Louisville coach Rick Pitino is not one to mince words when he feels he has something important to say, and Thursday afternoon’s press conference was no exception.
After a long absence from speaking to the media, Pitino was expected to give an update on his team, but anyone who has followed the coach during his career knows his press conferences are rarely the boring, run-of-the-mill pressers. While he did provide an update on his team (believe it or not), the highlight of the afternoon was his near 8-minute rant on shoe companies and their much-too powerful influence on college recruiting.
“I think we need to get the shoe companies out of the lives of the athletes,” Pitino said. “What I personally don’t like is I can’t recruit a kid because he wears Nike on the AAU circuit. I’ve never heard of such a thing but it’s happening in our world.
“I think we need to get it back to where parents and coaches have more of a say than peripheral people, but that’s easier said than done.”
While he did not flat out say it, his speech was directly in relation to the recruitment of 5-star SG Antonio Blakeney. The Florida native plays for a Nike-sponsored AAU team, and despite their influence, he verbally committed to Louisville, the school where he felt most comfortable, only to strangely open his recruitment back up 11 days later.
Not long after the announcement, it was discovered he was basically bullied out of his commitment by the powers that be affiliated with Nike. His “handlers” who would benefit from him playing at a Nike school had allegedly stopped speaking to him, Nike was reportedly threatening to disallow him from playing in any more of their tournaments and more, and as an 18-year old backed into a corner can be expected to do, he caved in to the pressure and opted to do what they wanted.
Many recruiting pundits will be quick to point out these type of things happen all the time. They do. They will also point out Pitino should know about this. Of course he does. It does not mean it should be ignored, though.
Pitino knows how the game works, and truthfully, he has tried to play it himself. He hired Tim Fuller, a coach with Nike influences, as an assistant in 2010, and current assistant Wyking Jones was a manager for the Nike Youth Elite Basketball program. It is not like he has stood up and fought against the Nike influence, but he has actually attempted to welcome it at times, even with Louisville’s contract with Adidas.
This was likely the first time in his career, though, he has had a player committed who backed out so soon solely due to the forceful influence of a shoe company. The most patient and quiet man would have trouble holding his tongue, so imagining Pitino to do so is just unrealistic.
It is not the first time he has had trouble with Nike, either. In 2011, Marquis Teague committed to UK over Louisville, which many believe was due to the influence of the swoosh. That same year, top player Anthony Davis was scheduled to visit Louisville, but after attending a Nike camp, he magically cancelled. He of course committed to Kentucky not long after.
He has landed a few Nike players himself, too, though (Wayne Blackshear, for one), and it is not like other Adidas schools are blackballed from landing top talent. Kansas, for instance, is an Adidas school constantly in the mix with top talent and landed consensus 2013 #1 overall player Andrew Wiggins, who played for a Nike AAU program.
It’s not like Pitino is struggling to breathe, either, as he currently has the #2 ranked recruiting class for 2015 and is in very good position with another 5-star prospect in Perry Dozier, Jr., an ideal replacement for Blakeney. He has made due by going to programs he trusts and finding talent overseas, so things are not exactly bad for Louisville. The coach said as much himself.
“I think our pool shrinks (with Adidas), but we’re having our best recruiting classes in the last few years,” Pitino said. “The answer for us is to find out what AAU program the athlete is involved with and how loyal is he to that program. Will the outside influences in the program push and direct him to Nike schools? We have to do our homework.”
Pitino’s point, or at least what should have been his point, was that it is ridiculous a kid cannot commit to a school he wants to simply because of the apparel they wear. It does not happen in all cases, but it did happen with the case of Blakeney, and it will probably happen again.
Did the coach go a little far? Probably. He suggested that the NCAA rather than shoe companies run camps during the summer, and that is something that is just never going to happen. For one, these shoe companies, particularly Nike, make the NCAA a LOT of money, so why would the NCAA want to do that? On another note, why would they punish their marquee programs based on shoe company influences? It is just not going to happen, and it has everything to do with the NCAA stuffing their pockets.
His disappointment in losing Blakeney is justified, too, but it is not like the coach was forced to continue recruiting him for so long. His influences were present all along, and maybe the coach just did not do his homework. It is also unlikely he will flat out stop recruiting Nike-sponsored players (although, Blakeney’s program now is probably on the “do not call” list), but the Blakeney case was just too obvious to ignore.
When a kid is being threatened/bullied out of a commitment because the uniform he chose to wear features three stripes instead of a swoosh, things are going too far. Sponsorship and branding is one thing, but having that much influence to the point they have the ability to take away a player’s free will to choose where he wants to go, something needs to be said. Rick Pitino just happened to be the one to say it.
Non-Nike programs and fans took to social media to applaud the coach’s comments, while those influenced by Nike criticized the coach as whiny and bitter. Yet, one segment of those voicing displeasure with Pitino’s words have little room to speak after their coach (who coaches a marquee Nike program and has the #1 class nearly every year) openly whined about Team USA and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski having an unfair recruiting advantage. Glass house, stones, etc.
Blakeney’s AAU coach swears his de-commitment was not shoe company-related, but that is as believable as Pitino saying his rant was not all about Nike. It was.
Expecting the scope of things to change, though, is nothing more than wishful thinking. The monster has just become too big. Nike is THE brand in basketball, and their influence will continue to loom over college recruiting. Just because it will, though, does not mean it cannot be called out for unethical practices, and just as he has his entire career, Pitino has no problem calling it like he sees it.