Pitino, the Knicks, and the Celtics: What has Changed?

May 15, 1997

The NBA Experience. Rick Pitino has it, sort of. He has been a head coach in the NBA, an assistant coach in the NBA, and now he is a coach/president in the NBA. He already knows, you can be sure, that the NBA is different now than when he last patrolled its sidelines.

When Pitino first became an NBA head coach in 1987 with the Knicks, there were only 23 teams. There were only two referees in a game. The average team scored 108 points a game. The Celtics were good. Pat Riley was still a human being. Michael Jordan led the league in scoring. Some things never change.

Pitino was not even the Knicks' first choice. Or, for that matter, the second. The Knicks wanted Don Nelson to take over, but he instead went west to work with the Warriors after a falling out with new Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl. They then romanced Boston assistant Jimmy Rodgers, but the Celtics violated a time-honored NBA tradition of allowing an assistant to move up by holding the Knicks to a first-round draft pick as ransom, er, compensation. New York said no thanks.

Pitino was hot at the time, having just taken Providence to the Final Four. He wanted things settled by May 1, but the Knicks moved slower than he wanted. So he signed a five-year deal to stay at Providence and vowed he would honor the contract; then, in July, he accepted an offer to coach the Knicks. Maybe it's fitting that the second time around, he first heard of the Knicks' renewed interest while he was in the dentist's chair.

Now he's back for a second go-around, eight years later. Six expansion teams have diluted the NBA talent pool. Most teams fly in luxurious, private planes, not commercial jets, and practice in clandestine solitude. Things have changed with at least two notable exceptions: Jordan is still the scoring leader and everyone expects Pitino to be the same thing he always has been: a winner.

"In my opinion," said Pacers point guard Mark Jackson, who broke into the NBA with Pitino, "he is the best coach in the game. He is a workaholic. A perfectionist. He never quits. And that attitude rubs off on the players."

The news was not so overwhelmingly positive 10 years ago, when Pitino took over the Knicks. He wanted to bring his pressing, trapping style to the NBA and virtually everyone felt it could not work over 82 games. It's a style described by one of Pitino's former assistants, Gordon Chiesa, as "mother-in-law basketball" - constant pressure and harassment.

He'd have crazy drills, such as making a group of players make 85 layups in a two-minute span. He promised they would be the best conditioned team in the league and that opponents would hate it when they played the Knicks.

"I'd break everything into 10-minute segments," Pitino said. "After a few of them, I'd ask Patrick Ewing how he was feeling."

There was doubt from the beginning that the Pitino system would work. The Knicks made the mistake of hiring Pitino and Al Bianchi as general manager in separate moves with no regard for whether the two might co-exist. They did, barely.

Pitino also inherited a personnel imbalance that he wanted rectified as quickly as possible while Bianchi waited for the best deal. Bill Cartwright wanted to be traded because it was clear that Ewing was the starting center. Cartwright stuck around, but others didn't. Two months into the season, 11 of the 18 players profiled in the Knicks' media guide were no longer with the team.

Pitino's first year with the Knicks started with predictably rocky results: 0-5, 1-7, 10-19, 14-28. But the Knicks came together after the All-Star Game, won 24 of their last 40 games, and improved by 14 wins, posting a 38-44 record. The team established itself as a good team at home (29-12) and went into Indiana for its final game needing a win to make the playoffs. The Knicks got it.

"I can still remember it to this day," said Brendan Malone, then an assistant under Pitino. "Kenny Walker blocked Steve Stipanovich at the buzzer and the entire locker room scene was one of euphoria."

Adds Jackson, "It's still one of my best memories in the league."

Pitino didn't have much to work with that season. He had a rookie Jackson at point guard. He had, unlike his predecessors, a healthy Ewing at center. Among his forwards were Pat Cummings, Walker, Sidney Green, and Johnny Newman. Gerald Wilkins, Dominique's little brother, survived an earful to become a very productive player under Pitino.

"Rick did an awful lot for my career," Wilkins said. "He has no problem getting you to work. He knows the game and he don't take no crap. He knows how to get you motivated, to tell you you're good, even if you're not as good as he's telling you. A lot of players are told what they can't do. Rick does both."

Wilkins said that first year was rough for him. Pitino occasionally didn't like Wilkins's shot selection (it must run in the family) and was constantly on Wilkins to improve.

"All year long, Rick is on me for something, but I tried not to complain," he said. "He made a lot of changes in my game. Then, one time at the end of the year, out of the blue, he comes out and praises me in front of everyone. I said, 'What? Are you talking about me?' But that's how he was. He still is one of my all-time favorite coaches and I've had a lot."

The Celtics eliminated the Knicks in four games in the first round of the 1988 playoffs. Then, Bianchi went out and acquired Charles Oakley for Cartwright and added Kiki Vandeweghe via another trade in midseason. But he also made a curious draft selection in Rod Strickland, starting a point guard controversy that never had to be.

Nevertheless, the Knicks built on their success from the previous season and won 52 games. With Larry Bird out for the season, the 52 wins was enough to capture the Atlantic Division title by six games. The Knicks swept the 76ers in the first round, but then were eliminated by the up-and-coming Bulls in six games in the second round. By that time, it was apparent Pitino was on the way out, unable to exist with Bianchi or resist the chance to rebuild the University of Kentucky program.

"We all had a feeling that it would happen, but we were hoping it wouldn't," Jackson said. "We all knew what was going on with the situation with the GM. The beauty of it for him today is that he now has full authority. It hurt us not having a GM believing in what the coach was doing."

Bianchi did not return calls seeking his comment.

Soon after the Chicago defeat, Kentucky had its man. Over the past eight years, Pitino has, by his own count, been approached by no fewer than 13 NBA teams. The Celtics came this time, promising him a chance to rebuild and giving him the control and the money he wants and feels he needs.

"He is the king of the underdog," Malone said. "He has the ability to get people to play above their heads and he will do that for the Celtics. He's a perfect fit for the Celtics; it's the ideal marriage. He will win."


FLCeltsFan said...

I still say that it was Pitino's ego that made him fail. I'm thankful that I see none of that ego in Stevens.

Lex said...

You've obviously given it some thought, FCF, and I think you have a good point.

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