Pitino Sounds Bound for Hub

May 1997

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Rick Pitino has a special smile that he throws into the lens when posing for a picture. It is wide, foxy, a little dangerous even, and, as always, it was a big hit at the 123rd running of the Kentucky Derby yesterday at Churchill Downs.

He stood for what seemed like hours, fittingly freebied in a glitzy high-above-courtside jernt called Millionaire's Row. He did the posing, he signed the programs, he demonstrated a practiced attention as one big-bellied Kentuckian after another whispered some important message in his ear.

And, yes, Pitino delivered his trusty disclaimer about how, "I'm here today to take in the Kentucky Derby, and I don't want anything to detract from that. After all the recruiting I've done, and the book tour, it's nice to be able to just take a day off and watch something as big as the Kentucky Derby."

But for a guy who insists on remaining non-committal about where he will be coaching next season, Pitino is sounding more and more like he's ready to work for the Celtics.

There, we said it. Rick Pitino, the one-time UMass player who learned to coach at Boston University, is coming home to the Celtics.

"Let's face it, there is only one storied franchise in the NBA," he said. "There are only a few storied franchises in all of sports, and the Celtics are at the top of the list."

Asked if, given the chaos that is a way of life these days with the Celtics, he might want to avoid such a questionable career decision, he said: "That would only entice me to pursue the job. In a situation like that, there's more upside if you're successful. For a person who would be looking for a challenge, it's a great situation."

OK, so Pitino said a year ago he'd only go to the NBA for a stable situation in a winning environment, or something like that. Now he's talking in upbeat terms about signing on with the "F Troop" of organized basketball.

"Again, something like that would be a terrific challenge," he said.

And then, without even being asked, Pitino said, "I won't do anything until I talk with the team. I want them to hear from me what's going to happen."

Shouldn't he have said he WOULDN'T do anything without talking with the team?

Oh, and remember all that fuss about Pitino having said something about John Calipari and Lou Holtz leaving their college jobs after saying they weren't going anywhere? Didn't Pitino call them both pathological liars? Wouldn't that make Pitino a hypocrite if he took a job with the Celtics?

Well, sit back and listen in as Rick Pitino talks his way out of that public relations pickle.

"The Boston media got that all messed up," Pitino said. "What I said was that you have a John Calipari who says he's happy at UMass, and a Lou Holtz who says you'll have to drag him out of Notre Dame. Do you think they were lying when they made those statements? I don't think they were. When they made those statements, that's what they were genuinely feeling at the time. But what I said was that when they move on, it makes them look like pathological liars. I've told that story 15 times, but only the Boston media was confused by it."


Pitino was certainly in his element yesterday, sitting with a lot of lovely Kentucky bluebloods and studying his racing form with determination, even though he had long ago planned to bet on Pulpit, given his relationship with Claiborne Farm. It would have made for a much nicer story if Pitino expressed some interest in aiming some of his hard-earned cake at the No. 7 horse - Celtic Warrior - but Pitino didn't bite.

"I suppose that would be a nice angle," he said, "but, no, I'm going with Pulpit."

As he spoke, a beefy Military Police officer muscled his way to Pitino's table and asked for an autograph. "One of the fringe benefits of my job," said the MP, Sgt. John Gatz.

Actress Bo Derek was seated nearby. Andy Rooney was in the room. George Steinbrenner and Don Mattingly shared a table and, presumably, barbs. But the room revolved around Pitino; the Kentucky Derby may be one of the world's most important sporting events, but he is Kentucky's most important citizen, and he is about to make a decision that could rock this state.

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