The Talk of Louisville: Extorting Rick Pitino

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Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals coaches against the Arizona Wildcats at the Lucas Oil Stadium on March 27, 2009

After a deafening roar shook Louisville in mid-April, the basketball-crazy burg is back to a low hum. The big noise arose when University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino released a statement that alleged he was the subject of an extortion attempt. It persisted for nearly a week, until Karen Sypher was charged in federal court with extortion and lying to the FBI. She was indicted on May 12.

The hum now concerns Pitino's future with the program. Recent published reports say he is interested in leaving Louisville for a job with the NBA's Sacramento Kings. Pitino insists he's not going anywhere. Kentuckians have been down this path before. When Pitino coached at the University of Kentucky from 1989 to 1997, he was linked to numerous NBA openings before finally leaving for the Boston Celtics. That didn't work out, and Pitino returned to the Bluegrass State to coach Kentucky's archrivals, the Louisville Cardinals. (See the top 10 NCAA Tournament first-round upsets.)

Pitino has said the Boston experience got the wanderlust out of his system and that Louisville is where he wants to finish his career. But the bizarre extortion case seems to lend plausibility to the notion that he might want to go to a place where his personal business isn't such a hot topic. If not Sacramento, perhaps Philadelphia, which has a brand new opening that an East Coaster like Pitino might find more appealing. "Coach is a fighter," U. of L. sports information director Kenny Klein told TIME, "and he's proven that throughout his career. We have worked with him for eight years, and we trust him. He's told us unequivocally that he's staying and that he has no interest in coaching anywhere but the University of Louisville right now." Through Klein, Pitino and U. of L. athletic director Tom Jurich declined comment.

The extortion case has fueled wild speculation about Sypher's allegations. The complaint filed by the FBI does not list them, citing their "suspect" nature. And though Sypher has told her story to some Louisville media, thus far no outlet has published or broadcast them. She first went to WDRB-TV, a Fox affiliate, which interviewed her at length and also arranged a polygraph test that proved inconclusive. The station decided not to air the interview, news director Barry Fulmer told TIME, because so many of Sypher's charges are unsubstantiated. Sypher has also spoken to Louisville's Courier-Journal newspaper and to

Scott C. Cox, a Louisville attorney and former U.S. prosecutor, told TIME it's unusual for a court filing not to recite allegations, but added that "it's not every day that we have an extortion case in the Western District of Kentucky. I think they're trying to be sensitive to the putative victim."

Media outlets may invite a libel case if they air allegations they know are questionable, Jon Fleischaker, Louisville's leading First Amendment attorney, told TIME. "How do you go about publishing that without being accused of knowing it's false or having a feeling that it's false?"

In the criminal complaint, Pitino acknowledges "an encounter" with Sypher in 2003. Sometime after that, Tim Sypher, the team's equipment manager, met Karen, and they were married. In late February 2009, Pitino told the FBI, he received two voice mails on his personal cell phone from an unidentified man who characterized the interaction between Pitino and an unnamed woman as criminal. The caller later threatened to notify the media. Pitino said he then met with Sypher and her husband and asked what she wanted. Karen Sypher wrote out a list of demands, he said, including college tuition for her children, two cars, a house paid off and $3,000 per month, plus another $75,000 if Pitino left the university. Tim Sypher delivered the list to Pitino on March 6 in West Virginia, where Louisville had a game to clinch the Big East regular season championship. Two weeks later, according to the complaint, Karen Sypher hired an attorney who expanded the allegations against Pitino and withdrew the earlier demands in lieu of a new demand for $10 million.

Karen Sypher's new attorney, Thomas Clay, declined to elaborate on her allegations or why she didn't file a criminal complaint at the time. While the government contends they are irrelevant to the extortion case, Clay told TIME he will fight to include them if the case goes to trial. "There's a very compelling legal reason" for that, he said, "which I'm not at liberty to disclose." Tim Sypher has backed Pitino and criticized his estranged wife, who has filed for divorce. "I think Mr. Sypher is in a very delicate and precarious position," Clay said.

The case has most Louisville fans buzzing and worried that they may lose their marquee coach. And it coincides with some interesting basketball developments. In early April, one of Pitino's longtime coaching rivals, John Calipari, was hired by the University of Kentucky. Also last month, Pitino's son Richard, who'd been on the Louisville staff, left to join Billy Donovan's staff at the University of Florida.