It's D-Day; Pitino, Bird expected to choose their paths

May 1997

All eyes in the basketball world are fixed on Rick Pitino. The University of Kentucky coach apparently wouldn't have it any other way.

He will decide today whether to accept a lucrative offer to coach the Celtics or remain at Kentucky. Pitino appears to be leaning heavily toward the Celtics, but left the door open for an 11th-hour change of heart.

"I dont think it's been made 100 percent now - I don't," Pitino said last night at a book-tour stop in Atlanta. "I think any time you're at a place eight years and enjoyed the success we've had and the friendships we've built, I just don't think in a matter of three days, four days, you can say goodbye.

"So no, I don't think it's been made 100 percent."

The Celtics have offered him a 10-year contract worth an estimated $ 40 million-$ 45 million. Additional published reports have estimated the value of the package - the terms of which include six years as coach and four in a front-office capacity - in the range of $ 50 million-$ 70 million. It would make Pitino the highest-paid coach in sports history.

Regardless of his decision, Pitino left little doubt today is crunch time. He has pulled out of alumni functions in Kentucky today and tomorrow, and called off a book signing in Henderson, Ky., scheduled for tomorrow.

Paul Gaston was unavailable for comment yesterday, but the Celtics owner had more on his mind than Pitino's decision. As reported in the Herald on Sunday, the Indiana Pacers' head coaching job remains Larry Bird's to take. Bird, who has not returned the Herald's messages for more than a week, is sitting on a contract offer of more than $ 4 million per year.

What's holding Bird back? He's likely in the same position as virtually everyone with an interest in the Celtics' future. He's awaiting Pitino's decision before making one of his own. And Pitino, as he did last year before turning down a five-year, $ 30 million offer from the New Jersey Nets, has ushered the decision-making process right down to the wire.

"You have to understand something; a lot has been speculated on detailed discussions with the Boston Celtics," Pitino said. "It has not been going on that long. Because it was released untruthfully that I was going somewhere, I had to make a decision a lot quicker than I was anticipating."

Ch. 4 has reported since Sunday that Pitino's decision to accept the Celtics offer is a done deal.

Gaston, according to a source, was still working on a last-ditch effort to keep Bird in the Celtics' organization. Meanwhile, a source in Indiana confirmed a Herald report again yesterday that the Pacers were reasonably certain Bird would make a commitment to them within 24 hours.

However, the source added, the Pacers still feared a late tug by Gaston, coupled with Bird's loyalty to the Celtics, would squash the deal.

Again, Pitino's decision enters the equation. All indications are he'll give Gaston the thumbs up today and take on the considerable task of rebuilding the Celtics. Pitino would be given full control in personnel decisions, leaving little left for Bird within the front-office structure.

That, in turn, would open the door for the legendary Celtics great to accept the Pacers' substantial offer. It is the only realistic scenario in which all parties would appear to get what they've wanted.

"I want what's best for him," said Pitino. "Larry is the Boston Celtics a lot more than me. He epitomizes Celtics pride. I'd love for him to be with the organization, but Larry has to do what Larry wants. I have to do what I want.

"If Larry wants to coach, I fully understand that. If he wants to work in a front office, there's no better place than the Boston Celtics.

Bird, in his role as Celtics' special assistant, drew up a list of coaching candidates for Gaston that had Pitino's name at its top. Pitino, the most celebrated coach in college basketball and a regular each year in the NBA rumor mill, promptly removed himself from consideration. However, he experienced renewed interest in the job last week.

"The Boston Celtics and the University of Kentucky have a lot in common," said Pitino. "In the tradition of the college ranks, Kentucky is special. In the tradition of the pro ranks, it's special with Boston.

"They are different levels, but special levels. Whoever gets the Boston Celtics' job is getting a great honor."

If it's not Pitino and Bird skips town, Gaston would be left with few viable coaching options. Former Pacer coach Larry Brown, at one time the front-runner for the Celtics' job, was formally introduced yesterday as the new head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

If, however, Gaston is able to produce Pitino to an increasingly restless Celtics' public, Bird could make his exit - secure with the knowledge he's left the franchise in highly capable hands. The ball appears squarely in the hands of Pitino, who admitted to misgivings about leaving Kentucky, particularly after meeting with his players on Sunday night.

"I don't want to leave there and they don't want me to leave there, but we know there are opportunities that come up in life," he said. "This has come to a crossroads.

"I don't think I could go through this year after year. I'm either going to give them a commitment or move on."

Said Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton: "I don't think it's a done deal. My gut feeling is that I don't know which way he will go this time. My gut feeling in the past is that he wasn't going to leave."

And should Pitino leave the Bluegrass State for Boston?

"I'll hug him and become the biggest Celtics fan," Newton said.

Pitino, who will meet with Newton today, reflected extensively on eight eventful years at Kentucky.

"We took a team from probation to a championship," he said. "When all is said and done, I think the journey was more fun than the final destination.

"I think any time you build something, you see such pride along the way that builds up. At the final championship game, it's a culmination of a lot of efforts from different people. It's a lot of fun being a part of a situation like that. It's also a lot of fun maintaining that level of excellenece like we did last year in going back to the national championship game.

"If I do not take this opportunity, I have decided to be a college coach for good. I believe that."

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