Bond with ‘first recruit’ shows the Rick Pitino Iona is hoping for

Bond with ‘first recruit’ shows the Rick Pitino Iona is hoping for

Jay Twyman was a hotshot high school star at Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School in the early spring of 1978, weighing his college options. One that appealed to him greatly was Syracuse, mostly because of the rapport he’d developed with the assistant coach who’d been recruiting him.

One day, right around April Fools’ Day, Twyman’s phone rang.

“Well,” the voice said, “I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is, Syracuse is no longer recruiting you.”

Twyman let that sink in for a beat.

“The good news,” the guy on the other end of the phone, a fast-talking 26-year-old man with a voice landscaped by Long Island named Rick Pitino, “is that I just accepted the head coaching job at Boston University. And you’re the first guy I called.”

All these years later, Twyman laughs at that memory, mostly because all these years later Pitino still refers to him as “my first recruit.” The really funny part is, Twyman turned Pitino down. He had another offer, from South Carolina, where the legendary coach Frank McGuire was winding down his Hall of Fame career.

“I had a higher opinion of my skills than reality,” Twyman says.

The next summer, after playing only 10 games as a freshman, Twyman was weighing his options. He called the basketball office at BU. A familiar voice picked up on the first ring.

“I’ve been waiting for you to call,” Pitino said. “The scholarship is yours, if you want it.”

And thus did Jay Twyman see, firsthand, the opening chapters of what has become a most fascinating basketball tale, the Rick Pitino Story, a chronicle that includes two NCAA championships and 770 college wins, NBA pit stops in New York and Boston, a shingle at the sport’s Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. — and, lately, relentless ignominy.

Now, he has returned the grassiest of his grassroots, to a mid-major in Iona whose ambitions and place in the college basketball pantheon aren’t all that different from Boston University in 1978. He seeks, at 67, a proper conclusion to a one-time fairytale whose plotline sputtered horribly off track.

Rick Pitino
Rick PitinoGetty Images

“All I can tell you is what it was like to play for him,” says Twyman, a successful Wall Street executive who lived for many years in Westchester County and now lives in Florida. “It was the most demanding, the most difficult, the most challenging and ultimately the single-most rewarding thing I ever could have done. And I’d do it all over again if I could. And most guys I know who played for him feel exactly the same way.”

Twyman recalled the first day of practice at BU when he and his teammates, knowing their new coach was a tad on the obsessive side, showed up five minutes early for 3 o’clock practice. Pitino threw them out of the gym, pointed them toward the track, told them to put in five miles for being five minutes late according to “My Time.”

Decades later, Pitino invited Twyman to his home in Miami for a round of golf. Around 5 in the morning Twyman awakened and heard a ruckus in the basement; it was Pitino, attacking the treadmill, his face a pulpy mess. Of course, there was only one thing Twyman could do.

“I joined him,” he says, laughing.

This is what Iona hopes it is hiring. Throughout all the bluster and all the blind ambition there was always an earnestness about Pitino, one built out of an insatiable work ethic that never left him. A few years ago, on an off-day at the NCAA Tournament in Albuquerque, Pitino relaxed with a couple of familiar writers and spoke about coaching.

“Honestly, at this point, what I dream of is coaching somewhere out of the way and doing it for the pure joy of the job again,” he said.

One of us called him on that: “You have more money than God. Why not quit now?”

He smiled that last thought away.

This is what he sells now, to Iona, to its fans, to future recruits. He talks like a man who knows Iona took a chance on him, and wants to honor that. But Iona took more than a flier on him, of course. Forget whatever looming penalties the NCAA has in store for Louisville, or for Pitino. Those are secular consequences.

Iona was founded by the Congregation of Christian Brothers. We must presume the school takes that legacy seriously, and understands how the various tawdry dramas that sideswiped Pitino’s career will be weighed, and balanced against its Mission Statement.

Of course, the Christian Brothers’ motto is “Facere et docere” — “to do and to teach.” At his best, that has always been what their new basketball coach was all about. And there are a lot of guys like Jay Twyman, old players and old friends, who will back that up into eternity.

“He’s not a guy who stands behind you telling you where to go,” Twyman says. “He’s in front of you, showing you what to do. You can’t ask for a better leader in your life.”

That, too, is what Iona hopes it is hiring.

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