Bird and Pitino Going in Opposite Directions?

May 1997

He could leave his old Kentucky home;

The long, very long, white limousine was waiting to go. Already it had been a long morning, even if it was only 10:05, the limo coming down from Cincinnati to Lexington to pick up Rick Pitino and then the 80 miles or so from Lexington to Louisville. Now the limo was purring, ready to leave Dave Snow's H & S Hardware store.

But Rick Pitino wanted to talk. Indeed, it seemed, Rick Pitino wanted to open some doors, particularly one in Boston, open it even wider. He stood on the tar parking lot, next to the white lawn furniture and hanging plants and talked . . . and talked.

So, it's true, Rick, he was asked. Are you heading to Boston to talk to the Celtics early next week?

"Ahhhhh . . . no," he said. "Ahhhh . . . If I travel to Boston, it will be . . . hopefully . . . to be their coach."

"All I've done is sign books," Pitino had said at first, "and all I'm interested in now is the Kentucky Derby." Indeed, Pitino went on, the Kentucky Derby cuts so much to the soul of the state that he wished to say or do nothing more to divert attention from today's race.

"All I want to do is watch the Kentucky Derby," said Pitino. "I want to take nothing away. This is the biggest day of the year for the state of Kentucky . . . aside from NCAA basketball championships . . . and I want everybody to enjoy the Kentucky Derby."

Early next week, Pitino said, once the Derby is done, that's when he'll make his intentions clear. But on this day in this parking lot of this suburban Louisville hardware store, Pitino gave some strong hints.

"Some of what's been said about his negotiations with the Celtics is true," said the coach, "and some of it isn't true. The truth is there is some truth to these things. Some things are true and some aren't true."

Anything not true about the Boston speculation?

"I think there's some truth in it, yeah, I do," Pitino said. "Yeah . . . there's some truth to it."

Any concrete offer made by the Celtics yet?

"All I'm going to say on the record is that I'm going to watch the Kentucky Derby," Pitino said. "And then I'll speak very on the record and honestly after that. This is a big day in Kentucky, the Derby, and I want to enjoy the Derby, too."

Meanwhile, it is known Pitino was on the phone Thursday, contacting David Falk, Antoine Walker's agent. Pitino was concerned about the portion of a Globe story that portrayed a strained Walker-Pitino relationship. So Falk called Walker to make sure the Celtics' rookie forward had no problems with the man who, quite possibly, could be his coach next season.

As for M.L. Carr, talk still persists that he is prepared to take over a chunk of ownership. One rumor had Carr's take so high that the current executive vice president and director of basketball operations would have to be considered a Celtics partner. Carr chuckled when he heard that.

"Someone is pulling your leg," he said. "Don't believe that; it'll make you look bad. You're going the wrong way on a one-way street."

But the right way may still include a smaller part of ownership for Carr.

But as Pitino stood in the parking lot, scores and scores of Kentucky-blue clad fans watched him, aimed their cameras, craned their ears, and waved their Wildcat programs and memorabilia. For more than 90 minutes, Pitino had autographed his new book and signed anything blue slipped in front of him in the rear of the hardware store.

Snow, the store owner had asked his long-time friend to come ("I've got a Home Depot around the corner from me, and something like this has to help us," said Snow), and the fans had flocked. More than 300 were lined up at 7:15 a.m., more than an hour before Pitino's arrival.

And now Pitino was leaving . . . the store, that is. The fans wanted their last glimpse.

What's not true about the Boston speculation, Pitino went on, are the numbers being tossed around in the media.

Pitino was askedif he'd been offered $ 9 million a year?

"Oh, oh . . . now it's nine," Pitino said with a big laugh.

Over five years?

"No," responded Pitino. "That's not true."

Again he laughed.

"What makes a difference? Forty . . . 50 million . . . what are you going to do with it? I mean, really. Obviously, I'm well-paid at Kentucky, but what makes a difference what number you're putting on it? If I were interested in going anywhere, and if it were Boston, it would be more important for me to be near my son a student at Milton Academy and coach the Celtics than any of those things.

"I've got two choices in my life now that I'm concerned about, one is my family and the other is Kentucky," said Pitino. "I've been here eight years, I'm the second-longest tenured coach . . . I've got to decide whether I'm not going to listen to these offers anymore or say, 'I've got to move on.' That's the decision I'm going to make next week."

C.M. Newton, Kentucky's athletic director, said he last spoke with Pitino Thursday night. They agreed to speak again (Newton wanted it to be Monday, but Pitino has an engagement in Atlanta) and settled on Tuesday. Newton said he can empathize with Pitino's tough decision.

"The thing that everyone needs to understand is that he's talking about a career change, not just a coaching change," Newton said. "And that complicates things."

What Kentuckians and Bostonians alike are doing now is waiting for an answer.

"I'd just like him to make a decision as timely as he can," Newton said.

Back to the hardware store parking lot and "true and untrue" words that have been speculated concerning the Celtics. Specifically, Pitino was asked, is is true you are interested in coaching the Celtics?

"I'm going to address that early next week," he replied, shutting absolutely no doors. Finally heading to the limousine for his next book signing - this time with a true Hemingwayesque touch, at a bookstore - Pitino turned and shouted, "Enjoy the Derby."

Watching all this was a man in a blue Kentucky cap, a local businessman. "I think he's leaving," said Don Gabhart, the owner of an electric meter company.

"You know that priest who's always with him? Father Ed Bradley?" continued Gabhart. 'That priest preached at that funeral yesterday down in Wax, Ky. where Bradley's uncle died and I was talking to Sam Bradley, Father Ed's brother. And father Bradley said to his brother, Sam, that he and Rick are going up to Boston next week to talk. Sam Bradley told me that, that Rick and the preacher are going to Boston next week."

And then, perhaps, all the speculation will end.
Dave Bradley, father of Worcester Burncoat standout Mike, who has signed a letter of intent at Kentucky, is keeping a watchful eye on the Pitino situation.

"We talked to them last night Thursday," Dave Bradley said. "If something like this happened, this would be twice in one year with our son and we started to panic."

Mike Bradley originally planned to attend Boston College but backed off after his friends, All-Scholastics Jonathan DePina of South Boston and West Roxbury's Elton Tyler, were denied admission.

Of his conversation with Kentucky assistant Jim O'Brien, Dave Bradley said, "As far as what I can say, coach Pitino will make his decision on or by next Tuesday and once and for all this will be over. He will inform his players first, his recruits second and then the rest of the world."

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