Hide 'n' Seek: As Bird Stalls, Gaston Puts Press on Pitino

May 6, 1997

Although Paul Gaston is clinging to the hope he can keep Larry Bird in his organization, it appears the Celtics' owner has left his options open by zeroing in on Kentucky coach Rick Pitino.

Gaston, as reported in yesterday's Herald, is awaiting a decision on an offer he made for Bird to assume the Celtics' head coaching job and top basketball operations post. At the same time, according to a source in Kentucky, Pitino is mulling an "incredible offer" from the Celtics that would make him the highest-paid coach in sports.

"I think it's 50-50 whether he stays here or goes to Boston at this point," said the source. "It's not just his decision to make. He has his family to consider, and this is a family decision.

"I think he's getting a lot of pressure from his wife to take the (Celtics') job. That could make the difference."

The family angle has surfaced in the past, with on-again, off-again reports that Pitino's wife, Joanne, wants to come back to live in this area. The Pitinos are native New Yorkers who fell in love with Boston while he coached at Boston University from 1978-83. The youngest of their two sons, 16-year-old Christopher, attends Milton Academy.

"On Tuesday or Wednesday, something's going to happen," said Pitino, referring to a self-imposed deadline for announcing his plans. "It's come to the point where (being reported as a candidate for NBA jobs) is not something I look forward to at all - this year especially.

"Every job that opens, I think people just make up amounts of money and say these things. Sometimes there's truth, sometimes there's not."

The Globe reported this week Pitino was weighing a five-year, $ 40 million to $ 45 million offer from the Celtics, along with 3 percent ownership of the team. A source in the Celtics organization said those numbers were inaccurate, but would not elaborate.

Gaston shed no light on the issue when reached at his office in New York.

"I have no comment," he said.

Gaston also declined comment on yesterday's Herald story in which a high-level team source revealed the Celtics' owner had offered Bird "everything but the keys to the franchise" roughly seven weeks ago.

Bird's inability to give Gaston an answer, according to the source, has frustrated team officials. They fear the Celtics will be unable to land a top replacement for M.L. Carr should Bird decide to walk.

Meanwhile, Bird admitted he was offered the Celtics coaching job, but he denied being offered the personnel position, according to a report in today's Globe.

"(Gaston) called me in a few weeks ago and asked me if I wanted to be the coach," Bird said. "I said no. Everything else is bull."

However, a top team official late last night said that Gaston tried to reach Bird yesterday to discuss his standing offer.

"Paul has made it clear to Larry on many occasions that the jobs are Bird's if he wants them," said the source. "In fact, Paul called Larry yesterday, and Bird never returned the call."

"Paul is willing to sit down with Larry anytime and anywhere, and discuss all these issues."

Bird, who remains at the top of Indiana general manager Donnie Walsh's list of candidates to become Pacers head coach, did not return phone messages left at his home yesterday. A source in Indianapolis said the offer to Bird could be for $ 4.5 million per season.

Should Bird accept the Celtics' offer, he would take over dual roles handled by Carr for two seasons, moving the latter into a position in the organization involving community relations, marketing and public relations.

Carr, who remains the Celtics' director of basketball operations, would not confirm nor deny the report.

"It makes no sense for me to start talking about the business we're addressing or significant decisions that still have to be made," said Carr, reached yesterday at his Celtics office. "I'm going to remain consistent with what I said from the start - we'll announce our plans at the appropriate time."

Should Bird decide to remain with the Celtics, there's a possibility he would handle solely the personnel responsibilities, with Pitino coming on board as head coach. That scenario, from a public relations standpoint, would be a victory of epic proportions for the team. The possibility also exists, however, that Bird will leave town and Pitino will stay at Kentucky.

It would leave the Celtics with a far different list of prospective coaching candidates than the one Bird returned to Gaston two months ago. Larry Brown, who last weekend appeared the favorite to take over as Celtics head coach, resigned as Pacers coach on Wednesday and interviewed for the Philadelphia 76ers job the same day.

The 76ers, according to a source in Philadelphia, could be ready to offer Brown their head coaching position as early as this weekend. Minus Brown, who also plans to speak to Golden State, and Pitino, the best candidates left in the field would be Celtics assistant coach Dennis Johnson and former San Antonio coach Bob Hill, who continues to express interest.

Hill, who has been in constant contact with Bird to discuss the Celtics' coaching job, has also spoken once informally with Gaston. But like much of the the NBA community, which until yesterday appeared confused by the Celtics' drawn out approach to hiring a coach, Hill will remain on hold. His fate would appear to rest on decisions yet to be made by Bird and Pitino.

"This can't go on any longer," said Pitino, failing to take into account he could silence the rumor mill permanently by announcing his plans immediately. "It's not healthy for anyone involved, most of all myself."

Asked why he wouldn't put an end to the rumors if he were not interested in the Celtics' job, Pitino said: "Did I say I'm not interested? There was no reason to put an end to it until an anonymous source said there was a 95 percent chance (I'd be Celtics coach).

"Before that, there was no reason to answer any of that. Now it has to be answered and it will be, but I'm not going to do it on Derby weekend."

Pitino, a major horse-racing fan, is expected to attend today's running of the Kentucky Derby.

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