SYRACUSE - Long before Rick Pitino became one of the most respected and successful college coaches in the country, he didn't give a darn about college basketball. There was a reason for that: He was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island.
"It was just the New York Knicks," the Louisville coach said Saturday after his team practiced for its East Regional final against Michigan State Sunday. "You knew a little bit about North Carolina, but outside of that, college basketball was just not too big."
He knows what you and I do, too. It still is not all that big in the New York area. Local teams have had their moments, but we have to be honest and say that not one of the college teams in the city, the Island or other suburbs left the season overwhelmingly pleased.
St. John's and Fordham parted ways with their coaches. Stony Brook had a nice win in Vermont, but the final act against Albany was sheer heartbreak. Hofstra had a good finale in the conference tournament, but its season also ended in heartbreaking fashion and the Pride had an up-and-down year. Manhattan, St. Francis of Brooklyn and Iona all fell short of being Cinderella. Forget about Seton Hall and Rutgers, and shame on this very scribbler who wrote five years ago about the coming New York college renaissance.
The state of the local game is about as far as you can get from the state of Kentucky, where Pitino has won an NCAA championship with two teams and where winning an NCAA championship is as important as breathing. A potential NCAA final between Pitino's Cardinals and his former team, the Kentucky Wildcats, would be a de facto state holiday, leaving everyone crossing their fingers that the state could reopen the next day.
"We have no professional sports," Pitino said. "In Kentucky, what team do you root for? I don't know. They could [not] care less about that. You're either a Wildcat or a Cardinal."
The good news, according to a man who used to play guard for St. Dominic in Oyster Bay, is that the sidewalks of New York and the parkways of Long Island can in fact be fertile ground for college basketball. Local teams just need to work at attracting local players, and there must be more local players worth attracting.
Pitino reiterated Saturday what he has said before, that there were 30 Division I college prospects on Long Island in his day and there are fewer than five a year now.
"Why is that? Affluence. Affluence leads to lacrosse. Soccer comes into play. Less people are playing basketball," he said in a tone that clearly indicated he is unhappy about that.
He brightened when he recalled the glory days of the Big East. "When you keep the local talent home, you get the Mark Jacksons and the [Walter] Berrys and the [Chris] Mullins. St. John's was a lot of fun back then. P.J. [Carlesimo] took Seton Hall to the Final Four one year," he said.
Truth is, if Long Island and Queens did produce stars like Mullin, Jackson and Berry today, they probably would want to go to Kentucky or Louisville. So there is work to do.
When he was asked specifically about the opening at St. John's -- his son Richard was named as a possible hire but is expected to keep his good job at Minnesota -- Pitino said that whoever takes it had better be ready to roll up his sleeves. It is "a different animal" than having a big job in the NBA.
"You've got to be on the phone with AAU coaches. You've got to get in at 6:30. You've got to work until late at night. The recruiting game is what it's all about," he said.
So it will be difficult. Not impossible, though. "They'll get it going again," he said. "They've just got to keep some of the local product home."
What we need is more local product, more joy in playing and promoting basketball. Maybe some kid from Long Island can be another Rick Pitino.