New stop thrills sidekick O'Brien

May 9, 1997

He accepted a cigar from Red Auerbach, looked out at the sea of people at Rick Pitino's press conference at the FleetCenter yesterday, and spotted John Havlicek, the man who stole the ball against his boyhood favorites, the 76ers.

They were two of the men who made growing up in Philadelphia during the Celtics' heyday a frustrating experience.

Yet now Jim O'Brien, a new assistant coach with Pitino's Celtics, wanted to embrace them and revel in their glory. After hating them as a kid, he could now appreciate their excellence, the same excellence he hopes to be a part of during the Pitino era.

"I can't tell you how many tears I shed growing up during those years," said O'Brien, who coached with Pitino at Kentucky and with the New York Knicks. "But you know something? I'm ecstatic. This is the organization we've all known as the greatest in basketball history, and now to be a part of it is beyond words and belief."

Though he loved his years at Kentucky, O'Brien has always thought he belonged at the pro level.

He has learned, he says, from a perfectionist. He understands Pitino's brand of basketball better than anyone, and when someone wonders whether that style can be adapted to the Celtics, he says, "Of all the coaches who have gone from college to the pros, Rick Pitino can make that adjustment better than anyone. He's been a head coach in the NBA. He understands the differences between college and pro athletes and how they're to be dealt with. There is no new ground here for Rick."

O'Brien said he didn't know which way Pitino was leaning until the assistant was told Wednesday to come to Boston for the press conference.

"I know it was an anguishing decision for him," said O'Brien. "If I were a betting man, I would have bet he would stay."

In many ways, O'Brien is happy Pitino made this choice. O'Brien wanted to return to the professional game and knew he would remain loyal to Pitino, not even applying for the head job at Kentucky.

Before the wonderful years at Kentucky, in which Pitino and staff turned a scandal-plagued program into a national champion, O'Brien said both loved the New York experience.

"We had a ball," said O'Brien. "We enjoyed the players, and the players worked hard. They understood what Rick wanted and did their best to execute it. I don't think Rick has changed a bit since then. He's still the most passionate human being I've ever known when it comes to basketball. If you work for Rick Pitino as a player or a coach, you should expect to be driven, work long hours, and never accept anything but the best. It'll be awfully uncomfortable if we lose."

While O'Brien says he and Pitino are close and share the same philosophy about the game, the coach doesn't appreciate yes men.

O'Brien knows from their first NBA partnership just how demanding Pitino can be.

"One of the things Rick wanted from his staff was for us to be able to identify every single call the other team was making during the game and yell it out to our players beforehand," said O'Brien. Fellow assistant "Stu Jackson and I thought we were doing a pretty good job on this one night when maybe out of 48 calls they made, we got all but one. After Stu and I were busy congratulating each other, Rick comes over and says, 'Were you guys in a coma in the second quarter when you missed that call?' My jaw dropped. I thought he was kidding. But he wasn't. He doesn't kid around when it comes to basketball."

O'Brien doesn't expect his duties to change. He'll continue to be Pitino's right-hand man as well as being involved with scouting, game preparation, and in-game coaching alongside Pitino. He doesn't expect Pitino's style - punctuated by pressing, trapping defense - to change.

"I don't remember not pressing when we were with the Knicks," said O'Brien. "I told Rick we're probably going to press even more than we think we are."

O'Brien is just one of the familiar faces Pitino can look to. His other Kentucky assistant, Winston Bennett, also will be on the bench in Boston.

"I still have to pinch myself," said Bennett. "The tradition here is unbelievable, and to be a part of this family now is beyond words. It's very special."

Bennett says he works for a genius.

"When you're around Rick, you just want to absorb everything," he said. "I thank him for showing confidence in me to be able to work with him at this level."

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