Leader Blues

Friday, August 14, 2009

SPORTS >> Motivational books no substitute for life’s hard lessons

Leader sports editor

Another public figure. Another public disgrace. This is how life’s lessons get taught. This is how they are hopefully learned.

This is how our character is forged, how our belief systems develop and how our capacity for human compassion and understanding becomes a settled and lasting element of our natures.

Not between the hardback covers of the latest motivational or self-help book, but between a rock and a hard place or, in Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino’s case, between the sheets of another woman’s bed.

Rick Pitino has always seemed to carry himself a bit above it all, speaking in terms not entirely accessible to us fallible humans down here on Planet Earth. His answers always seem to come too easy — as though he were pushing the play button on one of his numerous motivational books on tape.

Now Pitino finds himself in the middle of an all-too-human situation. He has admitted to a sexual liaison with a woman at a restaurant six years ago, which he has delicately referred to as an indiscretion, a word as hollow as some of the titles of Pitino’s many books.

Pitino has also admitted to providing the woman, Karen Sypher, with $3,000, money he claims today was for health insurance, but which most people suspect was in fact for an abortion. Pitino is a devout Catholic who even has a priest on the sidelines with him at Louisville games, and it is this alleged abortion money that may be the hardest stain for him to remove.

To hear former Hawaii coach Bruce O’Neil tell it, this wasn’t Pitino’s first instance of violating a trust. Pitino, whose first job was as O’Neil’s assistant, was named in several infractions at Hawaii that ended up costing O’Neil his job. O’Neil accused Pitino of trying to steal his job during the investigation.

“Rick’s always had trouble with loyalties,” O’Neil told the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1989.

Pitino has never directly staked out the moral high ground in the same audacious and zealous manner of, say, a Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker or Newt Gingrich or any of the countless others who have looked down their noses at us, wagged a disapproving finger in our faces, then shuffled off to their own “indiscretions.”

But he has written a series of books with such titles as “Success is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and in Life,” “Rebound Rules: The Art of Success,” “Lead to Succeed,” and others with names and subtitles that leave you thinking you’d rather attend an Amway meeting than crack open any one of them.

Why am I so averse to such books? Because nothing lasting can be gleaned from a book whose purpose is to teach you about life. The only lasting lessons about life are learned by living life, by coming up short and in so doing, learning something about yourself.

This isn’t to say the things Pitino has to say in his books are all empty and hollow. I’m certain that he provides worthwhile guidelines for successful living, though if you need to refer to a book to, for instance, build self esteem, establish good habits, always be positive, etc. (these are actual chapter headings from one of his books), you may already be sunk.

Pitino has received his own share of hard knocks in life so it may be that the lessons he’s imparting may be hard-won. He lost a six-month-old son to heart failure and a brother-in-law/best friend in the 9/11 attacks. He grew up a lonely child eight years younger than his next-oldest brother. That may have informed his worldview as well.

But Pitino’s itinerant nature — he has wandered in his coaching career nearly as much as Larry Brown, going from his first coaching job at Boston University to the New York Knicks to Providence back to the Knicks to Kentucky and finally Louisville – may provide some clues into Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynold’s observation that Pitino has always been “a bit of a Gatsby-type figure. At some point he believed that if you work and you dream and you do all these things, you can kind of will yourself to be who you want to be.”

Gatsby never had any sense of himself, perhaps because he lived in a world of grand and abstract notions not unlike the ones put forth in Pitino’s own books.

Pitino has been carrying this secret for six years now. He claims to have made amends with his wife and five kids and good for him if he has. Here’s hoping his fall from grace might add some heft to some of those airy notions he has about success.