Greetings and farewell; Pitino takes over with a flourish

May 9, 1997

Before yesterday, the historic FleetCenter parquet was just another old floor. It had been in cold storage since April 20, the last time many of the 1996-97 Celtics disrespected the wood with 16 NBA championship banners hovering above it.

Paul Gaston tried to correct that slight yesterday afternoon. The Celtics chairman of the board called for part of the floor to be carted out to help provide scenery for the Celtics' New Era. As far as Gaston and most Celtic fans are concerned, the parquet now resonates.

The reason?

Rick Pitino.

The new basketball authority of the Celtics will be associated with that floor for the next 10 years. Pitino, the 44-year-old president and coach, was officially introduced here yesterday after deciding two days earlier to end his eight-year run as Kentucky coach. It quickly became obvious why he will be paid $ 70 million over the next decade: This is his team.

Gaston said that yesterday. He didn't have to. Anyone who saw Pitino speak, surrounded by the banners, legends, and throng of national media, felt it. Gaston announced that Auerbach will become vice chairman of the board, relinquishing the president's title to Pitino. Jan Volk resigned from the general manager's position, which Pitino probably will fill with University of Pittsburgh coach Ralph Willard. He said Celtic legend Larry Bird was his first choice, but Bird accepted the head coaching job with the Pacers. Former coach and director of basketball operations M.L. Carr, who literally stood in the shadows yesterday, was moved two flights upstairs and given a corporate development job.

There is no confusion about leadership; this is Rick Pitino's team.

Rick Fox, who captained a 15-67 Celtics team last season, watched Pitino speak for 60 minutes. Before the press conference, he and Dana Barros spoke with the coach in the Celtics' locker room. Fox was impressed.

"If you're a fan of the Boston Celtics, you've got to be one of the happiest people around the NBA today," Fox said. "You're seeing your team return to the status it was used to being at for a long time."

And if you're a free agent like Fox?

"You look at Boston and tell yourself that they ain't b.s.-ing about getting to the top," he said. "I think you will see that the Celtics will attract the middle-age free agents who are financially secure and only care about winning."

As for current Celtics, the message is clear: Be ready. The team will not be the same.

"I don't believe so," Pitino said, "because they won 15 games for a reason. There was a lot of injuries, lack of talent, and certainly, there's no mystery when you lose and win in the NBA. The NBA is a players' league, and talent prevails."

Although Gaston took "full responsibility" for the firings of several Celtics employees earlier this week, the office sweep allowed Pitino to introduce several members of his new staff. It was clear that all decisions will run through him.

He talked about his dream for a first-class practice facility with a wall of fame in the hallway. As he detailed what promises to be a pricey new building, he paused and said, "I can feel Paul's vibes over here." Still, the facility will be built. And, possibly, the Celtics will travel on a new team plane.

Pitino promised that the Celtics will be in the best shape of their lives. He promised that one of the worst defensive teams in NBA history will play defense.

"We're going to have a lot of ball movement and player movement in our half-court offense," he said. "We're going to be very entertaining, and I think a lot of free agents out there are going to want to play this style of ball."

Free agents. In the NBA, they can come to your team only if you have the salary cap room to afford them. Right now the Celtics do not have significant space. Pitino acknowledged that is a hindrance, but added that the Celtics would be "creative" in clearing room.

As Pitino spoke, his words were captured by several camera lenses, stacked two deep on the FleetCenter floor. John Havlicek was on one side of the room. Tommy Heinsohn was on another. Jo Jo White and Cedric Maxwell were there, too. Auerbach, seated next to Pitino's wife, Joanne, smoked a cigar and chuckled when Gaston mentioned that Red would remain in the organization and be "a pain in the ass."

A crowd clamored toward Pitino as he stepped down from the dais. Several security guards, marketing and public relations types shielded the basketball chief. The Celtics have not had to worry about overflow media since 1992, when Bird was here.

But now Bird is gone, as are many familiar faces. This is a new era. Pitino, the former UMass player and BU, Providence, and New York Knicks coach, will be the main character. This is his team.

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