UK Men's Basketball

Moral rot? New book uses Pitino, U of L to explore college basketball corruption.

Author Michael Sokolove discusses ‘The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino’

Michael Sokolove wrote a new book about corruption in college basketball. It’s title is "The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino."
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Michael Sokolove wrote a new book about corruption in college basketball. It’s title is "The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino."

With the campout for Big Blue Madness tickets, Kentucky began celebrating the return of college basketball. Or as the publicists for a new book would put it, the return to “a climate of moral rot.”

Author Michael Sokolove pointed out that he never used the words “moral rot” in his book, which was released Tuesday. But those words accurately describe the sport, he said.

And he said the publicists’ reference to “moral rot” does not apply to a specific program. “The book is about college basketball writ large,” Sokolove said Friday before an appearance that night at Lexington’s Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

To make the point of moral rot, Sokolove uses the multiple controversies involving Louisville basketball. This is obvious from the title, “The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino.” These temptations refer to Pitino’s sexual encounter with Karen Sypher on a Louisville restaurant table. Then what Sokolove called “stripper-gate,” in which sex parties were held in an on-campus basketball dorm to help recruiting.

Then finally the FBI investigation that alleged Pitino’s program played a part in an agreement for prized recruit Brian Bowen to receive $100,000 to sign with U of L.

Money drives the corruption that extends far beyond Louisville, Sokolove said.

“You’ve got billions of dollars coursing through college basketball,” he said, “and a tiny percentage of it goes to the athletes. Yes, the scholarships are important, but we’re talking massive amounts of money. And it breeds cynicism. And it breeds street agents and runners and people who buy and sell young athletic flesh.”

Pitino has claimed he was unaware of the sex parties nor had any knowledge of an alleged arrangement to pay for Bowen’s commitment. Sokolove is dubious.

“Pitino says, ‘How could I have known about it?’” the author said. “That’s the wrong question. ... The real question is, ‘how couldn’t you have known about it?’ And, why didn’t you know about it since you’re this street-wise New Yorker who claims to know everything that goes on till it’s convenient not to know it?”

PitinoBook.jpg
“The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino” by Michael Sokolove. Penguin Random House

After U of L fired Pitino, he sued to recoup the $35 million that remained in his contract.

“For him to even be seeking $35 million in what’s left of his contract is obscene,” Sokolove said. “It’s obscene and it’s cynical.”

Pitino declined Sokolove’s request to meet. The author wanted to see the reported $20 million Florida layout that Pitino calls home. Julio Iglesias is a neighbor.

Sokolove, who formerly worked for the Philadelphia Daily News and later the Philadelphia Inquirer, did have a telephone conversation with Pitino.

“He’s so angry and so aggrieved,” Sokolove said. “He’s King Lear down in his beautiful home in Florida having lost his empire.”

Sokolove has worked with John Calipari on two of the UK coach’s books: “Players First” and “Success Is the Only Option.” The author suggested that he and Calipari are sensitive to the idea that the latest book is a collaborative hit job on Pitino.

“I know one of Cal’s fears was he might be perceived as one of the puppet masters behind this book,” Sokolove said. “This book has nothing to do with Cal. ... I’m proud of the books I’ve written with Cal, and I value my friendship with him. But this is my book.”

A contributing writer for The New York Times Sunday Magazine since 2001, Sokolove said he intended this book to read “like a novel.” One character in this non-fiction novel is Christian Dawkins, an aspiring sports agent who was implicated in the FBI investigation into college basketball.

“He’s the guy at the playground with no game, never had any game, but he has three cell phones in his pocket,” Sokolove said. “He’s got a fancy suit. He knows where the party is. He’ll get you into the party. So I feel I’ve brought not just Pitino but these other characters to life.

“And they’re great characters. Some of them are characters we used to read about hanging around boxing. Those are vivid characters, and I enjoyed bringing them to life.”

Al Cowlings?

If you merely skim John Calipari’s tweets (blush), you might have missed the name. The UK coach tweeted that Al Cowlings was among a group of people from Spendthrift Farm attending Monday’s practice.

Al Cowlings? Isn’t that ...

Yes, it was the Al Cowlings who drove the Ford Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson in the famous low-speed chase in Los Angeles in June of 1994. Of course, the police were in pursuit of Simpson, who would be charged with killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and ultimately acquitted.

Joel Cunningham, the director of marketing and communications for Spendthrift Farm, explained. Cowlings is a longtime family friend of Spendthrift owner B. Wayne Hughes.

Hughes, 84, grew up in Los Angeles and is a Southern California graduate. As a booster of USC athletics, he has become acquainted with many athletes who played for the Trojans. It’s not unusual for former USC players to visit Spendthrift. Cowlings played football for USC.

One of his teammates was Simpson, who in 2007 was charged with armed robbery and kidnapping. He was convicted and sentenced to 33 years of prison. He was paroled last year.

When asked if Simpson had visited Spendthrift, Cunningham said, “I’m sure he has in the past. But I wouldn’t think anytime recently.”

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Rupp the pragmatist?

ESPN’s new special — “Basketball: A Love Story” — involves 62 videos. One explores the social significance of the 1966 national championship game between Kentucky and Texas Western.

“Rupp’s Reckoning,” as this video is titled, revives what some think is an exhausted question: Did Adolph Rupp resist calls to integrate Kentucky basketball because he was a racist? Or were other factors involved?

Billy Reed, the longtime journalist who has written for the Herald-Leader, Courier Journal and Sports Illustrated in his career, suggested Rupp was pragmatic and would have fully integrated the program at some point had he not been at the end of his career.

“I don’t know what was in Coach Rupp’s mind and heart except I know this: he wanted to win above all else,” Reed said. “And he was really concerned that John Wooden was coming after his record of four NCAA championships.

“And if anything, he was going to do anything to keep winning.”

Calculated complaint?

Of course, the Selection Committee is changing its method of evaluating teams for the NCAA Tournament. The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is out. The NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) is in.

The RPI was outdated, NCAA officials said. The NET is an upgrade because of its reliance on more modern analytical analysis.

Does this mean coaches — we’re looking at you, John Calipari — will no longer spout conspiracy theories when they don’t like the draw, seed or site their teams receive on Selection Sunday?

Or are such complaints merely an attempt to motivate players, especially for likely non-competitive games in the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.

“I always take things with a grain of salt,” Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of NCAA men’s basketball, said recently. “John has been a great leader in the game. As a member of the NABC board, he cares about the game at every level.”

That said, Gavitt did not rule out the idea of Calipari’s regular Selection Sunday complaints being a motivational tactic.

“He has a job to do for his team,” Gavitt said. “And he’ll do that. We respect that. We’ve been friends for a very, very long time.”

Go Duke?!

A recent article about ESPN’s exploration of the 1966 national championship game drew the attention of reader H. Patrick King.

In one of 62 videos devoted to a series on basketball set to debut Oct. 9, ESPN explores the Kentucky-Texas Western game’s impact on race relations in the U.S. It also raises the question of whether UK Coach Adolph Rupp was a bigot.

That the all-white 1965-66 Kentucky team has been viewed as being on the wrong side of history has raised a long-lasting what-if: What if UK had lost to all-white Duke in the semifinals?

“It’s probably the only time I can say I wish all-white Duke had beaten Kentucky in the Final Four,” King wrote in an email.

King is a 1999 UK graduate. He works in the law profession in Seattle.

Happy birthday

To Jeff Sheppard. He turned 44 on Saturday. ... To Ronnie Lyons. He turns 66 on Sunday (today). ... To former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. He turns 58 on Monday. ... To former UK women’s coach Mickie DeMoss. She turns 63 on Wednesday.

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