August 17, 2022

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Albany High graduate Johnnie Ray Wall played for Rick Pitino long before he became Hall...

Albany High graduate Johnnie Ray Wall played for Rick Pitino long before he became Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino.
In fact, Pitino was only 27 years old and in his second year as a college head coach when he brought a Boston University team that included Wall into Siena’s Alumni Recreation Center for a game on Jan. 22, 1980.

The Terriers prevailed 98-89 over the Saints, then known as the Indians, before a crowd of 3,620 at the ARC. It remains the only game Pitino, now 69, has coached in the Capital Region until he brings Iona into MVP Arena to face Siena at 9 p.m. Friday in a game to be televised nationally on ESPNU.
“I always knew Pitino was going to be a Hall of Fame coach,” Wall, 62, who lives in New Jersey, said by phone Wednesday. “It was a great experience personally for me to play for him. He’s a hard worker, has an insatiable drive to win, high intensity. Just was a great experience. He’s the type of coach, he’s going to push players to try to get the most out of him. It was definitely a unique experience … He was learning as well as I was learning, for the most part, and it was a great experience for me.”

Efforts to reach Pitino were unsuccessful.
Pitino has gone on to win more than 800 games and two national titles – one at Kentucky in 1996 and another at Louisville in 2013, the same year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The Cardinals later had to vacate that title and 123 wins because of NCAA violations involving a former director of basketball operations arranging strip tease dances and sex acts for players and recruits.

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But Pitino’s first head coaching job came at Boston U., where Wall was one of his first recruits. Pitino had pursued Wall when Pitino was a Syracuse assistant under Jim Boeheim from 1976 to 78.
Wall then committed to Boston U. when the Terriers hired Pitino in 1978. They went 70-31 in their four years together.
“What made me go there, (Pitino) was such a good recruiter,” Wall recalled. “He convinced me that he was the type of coach I would like to play for. I ended up selecting Boston University. He said he was going to build a team around folks like myself and instead of going to a university where there’s a lot of legends that you had to follow, he said, ‘You can build a legacy around yourself.’ … That’s what really made me go there.”

Wall, a 6-foot-3 guard, averaged 6.8 points per game while playing for Pitino from 1978-82. Wall scored 13 points when Boston U. beat Siena in Loudonville in 1980. The Times Union headline was “BU uses press, wears out Siena,” a foreshadowing of Pitino’s coaching style at Providence, Louisville, and Kentucky, all schools that Pitino directed to the Final Four.

“The thing about Pitino, if you’re going to play a Pitino team, you’d better be prepared for his pressure,” said Wall, 10th in school history with 137 steals. “That’s what pretty much has been his signature .. We put the press on Siena, and they had a pretty decent team back then.”

Pitino has never lost to Siena as a head coach, going 7-0 against the Saints over stints at Boston U., Providence, Louisville and now Iona. The Gaels beat Siena in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinals last season.
Wall said he and Pitino have kept in touch through a group text of Boston University players. They last spoke several years ago. 
“He’s always inquiring about how his players are doing,” Wall said. “I think the BU players are special for him because we were kind of the folks that gave him his start. He’s always had an affinity for us.”

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Albany High graduate Johnnie Ray Wall averaged 6.8 ppg playing for Rick Pitino at Boston University from 1978 to 1982. (Boston University athletics)
Boston University athletics

Wall said he wasn’t really surprised Pitino took the job at Iona, returning to his mid-major roots. Pitino was fired by Louisville in 2017 after a pay-for-play scandal and coached two years in Greece. He won the MAAC title in his first season at Iona last year and is 19-4 and in first place this season.

“He probably has something to prove,” Wall said. “He’s taken a small program like Iona and, I’ll tell you, on any given day, he can beat any of these big guys. Will he stay there? I don’t know … When he took that job, we all said, it’s going to be a matter of time once he gets the team together, they’re going to start winning, he’s going to dominate that conference, and that’s what he’s done.”

When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: MVP Arena, Albany
TV/Radio: ESPNU, WGDJ 1300 AM, 98.7 FM

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