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When Rick Pitino was coach of the New York Knicks in 1987-88 and
'88-89, his basketball smarts and I-want-full-court-pressure-
and-I-want-it-now freneticism enabled him to stand out amid the
giant shadows of the NBA's superstars. As a result, during his
seven years at Kentucky, Pitino has been the candidate for just
about any NBA job, the man who has represented hope for even
hopeless franchises. Each time Pitino has said no to an NBA
offer, he has become even more desirable, the forbidden fruit
whose nectar holds the secret to success.

Thus, it came as no surprise when the New Jersey Nets, one of
the hopeless, offered Pitino a five-year, $20 million deal in
late April. Pitino listened, surveyed the jumble of Nets owners
trying to direct that aimless franchise and politely declined.
But within weeks, two events occurred that forced him to rethink
his decision: Antoine Walker, his gifted young sophomore
forward, announced he was going pro, and New Jersey's ownership
settled on one voice, that of Henry Taub, a friend of Pitino's.
In addition, Pitino is facing a lawsuit that could make life in
small-town Lexington messy. He is one of four codefendants in a
$2 million sex-discrimination suit filed by JoAnn Hauser, a
former Kentucky team trainer. Hauser alleges that Kentucky
athletic director C.M. Newton reassigned her to the women's team
so Pitino could hire Edward Jamiel, with whom he had worked at
Providence. All of that is why, at week's end, Pitino was
seriously considering an offer from the Nets to be general
manager, coach and part owner.

The absolute power being offered to Pitino largely explains why
a man who could have his pick of NBA jobs may choose to work for
a franchise with a losing legacy. The lure of coming back East
is part of it too. Pitino grew up in New York City, and he and
his family felt comfortable in Providence, where he was head
coach in 1985-86 and '86-87. That makes him a natural choice to
be the savior of another franchise in ruins, the once-proud
Boston Celtics, but the Celtics have never offered a coach,
general manager or team president any sum close to $20 million.

And so it's the Nets who are poised to win the Pitino
sweepstakes. They are hoping he can take a club devoid of
All-Stars and turn it around. That challenge, say friends, has
him energized.

If Pitino does leave Kentucky, he'll have some explaining to do
to young Jamaal Magloire, a 6'10" center from Toronto who signed
with Kentucky last week, having been wooed away from Purdue by
Pitino's charm. Last Wednesday at the New York Athletic Club,
where he was receiving an award for leading Kentucky to the
national championship, Pitino was called away from the dais to
deliver one more recruiting pitch to Magloire on a cell phone.

What does Pitino say to Magloire now? Just what Magloire would
have said to Pitino in two years if he turns out to be as good
as everyone thinks: Nothing personal, but this is a business,
and I have to think of myself and my family first. Ciao.

--Jackie MacMullen