Last Fall, I found myself in the ridiculously unenviable position of explaining the Pitino-Sypher affair to my grandmother. As I attempted to quietly explain that, due to the events that were unfolding at the time, my granny might want to keep her nostalgia for the Pitino years of Kentucky basketball to herself, I found solace only in the fact that the conversation was being conducted via telephone. There’s no way that I could have conducted that particular exchange in person without actually dying of embarrassment. Now, if you’ve never had to discuss the finer points of after-hours, Italian restaurant-based extramarital affairs with an 84 year-old Southern Lady who is proudly both a lifelong Methodist and a retired first grade teacher, I’d advise you to do everything within your power to keep it that way. There’s no way to acknowledge that you know the events that transpired without feeling prurient and trashy. You start to wish, harder than you’ve ever wished anything in your life, that you’d never read a newspaper or a sports blog. Your shell of hardened worldliness cracks quite easily, and you just wish you didn’t know anything about it. It would take a Silkwood shower to wash away the dirty feeling.
In the intervening months since that mortifying conversation occurred, I’ve found myself, time and again, in similarly awkward positions. I’ve kept myself informed as the sordid details about That Night in 2003 have come to light, but I haven’t really wanted to discuss them in polite company, lest I seem overly interested. I’ve racked my brain for sly jokes that would retain my street cred as the author of pithy Facebook statuses, but which would be suitable for viewing by my aunts and former Sunday School teachers. As I’ve learned about the charming way that Rick and Karen met, and the heartbreakingly beautiful love story that subsequently unfolded between Karen and Tim, I’ve tried to keep a jaded and sophisticated attitude about the entire business. We’re all adults here, I’ve tried to remind myself, this is neither the first nor the last time something like this has happened. Not in basketball, and most assuredly not in life. But, the truth is, a nasty and embarrassing business has unfolded in the Federal Courthouse in Jefferson County. We’re all being faced with stories we don’t quite want to hear.
Just when I thought that I had tackled the ick-factor of the entire affair once and for all, Rick himself took the witness stand and provided details about his personal habits that only his wife, his mistress, or his doctor should know. Instead, those details have been broadcast to the entire news-reading nation. Late last week, as I sat over coffee and donuts with my mother, the conversation naturally turned to the previous day’s testimony. There I was, in the Richmond Road Krispy Kreme, discussing our former coach’s “staying power” with my mama, as discreet a Christian lady as you’ll ever hope to meet. I was disconcerted, to say the least. Aside from my discomfort about the conversation at hand, however, I felt a profound sadness for the loss of a little chunk of my own childhood. I was a huge fan of the Pitino-era Wildcats; now that storied coach was reduced to the fodder of frathouse jokes.
No matter how questionably he’s conducted himself in recent years â€” be it accepting a job at that school down the road or cavorting with short-skirted blondes â€” Rick Pitino was a great coach who brought a desperately needed pride back to the Kentucky basketball program. No matter how hard I try to gloss over this fact, he was a hero of my youth. He brought a big city luster to our downtrodden program; he brought our team back to national prominence, and he did it in high style. Now, he’s the brunt of some of the basest jokes I’ve ever heard. Just search Twitter for the phrase “15 seconds,” and you’ll see what I mean.
The Sypher affair has embarrassed Wildcat and Cardinal fans alike with its messy details and cringe-inducing admissions. For many of us, it’s become increasingly difficult to maintain tasteful decorum while keeping ourselves informed about the sports events occurring in our basketball-mad state. There is simply no escaping the reports of Karen Sypher’s prior experience or Rick Pitino’s performance. At a time of the year when we should be concerning ourselves with incoming players and preseason projections, we are suddenly all extras in a particularly ribald Judd Apatow film. We laugh along with the raunchy jokes, but it is more an act of nervous discomfort than actual amusement. Deep down, as devoted Wildcat fans, we acknowledge that Pitino is part of our legendary past. We fear that, maybe a little, the joke is on us.
As this nasty business draws to an end, we find ourselves facing the uncomfortable fact that it won’t go away for a while. There will be more prurient analysis and vile jokes. As well-mannered Southerners and devout basketball fans, we are faced with the choice of either laughing along or ignoring the situation. Let’s just hope we don’t have to discuss it with our mamas again anytime soon.