Pitino to be cornerstone in the rebuilding of the Celtics

May 7, 1997

Hope returned to the storied Boston Celtics franchise yesterday after a decade of despair. And, new coach Rick Pitino promised, championships will follow.

"I am able now to take on what I think is one of the greatest traditions in professional sports," said Pitino, "and be part of those magical banners that have been hanging in the FleetCenter."

The fact that those banners are in Boston - a city beloved by Pitino - and have been fraying through the 1990s as the Celtics spiraled into incompetence was the impetus for Pitino to leave what most consider the most prized position in college basketball: head coach of the University of Kentucky. But the challenge to revive Celtic basketball, as Pitino revived Kentucky basketball, proved too alluring to resist.

Pitino confirmed that his contract with the Celtics is for 10 years, six years apparently as head coach and the remainder in the front office. The new Boston coach denied that it was worth the reported $ 70 million, though. "That's not true," he said. Still, he is expected to earn at least $ 6 million a year.

Pitino will have control of the basketball operation as well. The Celtics announced yesterday evening that Jan Volk had stepped down as general manager, and according to Celtics sources, M.L. Carr will be removed as director of basketball operations but could stay in the front office on the business side.

That leaves a gap on the basketball side, which is where some think Larry Bird could come in. Pitino said he would contact Bird, who had been expected to be named coach of the Indiana Pacers for some $ 4.5 million a year, to see whether he had any interest in working with Pitino in the Celtics' front office.

Asked if he wanted Bird on the new Celtic team, Pitino said, "Very much so. Larry has got to find out himself if he wants to be coach or management."

When reached by the Globe yesterday, Bird said he was very interested in the Indiana job but would make no decision until he spoke with Pitino.

Jim O'Brien, a longtime Pitino assistant (not the former Boston College coach), and Winston Bennett, another Kentucky assistant, will come to Boston with Pitino. Sources in Kentucky said Ralph Willard, the head coach at Pittsburgh, also might be considered by Pitino as an assistant.

K.C. Jones, one of the three assistants under former coach Carr, said yesterday the assistant coaches had been dismissed, but the team did not officially address the status of Jones or the other two, Dennis Johnson and John Kuester.

In deference to Kentucky, Pitino said, he would be more specific about the changes when he is reintroduced in Boston tomorrow.

Eddie Jamiel, the Kentucky trainer, is also expected to come to Boston, as is strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.

"I'm looking forward to taking on this challenge and I know it's a monster challenge," said Pitino, who inherits a team that had the second-worst record in the NBA this season. "I can't wait to get started. I believe it will be turned around. It will take a lot of hard work, but it's no different from Kentucky, the Knicks, Providence, Boston U. It's the same formula."

Hard work and defense are the main ingredients of that formula.

"We need to get that pride back," Pitino said. "We are going to win. The Boston Celtics will play very hard and will play defense as hard as it's been played.'

A sea of satellite TV trucks circled Memorial Coliseum on the Kentucky campus yesterday afternoon as Pitino, 44, gave the word that dashed the hopes of Kentucky, where he is an icon. College basketball analyst Dick Vitale had called yesterday, pleading for him not to leave, and even Pitino's assistant coaches were unsure what he was going to do until minutes before he signed a Celtics contract 10 minutes before the 3:30 p.m. press conference.

"Bob Cousy once made a statement on the air that he didn't think he'd live to see another Celtics championship," Pitino said of the former Boston great who is now the team's TV analyst. "I hope Bob Cousy lives a long, long time certainly, but I do believe from the bottom of my heart Bob Cousy will see another championship."

Pitino seemed a changed man since the weekend, when he clearly was wracked by what he called "the toughest decision of my life." His voice yesterday was firm and his face smiling - unlike the weekend, when Pitino wrestled with the dilemma of leaving the job he loved for the job he always wanted.

"I really did not know what Rick was going to do until today," said O'Brien. "This was a very hard decision for him."

Pitino finally made the decision to take the position Monday night "before going to bed. I was waffling back and forth the last few days," he said, a description confirmed by C.M. Newton, the Kentucky athletic director, his assistant coaches, and friends in Lexington. "But I knew it was the thing I wanted to do. I knew it was the challenge I wanted to take."

In his half-hour press conference, Pitino was the master of the moment, balancing heartfelt words to Kentuckians about leaving the state with his excitement about taking over the Celtics.

"The Boston Celtics," said a Kentucky official, "is the only job that Rick could take and not be crucified by Kentucky fans for leaving. There's tradition here and tradition up in Boston, and Kentuckians understand that."

Pitino said he had worked "very hard to get into a comfort zone" at Kentucky, "and you get into that comfort zone only through hard work. But a lady across the street from me in Providence, R.I., named Gloria Duchin who runs a company told me, 'You're too young to be comfortable. Take the challenge.' That's when I was thinking of leaving Providence" for the Knicks, "and I still feel I'm too young to be comfortable."

Pitino played at the University of Massachusetts for four years in the 1970s, and for five years in the 1980s, he coached at BU. New England, Massachusetts, and Boston have been his loves since then, and he has said he will retire in New England. The opportunity to finish his career in Boston proved irresistible.

The money was not the issue, insisted Pitino. The new Celtics coach then told an anecdote about talking last week with a good friend, Seth Hancock, owner of nearby Claiborne Farm and Pulpit, one of the star contenders in last Saturday's Kentucky Derby:

"Seth said to me, 'You know, Coach, if it snows a foot, you can't get around, and if it snows 3 feet, you still can't get around, so what's the difference what you make?' And I agree with Seth wholeheartedly. It's not going to change me, it's not going to change my lifestyle. It's definitely a good contract, it's definitely a strong commitment from the Boston Celtics, and I'm very pleased with it."

For Celtics fans, yesterday was the first euphoric whiff of hope in years.

"We're going to win in Boston," said Pitino. "The fans of Boston are going to be very excited. Fans pay a lot of money to see a professional basketball game, and when they leave, they should have a smile on their face. And I guarantee you - Boston fans will have a smile on their face."

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