7.21.2013

Pitino is One of Us

May 1997

What's the Big Deal, you ask? Why is every local sports fan excited about the prospect of Rick Pitino coming to coach the Celtics?

It's a big deal because Pitino is a dynamic, successful coach. He restores credibility to our most storied sports franchise.

Getting Pitino is also uplifting because he's one of us. Bill Parcells was a great coach, probably the best local sports leader since Red Auerbach. But the Tuna never was a New England guy. Give Parcells a gas-guzzling car and a doughnut shop and he's happy anywhere. New England? New Jersey? Same difference.

Parcells hardly ever made it into the Hub. He didn't know the Hancock Tower from the Citgo sign. He thought the Swan Boats were yachts owned by a Cardinal defensive lineman.

Pitino is different. He went to college at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He worked and lived in Boston and Providence. His son goes to school in Milton. Rick Pitino knows that the Globe is a broadsheet and the Herald a tabloid. He's a card-carrying member of Ted Nation. Even while coaching at Kentucky, he managed weekend getaways in Boston, trolling Newbury Street in search of fine dining and expensive suits.

Pitino played for Jack Leaman at UMass. He played in the backcourt with Billy Endicott and he knows that Endicott got beat up at the Boston Garden after playing in the old Tech Tourney. He knows that former Oriole Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan - another UMass contemporary - is from Manchester, N.H.

He knows that students used to line up outside Curry Hicks Cage to watch Dr. J. He knows that John Quincy Adams is a high-rise in Southwest, and he knows that Melville is a low-rise. He remembers when you could buy a pitcher of beer at the Blue Wall.

He knows that Case Gym is upstairs from Brown Arena at Boston University. He remembers coaching players named Tom Channel, Steve Wright, Wally West, Glenn Consor, Desmond Martin, Brett Brown, John Teague, Tony Simms, and Gary Plummer when he went 91-51 in five seasons at BU.

He knows that a piece of old Braves Field, where Babe Ruth finished his career, still stands as part of Nickerson Field. He knows that Martin Luther King, Howard Stern, and Faye Dunaway matriculated at Boston University.

Pitino went to work with Hubie Brown and the New York Knicks when he left BU. He knows that one day before the Celtics met the Knicks and red-hot Bernard King in the 1984 conference semifinals, Cedric Maxwell pointed to King and said, "The bitch won't score 50 off me." He knows that Bernard went for 50 in Game 3. Pitino was there when Larry Bird torched the Knicks in Game 7 at the Garden on a Sunday afternoon.

Pitino knows what the Celtics were like in those days. He saw first-hand what the Celtics stood for. He saw Bird, Parish, and McHale at the top of their games. He was with the Knicks when Auerbach counterpunched New York's interest in McHale by signing three New York free agents in a one-day flurry.

After his first NBA experience, Pitino took over for Joe Mullaney at Providence, leading the Friars to the Final Four in 1987. He knows that Dave Gavitt was a god in Providence. He knows that Ernie DeGregorio is the all-time gym rat, and that Marvin Barnes once went after teammate Larry Ketvirtis with a tire iron. He knows that Billy Reynolds is the best scribe in Providence. He knows that everybody goes to Murphy's Deli after Friar games.

He's been in Lexington, Ky., for eight years. His New England knowledge served him there only when he came to Boston to recruit Wayne Turner at Beaver Country Day (which Pitino knows is always the first school to postpone when it snows) and Mike Bradley at Worcester Burncoat - not far from Holy Cross, where Pitino played against Gene Doyle and coached against George Blaney.

At Kentucky, Pitino rebuilt college basketball's signature school (the Boston Celtics of the NCAA) and won a national championship. Along the way, he adjusted to the food and the customs. He took a liking to bluegrass and thoroughbred racing. And when he couldn't find any good Italian food, he opened his own restaurant.

But now it's time to come back to his basketball roots. It's time to return to the land of Jack Leaman, Dr. J, Al Skinner, Dave Gavitt, Ronnie Perry, Joe Mullaney. It's time to come home to the New Garden where Red and K.C., and the Cooz and Tommy Heinsohn still prowl. It's time to come back to New England to rescue the once-proud Boston Celtics.

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