LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A woman accused of demanding millions to stay quiet about a tryst with Rick Pitino initiated the sex by whispering to him and unzipping his pants when he got up to leave an empty Italian restaurant, he testified Wednesday.
The Louisville coach’s testimony marked the first time he’s talked publicly in detail about his July 2003 encounter with Karen Cunagin Sypher, the meeting that led to her trial this week on extortion charges. Pitino’s portrayal of Sypher as the aggressor came after several witnesses said she was flirty and persistent when she approached Pitino at the restaurant.
Pitino obliged her request to say happy birthday to her son on her cell phone. When she returned later, Pitino said, he bought her a drink. They lingered to talk after the restaurant had closed and the owner had gone home.
As he got up from the table, the married father of five said Sypher whispered something.
“Some unfortunate things happened,” Pitino said in the courtroom packed with spectators from basketball-mad Kentucky. “She opened up my pants.”
“Did you have sex that night?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford asked.
“Yes, very briefly,” Pitino answered. The two have said they had sex at the table.
Sypher, 50, was sitting a few feet away but appeared unfazed by Pitino’s testimony, sometimes watching him, sometimes passing notes to her attorney, James Earhart.
Sypher is charged with extortion, asking for cash, cars and a house to stay quiet about the sexual liaison. She has pleaded not guilty, claiming Pitino sexually assaulted her. Police and prosecutors have said her assault claim lacked merit.
Pitino entered the courtroom briskly, wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and red tie. He stumbled a bit while taking the witness stand and gave short answers.
He will return to the witness stand Thursday to face questioning from the defense.
Pitino said after he and Sypher left the restaurant together, she asked for basketball tickets. Pitino agreed and made the arrangements.
A few weeks later, Sypher, then known as Karen Wise, called and said she was pregnant.
“I didn’t believe at the time it was my child,” Pitino said. “She said she didn’t know what she was going to do.”
Sypher said she had no health insurance, Pitino said, so he offered $3,000. He thought the money was for counseling and medical needs but Sypher later said she had an abortion, Pitino said.
Less than a year later, Pitino’s assistant, Tim Sypher, married Karen Wise. Witnesses said the two appeared at Louisville functions with Pitino.
The threats to reveal the sexual fling came nearly six years later, Pitino said.
On Feb. 26, 2009, he listened to a cell phone message of a man’s voice describing details of the encounter at the restaurant and calling it a violent assault, Pitino told the jury.
“He mentioned the word rape. I got very sick to my stomach,” Pitino said. He said he felt threatened and frightened.
Jurors earlier heard testimony from Lester Goetzinger of Louisville, who acknowledged making the calls in exchange for sexual favors from Sypher.
Pitino also testified he received a handwritten note from Sypher in March 2009 that asked for cars, housing and money. The note was hand delivered to Pitino by her then-husband Tim Sypher, who was the team’s equipment manager at the time.
Jurors also heard an hour-long recording Sypher secretly made of a meeting with Pitino. Pitino is heard repeatedly asking Sypher who made the calls and how someone would have known all the details of their 2003 encounter.
Sypher never accuses Pitino of rape. She complains that her husband does little to make her life better.
Pitino received a third threatening call two days later telling him that the sexual relationship would be made public unless he did “the right thing.” Pitino contacted the FBI a short time later, then released a public statement saying someone tried to extort money from him.
In July, Sypher filed a police report accusing Pitino of rape, an allegation police and prosecutors said lacked merit. On the witness stand, Pitino denied raping Sypher.
“I could never rape a woman or be physically harmful to any woman at any time,” Pitino said.
Pitino said the entire episode took a toll on him as the Cardinals were making a run for the Big East conference championship.
“I was not sleeping. I was physically and mentally worn out,” Pitino said.
Pitino has coached at Louisville since 2001, after leaving the NBA’s Boston Celtics where Tim Sypher served as his special assistant. Tim Sypher continued to work for Pitino as Louisville’s men’s basketball equipment manager and has recently been named director of the Yum Center, the building that houses offices and training facilities for Louisville’s men’s basketball team.
Karen and Tim Sypher, who have a 5-year-old daughter, are in the midst of a divorce.
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