Pitino Leaning Toward Celtics
May 5, 1997
Rick Pitino is leaning very strongly toward taking the job of head coach of the Boston Celtics.
The University of Kentucky basketball coach met for more than an hour last night with his players and assistant coaches at Memorial Gymnasium. Afterward, Pitino said the meeting "was very emotional . . . on both sides, emotional for me and emotional for the kids."
Pitino said he told his players that "I was going to sleep on my decision last night and then let them know," either this evening or tomorrow. Pitino also told the players that if he went to Boston "it would be for the challenge and not for the money." The whole process of deciding whether to come to Boston has been "wrenching," he said, for both him and his players. "It's so hard to say goodbye to these kids," he said.
If this opportunity "had come up 10 years ago," said Pitino, "it would have been a no-brainer. I'd have been gone to the Celtics in an instant."
Even so, Pitino gave strong indications he was leaning toward taking the Celtics job. For one, according to a source close to Pitino, the coach "was very impressed with Paul Gaston and saw Gaston as a man of integrity. The Celtics chairman of the board promised he wouldn't talk to another potential coach until Rick made up his mind and Gaston has kept his word - he hasn't talked to anybody else. And that impressed Rick greatly."
For another, in a truly symbolic touch, Celtics rookie Antoine Walker was shooting baskets in the Kentucky gym when Pitino arrived at about 6:30 p.m. to talk to his team. "What a surprise seeing you here, Antoine," said Pitino, and the coach and his former player then talked privately for 15 minutes.
Walker had attended Saturday's Kentucky Derby over in Louisville and made a point to drive to Lexington to clear up with his former coach any misconceptions from a Globe report last week that hinted strongly that Walker might not want his ex-coach at Kentucky to be his future coach in Boston.
"What the Globe wrote was all wrong . . . it couldn't be further from the truth," said Walker. "Coach Pitino made me what I am; I owe everything that I am as a basketball player to him. We've got a mutual thing going, me and Coach Pitino. He knows me and I know him."
Then Walker was asked if he could tell from talking with his former coach which way Pitino was leaning?
Walker didn't hesitate an instant before replying, "I got the feeling he's coming" - to Boston.
Walker said Pitino, after asking the obvious questions about Walker's rookie year with the Celtics, also asked other questions about the team and its players. "It would be great having Coach Pitino as coach again," said Walker. "It wouldn't be great just for me, but for everybody."
After meeting with his team, Pitino left the Kentucky gym at about 8:15 p.m. He stopped to chat with a visitor from Boston for about 15 minutes, and said he would be traveling to Atlanta today for a signing for his new book, "Success Is A Choice."
Pitino said several times how much he loves Boston ("I probably sneak up there four or five times a year, leaving on Thursday night for two or three days up there . . . I love Boston so much") and how he has been offered an NBA job 13 times, "but the only one to stop and make me think is the job of coaching the Boston Celtics."
If it weren't for the emotional trauma of saying goodbye to his players, players he recruited and many of whom have taken Kentucky to the national championship game two years running, he said, "it would be an easy decision for me. But then . . . in three years, there's another group of players you have to say goodbye to."
Kentucky has as much tradition as any college basketball program, a tradition that Pitino revived. "And the Boston Celtics," he mused, "are pro basketball's equivalent when it comes to tradition . . . like the Kentucky of pro basketball."
C.M. Newton, Kentucky's athletic director, said last night that nothing has changed with his and Pitino's original agreement to speak tomorrow or Wednesday. When told of last night's team meeting, Newton maintained that it is not unusual for his coach to gather with his players.
"I haven't talked with Rick since Thursday," Newton said. "There hasn't been any reason to talk to him since then. At that time, we said we would speak again on Tuesday or Wednesday and that's how it is."
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