Restoring Celtic pride

May 8, 1997

There was a time when Boston was to basketball what Burgundy is to wine. One of the best reasons for living here then was the privilege of going to the old Garden to see Cousy and Sharman, Russell and Havlicek, Bird and McHale.

Historians will probably call that era the Age of Auerbach after the master builder, Red Auerbach, the cigar-puffing monomaniac from New York who operated on the assumption that the purpose of playing the games was to win. For some years now, alas, that tradition has lapsed. Celtic fans have been subjected to insouciant prima donnas who deign to jog back and forth on the enchanted parquet merely to fulfill the letter of their inflated contracts. But the Celtics' decline ended abruptly this week when Rick Pitino signed on to restore the grandeur of Auerbach.

The hiring of Pitino signifies a rare congruence of good business sense and competitive moxie. The leases for many of the luxury boxes in the Fleet Center expired this year, and without a team worth watching, owners had little hope of luring back the big spenders. With Pitino, suddenly the Celtics are a hot property again. The trading in their publicly held stock is snowballing. The area around North Station gets a new lease on life. And youngsters shooting hoops in playgrounds will learn that even millionaires have to play defense.

As the coach who turned around floundering teams for BU, Providence College, the New York Knicks, and the University of Kentucky, Pitino arrives with the perfect resume. He is a healer of ailing franchises, a motivator who does not allow players to become comfortable with losing. Other teams in the league realize that the Celtics have ceased to be a laughingstock. Finita la commedia!

Best of all, Pitino is a throwback to Auerbach. He has the same street-smart flair for the little edge that separates champs from chumps. He has the same fierce contempt for the fool's gold of individual statistics. It may take him a few years to liberate the franchise from foolish salary cap commitments, but Pitino is the man to restore the Celtics' lost glory.

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