Sports Reporter

Rick Pitino

Rick Pitino was not on trial in federal court but senior Judge Lewis A. Kaplan brought his name into the sentencing hearing Tuesday. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — In his next book, there’s one more name for Rick Pitino to add to the folks who flinch at his “I Hired The Wrong People,” explanation for the issues that ended Pitino’s career at the University of Louisville.

Not a cranky sportswriter.

Not envious rival coaches.

Not hard-headed NCAA investigators, infractions committee members or appeals committee personnel.

Not bumbling members of U of L’s defense team.

Not a vindictive former pizza company icon.

Not an interim university president with an agenda.

Not a board of trustees honcho who was secretly a Kentucky guy.

His name is Lewis A. Kaplan. He is a 74-year-old senior federal judge in the Southern District of New York.

Kaplan offered little outrage about the crimes committed by James Gatto, Merl Code and Christian Dawkins in the college basketball scandal that exposed the transactional nature of recruiting. But Kaplan did have a crack about Pitino.

On Tuesday the judge sentenced each defendant to less than a quarter of the maximum time possible in the federal guidelines. They’re going away to minimum security facilities for either six (Code and Dawkins) or nine (Gatto) months. Apparently, a shrug was not permissible.

You could argue the sentences were so user friendly that Kaplan was not convinced the trio had broken laws that put the safety of the republic — or even college sports — at risk.

A more complete unraveling of how the game is played is expected at the next trial, the one scheduled to begin in April, with Code and Dawkins facing bribery charges on the recruiting trail.

Steven Haney, the attorney for Dawkins, told Mark Schlabach of ESPN that he plans to call as many coaches as possible to illuminate the complete story. Michael Schachter, an attorney representing Gatto, told Schlabach that Pitino and Kansas coach Bill Self were aware that payments for players were made.

DISCLAIMER: Pitino was not on trial in Manhattan. He’s never been charged in this case. He’s written a book outlining his innocence. He just proclaimed it again in an interview from Greece where he is coaching pro basketball and living an interesting life.

Word is that Showtime is working on a documentary about him. Several months ago I learned that “60 Minutes,” was considering his story.

I hope these people talk to Judge Kaplan — as well as the NCAA, the board of trustee member, the interim president, the pizza guy and (fill in the blank.).

Kaplan didn’t play basketball at the highest level,. But, during sentencing, the judge talked like somebody who understood how the game was played.

If you read the coverage from the Manhattan courtroom Tuesday you could argue one of Judge Kaplan’s most cutting comments was aimed at somebody who was not on trial — Rick Pitino.

According to multiple media reports, Kaplan referenced a federal wiretap of a conversation between Code, a representative of Adidas, and Dawkins, a middleman/agent/wannabe in the recruiting process.

In the spring of 2017, Brian Bowen, a McDonald’s all-American from Michigan, was about to seal his fairy tale recruitment by dropping from the sky and into the only legitimate hole in Pitino’s starting lineup.

On the wiretap, Code and Dawkins discussed how Pitino needed “plausible deniability,” about how Bowen got to Louisville instead of Arizona, Texas, Michigan State or other schools that recruited him longer. The way Bowen got to Louisville, of course, was via a promise of at least $100,000 in goodies to his father.

What did Judge Kaplan think of that?

“(Code and Dawkins) knew it was wrong, and they were covering their tracks,” Judge Kaplan said, according to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports. “And they were making sure they were covering Rick Pitino’s tracks. Why were they covering his tracks? Because they knew he was out if he did know.”

Ouch -- Pitino was indeed out because reasonable people had conflicting opinions about what the head coach knew or at least should have known.

I’ll save Pitino’s next book researcher some work. Kaplan did not attend Kentucky, Indiana, Memphis, Cincinnati, Centre College or other schools that Pitino considered at odds with him or “real” U of L people.

Let the record show that Kaplan graduated from the University of Rochester before adding a law degree from a perennial No. 1 seed — Harvard Law School.

Let the record also show that Kaplan was appointed to the federal bench by noted Pitino pal, former President Bill Clinton.

After he returns to the U. S. to A) pursue a college job; B) an NBA job or C) proclaim he’s finished with coaching, Pitino will have to look behind another potted plant to find a conspiracy that sticks.

Why would a judge deliver a stinging aside like that about a guy who wasn’t on trial?

Great question. Until I earn my law degree, it’s not one I am qualified to answer.

I asked two attorneys who do have experience in federal courtrooms:

Was it unusual for a judge to offer commentary like Kaplan’s?

Both attorneys said yes.

Considering it was unusual, why would he do it?

One said it might be Kaplan’s response to the string of snarky comments Pitino has made about the case, including in the book he published last September.

The other attorney agreed and then noted, “Federal judges are appointed for life … they have no limits on what they can comment on. He was sending a message.”

The message Kaplan sent with his sentences was Gatto, Code and Dawkins were not threats to American civilization. Will they serve their time? Who knows? The judge also sent a message that there was a bigger story here.

Stay tuned. More names and schools are predicted to pop when this thing heats up with the next trial in April. The University of Louisville might make it into the discussion there. So might Rick Pitino. You never know.

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