Celtics Close to Inking Pitino

May 5, 1997

It appears Rick Pitino is signed and sealed. According to a Ch. 4 report last night, he could be delivered to the Celtics by tomorrow or Wednesday.

The University of Kentucky coach met with his players last night, but when asked if it was indeed over, or if Kentucky still had some hope of keeping Pitino, Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton turned the question around and said: "I don't know if Boston has any shot at him or not."

If Pitino is coming to the Celtics, his arrival in town could coincide with Larry Bird's departure. Bird, as reported in yesterday's Herald, could be a former Celtics' employee and the new Pacers head coach as early as today. A source in Indiana yesterday said the legendary Celtics great is prepared to commit to the Pacers, barring an 11th-hour tug by Gaston to keep him in the organization.

If Bird lands in Indiana, he would replace Larry Brown, who will be introduced as the new 76ers coach at a press conference in Philadelphia today.

The Celtics' offer to Pitino was reportedly for 10 years - six as the head coach and top basketball operations official, four in a front-office capacity - at an estimated value of $ 40-45 million. With control of the Celtics' personnel decisions, Pitino would have total control of the team's destiny.

M.L. Carr, meanwhile, would step aside into a position in the organization involving community relations, marketing and public relations. Carr, who called the Celtics' personnel shots for three years and was the head coach for two years, resigned from the latter post on Wednesday.

Pitino was expected to meet with Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton tomorrow to discuss a new long-term contract. But Newton, as he prepared for the much-anticipated meeting over the weekend, knew money was just one of the pivotal issues. He sounded like a man braced to give his coach a sendoff.

"You can't really compare (the two jobs); you're talking about apples and oranges," Newton said. "He's being presented a career change with a job that's always fascinated him. It's not a coaching change. It's a career change."

Pitino's Kentucky contract runs through the 1999-2000 season. It pays him a base salary of $ 150,000, but the total package is worth more than $ 2 million a year and includes a $ 1 million bonus for staying until the year 2000.

"It won't make a difference what amount of money it is," Pitino said of the Celtics' offer on Saturday. "It's either you want to stay or you want to leave. I more than have enough money at Kentucky.

"If I would want to leave, it would be for different reasons."

One of those reasons has represented a major trump card for Gaston. Pitino and his wife, Joanne, both native New Yorkers, have never made a secret of their love for the Boston area. The couple lived in Needham while he coached at Boston University from 1978-83. They have a son who currently attends Milton Academy.

Pitino has viewed his offer from the Celtics all along as a family decision. His wife's preference from the outset, according to a source in Kentucky, was for the family to make the move out of the Bluegrass State.

A return to Boston after 14 years would be something of a homecoming for the Pitinos. Bird's move to Indiana would be the same, certain to be accompanied by a hero's welcome. Bird, who grew up in French Lick, Ind., remains one of the most beloved athletes in state history.

Gaston, according to a top team official, was clinging to a flickering hope he could keep Bird in the organization. He had tried without success to reach Bird at his Naples, Fla., home on Friday. It is not known whether the two spoke over the weekend, or the position Bird would assume should he remain with the Celtics. Bird currently hold the title of special assistant.

Under different circumstances, Bird's defection would be a public relations disaster for the Celtics. But Gaston, who pegged Pitino as his No. 1 choice all along, appears to have avoided a big-time hit by putting his team in position to produce the most celebrated coach in college basketball.

Bird, in what could be his final assignment for the Celtics, drew up a list of coaching candidates two months ago that included the names of Pitino, Brown, Kansas coach Roy Williams and former San Antonio coach Bob Hill. Pitino was the first to take his name out of consideration, announcing his plans to return to Kentucky during a nationwide book tour that included a stop in Boston.

At that point, Gaston focused his attention on Brown, 56, the nomadic ex-coach of the Pacers. Brown, also sought by Orlando, Golden State, Philadelphia, targeted the C's as his first choice and appeared ready to accept a deal from Gaston last weekend.

However, the Celtics owner, apparently learning of Pitino's renewed interest in the Celtics, postponed a meeting he had scheduled with Brown on Monday and reset his sights on the Kentucky coach. Meanwhile Brown, still awaiting word from the Celtics after he resigned from the Pacers on Wednesday, flew to Philadlephia to interview for the 76ers job.

Brown, who told the Herald last week he wanted to settle his next job destination quickly, said he had a great meeting with 76ers owner Pat Croce. Knowing the Celtics' job was no longer a reality, he decided yesterday to give Philadelphia the thumbs up. Terms of Brown's deal are not known, but his demand for major input on personnel decisions is excpected to be met.

Like Brown, who guided Kansas to the NCAA title in 1988, Pitino has a national title to his credit, leading Kentucky to the 1996 national title. He led the Wildcats back to the NCAA championship game again this season, but they lost to Arizona. Both coaches are known for resurrecting teams in disarray, a quality that should come in handy for each of them.

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