole Anthony be?
A: I think he’s great. I loved his dad’s [Greg] game, and I think he’s better than his dad. His dad couldn’t shoot or jump like Cole. He’s an explosive athlete, explosive point guard, great attitude, tough like his dad.
Q: What are your thoughts on St. John’s coach Mike Anderson?
A: I knew Mike from Arkansas. I was shocked that he came to St. John’s. His background is Arkansas, his background is the South. But he’s a tremendous coach, tremendous person. I think he’ll do great if he recruits great, because he’s an excellent coach.
Q: What would you want to say about former Iona coach Tim Cluess?
A: Tim did a phenomenal job at Saint Mary’s in Manhasset, he did a phenomenal job at Iona. He’s a big-time what I call a basketball Benny, he’s an old-fashioned basketball Benny. You don’t have to give him great facilities, just give him a ball, play in between the lines and he’s gonna win. My prayers are with him. I’m hoping he beats whatever he has.
Q: Describe the very first time you met Jim Valvano.
A: We played one-on-one basketball for two summers straight. He was a coach, I was a counselor at Long Island Lutheran. We played one-on-one at noontime every day when he was at Rutgers. I was a high school basketball player. … I was offered the New Jersey Net job by [then-owner] Joe Taub. I didn’t want it, but I set up an interview with seven of their owners for Jimmy V. in New York City. He walked out, called me and said, “There’s no way in a million years I could take that job dealing with those seven guys.” Then I stayed with him when he told me that he felt what he was going through at N.C. State with the NCAA, he believed destroyed his immune system, and that was one of the reasons he was having a difficult time fighting off cancer. I remember him telling me that.
Q: Somewhere up there, he must be smiling now that his old buddy will be coaching Iona.
A: I’m hoping that I have the experiences that Tim Cluess had, that Jimmy V. had, that Tim Welsh had. Everybody who coached at Iona College … Kevin Willard … they all say the same thing: “You’re gonna love it. It’s a special place.” And for every single coach that has gone through there, to say that, that’s a damn special thing.
Q: What do you think of Patrick Ewing as a head coach?
A: Patrick did a great job the year before at Georgetown. I followed him, I talked to him a lot on the phone, I’d call him after games and said what I liked and what I thought he needed to work on. I didn’t follow him this year because of being over in Greece.
Q: How come he didn’t become an NBA head coach?
A: I think that maybe a little bit of the stereotype of big guys, they don’t like to hire centers. It’s strange, but the only reason I say that is because there aren’t too many big guys being head coaches.
Q: Why were your two years coaching Providence your favorite two years in coaching?
A: The team I took over, in seven straight years, they were in dead last place since the inception of the Big East, or tied for last place. The team I took over didn’t have one double-figure scorer. And they went from that point to the NIT and the Final Four. And I just thought it was magical, and I wish, if I had one regret, I coulda just stayed 3-5 more years at Providence College. Happy I went to the Knicks. People think my biggest regret would have been to leave Kentucky. But that’s really not the case ’cause I coached seven years in Kentucky. It just was too short at Providence, and it was two magical years.
Q: Were you surprised the Nets fired Kenny Atkinson?
A: Shocked. If you look at his roster right now, there’s no way they’re a playoff team, and he has them in the playoffs. He took guys with no reputation, and developed them into really good basketball players. Actually would have been one of my choices for Coach of the Year.
Q: What was your reaction when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant signed with the Nets?
A: Without giving the Knicks an interview, that was shocking. The Knicks today, it’s not like the old days, where everybody dreamed of playing at Madison Square Garden. When I was playing ball, you’d give everything to get to Madison Square Garden. So it’s a little bit different today, and the Knick organization is going through difficult times, but hopefully they got the right leadership now and they’ll turn it around.
Q: You think Durant can be one of the all-timers?
A: I’ve always thought that way, because he’s 6-11, shoots it, great passer, great length, knows the game, basketball junkie, he always wants to be in the gym, always wants to get better. Now obviously he’s coming off a very difficult injury [torn Achilles tendon], but Kevin really never relied on athleticism to be great. So that’s gonna help him coming back from this injury. Although he is athletic, he never relied on that, he relied on his skills more than anything else.
Q: And you always loved Kyrie, right?
A: Yeah, Kyrie’s a great player. And I spoke to the Celtic equipment manager who I’m very close with, and he said Kyrie really didn’t deserve the criticism he got because he’s a good guy, very intelligent. Sometimes you gotta spend time with people before you pass judgment.
Q: With a healthy Kyrie and a healthy Durant, the Nets should be in the championship conversation next season, right?
A: It all depends on how good they’re gonna be defensively. Are you gonna be Houston? Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the type you want to be, then that’s the type of team you will be. You’ve gotta develop an identity of what you want to be from a style standpoint, and once they develop that identity through their new coach, then we’ll see how good they’re going to be.
Q: If the Knicks don’t retain interim coach Mike Miller, who do you think among Mark Jackson, Tom Thibodeau and Jeff Van Gundy would be a good fit?
A: I think all three would be a fit. They need discipline, structure, obviously they need players. … They need to go out in free agency and if you said to somebody, “Hey, Mark Jackson’s the head coach,” or “Van Gundy’s the head coach,” I think free agents would want to play for them.
Q: Do you think you could mediate a sit-down between James Dolan and Charles Oakley and Spike Lee?
A: (Chuckle) I would love to try, ’cause I love Oakley and I love Spike. … The best thing to do is just everybody in a room, hash it out, speak it out, and become friends, that’s the best way to do it. If I was Jim Dolan, call up Spike, call up Oak, put ’em in a room, “Hey guys, let’s leave this best friends and let’s move on.”
Q: What do you think of RJ Barrett?
A: I love the guy from Philadelphia, [Ben] Simmons. I think he’s multitalented, and people tried to say what he can’t do, and they tried to do that with me with the Knicks when they drafted Mark Jackson. They tried to tell me he was too slow, they tried to tell me he couldn’t shoot, and my response was, “Tell me what he can do, don’t tell me what he can’t do.” And the same thing with Barrett. He’s got great size, great ability, and everybody in the NBA improves their shooting. Scottie Pippen couldn’t shoot past 10 feet when he first came in the league, and he became a 3-point shooter. I think he’s gonna be a great basketball player.
Q: Your thoughts on Mitchell Robinson?
A: I think he’s gonna have a great NBA career. I’ve watched him play about five games, I don’t know his attitude, I don’t know his work ethic, but his ability is there, and I like what I see.
Q: What do you know about new Knicks president Leon Rose?
A: I actually think he’s a great choice. I think they needed something different. He’s a power broker, a high-powered guy. He obviously knows the league, the other agent [Rob Pelinka] out there with Los Angeles [Lakers] has done a great job. I actually do think he’ll do a great job with the Knicks.
Q: How good can Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson be?
A: I think Zion is a freak of nature. Because he’s such a great guy, great person, as long as he stays healthy, he’s gonna have a long, great career.
Q: Your coach pairings on Twitter: Coach K and John Wooden?
A: I knew Coach Wooden very well. They’re both very similar personalities. Between the lines, they’re not the saints they want to project. They are killers between the lines. They’re both also very private people. They’re family-oriented. Their wives rule the roost away from the lines.
Q: Tom Izzo and Rollie Massimino?
A: Between the lines, every call, the referee is making a mistake and they’re going berserk. They love their players, their players are their life.
Q: John Calipari and Larry Brown?
A: Well, they’re close friends, and they’re both brilliant coaches. They both have had a tendency to move to different places, although John will be a lifer at Kentucky. They both grew up loving the game, have great passion for the game.
Q: You don’t think Calipari would be interested in the Knicks job?
A: I really don’t. I think when you coach at Kentucky, you have the premier job in college basketball — in terms of he can recruit any player he wants, he has unbelievable facilities, he’s gonna win his 30 games every year, and he’s got the best job in all of basketball. So I’m not sure why he would ever want to have a job that’s not the best job in all of basketball. He’s smarter than me when it comes to that.
Q: Jim Boeheim and Ray Meyer?
A: Jim’s a great strategist. I was on the bench with him, and he sees the game and timeouts as well as anybody. Both guys had longevity. Jim probably is an awesome evaluator of talent, he’s a great scout of an opponent, and guys love playing for him, and they loved playing for Ray Meyer.
Q: Jay Wright and Chuck Daly?
A: I went and checked Daly’s closet in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He had every shirt, every suit lined up by color, checks with checks, stripes with stripes, straight colors — same thing with shirts. I walked in his closet and I saw about 60 suits, 60 shirts, ties and belts, shoes to match. I’ve never been in Jay’s closet, but would imagine it would be the same thing. Two great coaches, two great personalities, very charismatic. Had the total package. Although they dress like they’re in a GQ magazine, both are very humble people. Jay Wright and Chuck Daly, if you had to build a coach with a mold of clay, one of those would pop out.
Q: Dean Smith and Roy Williams?
A: Well, obviously like Calipari and Larry Brown, they’re cut from the same cloth. They’re never gonna say a negative word. It’s always gonna be “geez, golly.” And then, you play golf with Dean, he’s gonna cut your throat out. Big-time winners. Really, really quality people. Really care about the people they coach. Great strategists, great game coaches. He learned under Dean. Dean’s one of the great innovators in the game, one of the great timeout coaches of all time.
Q: Who do you think the next great young coach in the NCAA is?
A: Kevin Willard. I know him because he worked for me for nine years — he’s not young anymore, but I guess he’s middle-age now — but he’s a great young coach. It’s not easy at Seton Hall. It’s not easy at any of the metropolitan schools. They don’t have the practice facilities that the Kansases, the Kentuckys, the Louisvilles, the North Carolinas have. I don’t know the real, real young guys — I’ve been away for two or three years in exile.
Q: What are your favorite cities overseas?
A: Believe it or not, Moscow was great. Obviously Milan is going through tough times right now, but Milan was terrific. Istanbul I wasn’t crazy about because it’s a difficult city to get around. I thought Spain, the Grand Canary Island, incredible. Greece was probably my favorite of all the places, the islands, and the people, they all speak English. The best part about the whole thing was not only the travel and the experiences, but at my age, how much basketball I learned.
Q: What do you hope all your players past and present say about you?
A: I want to be judged only by the people I coached, and the people that worked under me. I always say to people, “If you want to know what I’m all about, call up Mark Jackson, call up Billy Donovan, call up Jeff Van Gundy, call up Francisco Garcia, Jamal Mashburn.” I’ve been in business with Jamal Mashburn for over 30 years together, and he played for me. Call up the people that played for me. Then call up the 30 assistant coaches that are head coaches that worked under me. And let me be judged by them.
Q: Who would play you in the movie?
A: (Chuckle) I would like Andy Garcia to play me. I think he’s an underrated actor. I met him at Indian Creek, he’s a great guy. Al Pacino, a lot of people say I looked like him back in the day. I used to choose Al Pacino in at McBurney’s YMCA on 23rd Street on Saturdays in a 4-on-4 game when “The Godfather” just came out. We would get our ass kicked, you had to wait an hour to get the next run. But I would choose him in just because he was Al Pacino.
Q: What drives Rick Pitino now?
A: Well, to start with, I went to Greece, that’s how much I love coaching. I didn’t know anybody there, didn’t know anything about the EuroLeague, just packed my bag on Christmas and took off. I think it speaks volumes for just how much I love the game of basketball. Like I told the [Iona] president, I took full responsibility for anything that occurred because I was the leader. That’s the one thing I learned from the adversity. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, I said I have a boulder on my shoulder.
Q: How would you sum up what the past two years have been like for you?
A: I think I left for Greece very bitter. My son gave me the greatest advice. He said, “After you wrote the book [“Pitino: My Story”], Dad. That’s it now. Stop trying to go on a crusade to declare your innocence, just coach.” I also reflected back and I said, “You know what? I’m responsible for the things that went wrong because I took all the credit for 30-plus years for things that went right.” So, I need to be responsible, own up to it. I deserved to be fired by Louisville [for bribery scheme allegations] regardless of whether I was 100 percent innocent, didn’t matter. I’m the head coach. I was responsible for the action of others in that regard. But I took responsibility. I’ve been exiled by the NCAA for three years. I finally got my due diligence with the Southern District of New York when I was totally exonerated, but you know how that is, it took 2¹/₂ years to go to trial, and fortunately for me at the trial, everybody got up there on the witness stand who said that Rick Pitino had nothing to do with it, he had no knowledge of any of it, and I settled my lawsuit with Adidas. I no longer have an ounce of bitterness towards Louisville or anybody else. And I’m so fired up, I felt like I’m in my 30s now, so fired up to get going at Iona.