Grampa Celtic Weighs In

May 7, 1997

Bill Parcells was in New England, but not of it.

Rick Pitino, two months ago, on the feasibility of coaching the Boston Celtics, now or ever: "Nobody will have to sell me on Boston. I love that city."

Bill Parcells came to create a winning tradition for the New England Patriots. Rick Pitino comes to restore one to the Boston Celtics.

"It's a franchise full of glory, full of tradition, and full of wonderful pride," he declared yesterday. "I would like to take it back to a championship level."

Rick Pitino could have remained at the University of Kentucky for the rest of his life, becoming a combination Mr. Chips/Dean Smith. He conceivably could have presided over the opening of the mythical 25,000-seat Rick Pitino Center on campus. He could have repeated himself many times over, and he could have been happy. But yesterday he delighted Boston and deflated Lexington by announcing that he had accepted the position as head coach and head of basketball operations of the Celtics.

Boston represents the perfect package for Pitino, 44, at this stage of his life. His coaching and talent evaluation skills have never been better. He is truly at the top of his game. The Celtics have a tradition that he respects and they truly need him. He has been given both the time (10 years) and the power (virtually unlimited) he needs to get the job done.

The combination of what the Celtics represent and where they are located proved irresistible. As W.C. Fields might have said, all things considered, Pitino feels he'd rather be here than in Lexington. Kentucky, that is.

He downplayed the money yesterday, but of course, those people who are already making more money than the rest of us could ever imagine (in his case, close to $ 3 million a year) always downplay the money as an abstract in explaining their decisions. The guessing is that the package is worth $ 65 million-$ 70 million for the duration, so any Pitino family financial worries should be alleviated.

What Pitino means for the organization is credibility. He is a great coach, but there are low-profile people out there who could coach the team in a professional manner. Pitino happens to be the one man not currently already in the employ of an NBA team who is both the steak and the sizzle. He is, his recent protestations to the contrary, totally comfortable in the spotlight. He will coach, and coach darn well, but he will also be the public face of the organization. Over the next 10 years, when you think "Boston Celtics," you are going to think "Rick Pitino." He will work awesomely hard, but he will not be a hermit. Sooner or later, he will have his picture taken with Keith Lockhart; count on it.

The very name Rick Pitino carries clout in the athletic world. Consider the curious happenings on Wall Street. On Monday, when it had become quite clear that the job was his if he wanted it and that he was leaning toward taking it, publicly traded Celtics stock shot up very close to 3 full points on the staggering volume of 263,100 shares.

The volume had been heading upward since last Wednesday, or ever since it was revealed (in, ahem, these very pages) that the Celtics had renewed their contact with the 44-year-old team-fixer extraordinaire. Last Tuesday, the volume was a quite typical 3,600 shares. On Wednesday, with the fresh news that Pitino-to-Boston was very much alive, the volume escalated to 19,100. By Thursday, it was 41,600. And so on. This didn't take place because someone had looked at the box score from the penultimate Celtic game and noticed that Brett Szabo had 15 points and 13 rebounds against the 76ers. It happened because Rick Pitino is Rick Pitino.

People who wouldn't know the Wall Street Journal from "American Journal" have their own frame of reference. They know that Pitino has made a career out of taking handyman-special teams and turning them into glittering mansions Bob Vila would be proud of. He did it as a 26-year-old wunderkind with Boston University (a pre-Pitino 7-19 to 17-9 in two years); he did it at Providence College (a pre-Pitino 11-20 to 25-9 and the Final Four in two years); he did it with the New York Knicks (a pre-Pitino 24-58 to 52-30 and an Atlantic Division title in two years); and he did it with the University of Kentucky (a pre-Pitino 13-19 to 22-6 in two years and 29-7 and the Final Four in three).

He now assumes control of an undercoached - some would go so far as to say non-coached - 15-67 team, and it could be argued that this is his biggest challenge yet, although it should be pointed out that the Pitino viewpoint on just how difficult it will be to rebuild in a 29-team league is a bit different from most people's.

"In some ways," he said, "it may be easier to win 45 games in this league than it was when I was in the NBA before. When we won 52, there were a lot of good teams. The division was very good. The Central Division was an absolute killer. The Texas trip was brutal. When we won 52 games, it was wholly legitimate."

He needn't finish the thought. The NBA is an expansion-ravaged league in which most teams have no bench strength whatsoever. If the Celtics are fortunate enough to win the draft lottery May 18, they would be in position to get a potential impact player in Tim Duncan, a shot-blocking/rebounding/passing center who, almost by definition, makes other players better. If they don't win it, well, they'll at least get two decent young players, and whatever group emerges from training camp next year will be professionally prepared to play an 82-game NBA schedule.

Rick Pitino represents that most precious of all human virtues - hope. Paul Gaston, the Celtics' frequently (and rightfully) maligned chairman of the board, has addressed the business needs of his team and the psychic need of the fans with this one hiring. He gets a highly qualified coach and chief executive who not only wants to succeed, but who wants to succeed here.

The long local nightmare is over. Rick Pitino will make the Celtics relevant again.

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