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8.17.2013

A surprising boost swayed Pitino

May 8, 1997

"To be honest with you," Rick Pitino was saying, "when it first broke, I wasn't that interested" in taking over as Celtics coach. Too much chaos, too much turmoil, too much uncertainty about ownership.

Beyond that, Pitino "was very happy" at the University of Kentucky.

Ah, but then came a fateful conversation last month with Dave Gavitt, with whom Pitino has been very close since both were in the college ranks.

"I just happened to say to Dave, 'Dave, everybody paints such a bad picture of Celtics CEO Paul Gaston,' " Pitino recalled. "And I said, 'Dave, I know it's a sore subject with you,' but Dave blew me away with what he said. Dave said, 'I like Gaston a lot, I think he's incredibly honest, I think he's got great integrity, and I think he was caught in a very difficult situation where he had to make some unpopular decisions.' No, Dave said, 'he's a delightful person with great honesty.' That's how it all started with me. I said, 'Well, maybe I should meet' " Gaston.

Here Pitino paused. "You know," he said, "if it wasn't for that statement from Dave, I would never have even met with Paul Gaston. I would never, never have followed up on anything if Dave hadn't told me that about Gaston."

Gavitt had left the Celtics under less than happy circumstances, and the fact that he would still praise the boss, despite his personal tribulations in Boston, greatly impressed Pitino. "Here's a man who was let go," Pitino said, "and he had every right to say something negative. And he did the opposite."

What happened next impressed Pitino just as much.

Then, said Pitino, Gavitt said his wife, Julie, wanted to speak to Pitino about Gaston. Pitino knew that Julie Gavitt was most unhappy about how her husband had been treated in Boston, and Pitino expected some negative words from Gavitt's wife.

"Julie came in and said she wanted to speak her piece," recalled Pitino. "Julie said, 'I want to tell you that I think it would be wonderful for you' " to take the Celtics job. " 'We enjoyed our three years in Boston tremendously - we didn't like the way it ended, but we enjoyed it. Paul Gaston is a classy young man.' "

Pitino was totally taken aback. From all his coaching stops, Pitino has retained many friends, and his friends in Providence had told him how bitter Julie Gavitt had been about the Celtics' treatment of her husband. "And now I was blown away by the great picture Dave and Julie painted of Gaston," said Pitino. "They told me there are problems - after all, there are problems in every organization, but they said it was a wonderful organization."

Maybe, just maybe, Pitino thought, he should meet up with Paul Gaston and see for himself.

Pitino was recounting this yesterday, his last day in the so-familiar basketball offices at Memorial Coliseum at the University of Kentucky. But this day, the day before he was heading to Boston, there was a new touch to the so-famous blue color scheme that is Kentucky basketball. A green-and-white Celtics jersey was draped over the desk.

Then, said Pitino, he met Gaston.

When?

"Ah," a slight pause, and then Pitino measured time as do all Kentuckians the first week of May, "it was the day before the Oaks . . . that's when it was, the day before the Oaks." The Kentucky Oaks, the first race in the Triple Crown for fillies, is run the first Friday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, meaning that Pitino and Gaston met last Thursday.

Gaston had flown down to tiny Bluegrass Airport in Lexington and had met Pitino in Pitino's home. The meeting went very well.

"I walked away with a totally different impression than I had read about," said Pitino. "You know who he reminds me of? Seth Hancock" - a Pitino friend and president of nearby Claiborne Farm, the most prominent thoroughbred breeding farm in America. "Maybe the Northeast version of Seth . . . a very shy individual, but very concerned about people. He's the type of guy, I believe, who if he fired you, you'd get a raise, just because he's so concerned about people, so concerned about M.L. Carr and everybody. He has a tremendous compassion for people."

An offer was made for Pitino to coach the Celtics - believed to be $ 68 million over 10 years. And when Gaston left his home, Pitino thought, "I think this is going to work."

The next day, at a book signing in the Louisville suburbs, Pitino's words about the Celtics job clearly had changed. Now he seemed very receptive to the idea and publicly said there was some truth to the speculation that he was considering the Celtics. Few in Kentucky seemed to take him seriously, since this had happened virtually every spring, Pitino being offered an NBA job but never taking one.

But now came Pitino's most difficult moments. "I kept going back and forth," he said, and as late as Tuesday morning, the day he confirmed he was coming to Boston, "I didn't think I'd be taking the job." What was tugging at him was Kentucky, the bluegrass, how much he loved living here, and his players.

Particularly the players. On Sunday evening, when Pitino first met with his team to give them the word he was considering the Boston job, tears flowed in Memorial Coliseum.

"I felt absolutely awful when I left the players" Sunday night, recalled Pitino. "I hadn't told them I was taking the job, I'd told them I was going to sleep on it for 24 hours. I mean, they were behind me, but everybody was crying. I was up all night . . . and the main thing was I was tired."

Pitino had been on the go since Kentucky played in the NCAA championship game a month earlier, on a book signing tour for his "Success is a Choice," and, he said, "if I wasn't tired, I probably could have made a decision right away. But I was so fatigued, so tired."

As late as Tuesday morning, a few hours before his press conference, Kentucky assistant coach Jim O'Brien was saying that Pitino would be staying. But finally, Pitino resolved the issue.

"Every other time I hadn't taken a job, I'd never looked back," he said. "But this one? The Celtics? Boston? I knew I'd look back if I didn't take this one because of my affection for Boston, the chance to look up there and see those banners."

Pitino made up his mind. And yesterday morning he got up at 6:10, and unlike Tuesday morning and Monday morning and Sunday morning, he said, "I felt great." And looked it.

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