Billups and Mercer Happy to be in Boston

June 26, 1997

Both of them sat in a place called the Green Room last night, hoping Rick Pitino would not pass them by. Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer knew they wanted to play in Boston. They also knew it wasn't up to them. So they sat in Charlotte Coliseum and waited.

They didn't have to squirm for long. Forty minutes after last night's NBA draft began, Billups and Mercer were officially Celtics. Pitino had considered trading the No. 3 and No. 6 draft picks to Chicago for Scottie Pippen, but the Celtics' president and coach settled instead for a new backcourt. With the third pick, Billups, a 6-foot-3-inch point guard from Colorado, was selected. Three spots later, 6-7 shooting guard Mercer was reunited with his head coach at the University of Kentucky.

Pitino knows the Celtics still have plenty of work to do in reshaping their roster. The team that went 15-67 last year now has lottery picks in the backcourt and at small forward (Antoine Walker). But its only center under contract, Pervis Ellison, played six games last season. Dino Radja is the only proven power forward, and the team still hopes the NBA approves his trade to Philadelphia.

But Billups and Mercer aren't concerned about the questions. They are ready to begin what they think will be an uprising of youth in Boston.

"That's where I wanted to be," Billups gushed last night. "I think everybody in the draft right now was a Celtic fan growing up because of how much they won. Those guys and the Lakers. I mean, it was like the Bulls right now. I saw a lot of them and they had a lot of great players; teams that kids would always admire."

Last night, Pitino stated the obvious: Billups and Mercer will have to be ready to contribute. Especially Billups. Since he was 11, he has been nicknamed "Smooth." He has the moniker seared into his flesh. He'll have to live up to the name because he will be the only true point guard on the roster.

"If we re-sign David Wesley, then we will have three point guards making more than $ 10 million combined," Pitino said. "That does not bode well."

As for shooting guard, Pitino acknowledged that one of last year's starters, Todd Day, will be renounced, on or soon after July 1.

"At the right time, yes, we will renounce Todd Day," Pitino said. "It's not that we don't like his game. But we've got too much duplication at the position and we have to go after big men."

So that leaves openings for the New Guys, both of whom will be 21 when training camp begins. Pitino said he doesn't believe in throwing rookies into a starting backcourt. "They've got to earn it," he said. "But we've got two players with great size who are going to play a lot of minutes. Now as far as who is going to play center, I don't know right now." He added that he will pursue two or three free agent big men.

Billups, who averaged 18 points per game in two seasons at Colorado, says he is ready to start. He also says you can check his resume for experience with team makeovers.

"My first year at Colorado, we were 9-18," he said. "That really helped me out in Year 2 because it made me appreciate winning a lot more because, in high school, I was a lot more used to it."

Mercer's first year of college was different. As a Pitino-coached freshman, he and Walker contributed to UK's national championship. Last season, with Walker moving on the Celtics, the Wildcats were national runners-up. Mercer thought of that last night. The Denver Nuggets had just selected Tony Battie fifth. That meant Boston had five minutes to make a choice. As an electronic clock approached zero, Mercer sat at a table with his family. His head was bowed. No secret: he wanted Boston.

"I've been with Coach for two years," he said. "I really didn't think he would pass on me."

Earlier in the day, Mercer sat uncomfortably in a downtown hotel as he listened to rumors of the Pippen trade. He said he was scared. He would be satisfied to be a part of any NBA team, but if the question is where did he want to be, the answer is Causeway Street. Furthermore, he said, he is excited about playing with Walker, his former teammate at Kentucky. There was talk that Mercer and Walker had a rift, but Mercer disputed that.

"When I first went to Kentucky, Derek Anderson drafted by the Cavaliers and Antoine were the people I followed," Mercer said.

He said he has been lifting weights and working on his one-on-one skills the last two months. He also mentioned that many cynics will be surprised at his skill level. He was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year last season, averaging 18 points and shooting 49 percent from the field. But there was talk that he couldn't effectively put the ball on the floor and go to the hoop.

"People are going to see what I can do," he said. "I can't wait to get started."

He made that comment without knowing of Pitino's words a few days ago. The coach said he wanted to have a rookie-free agent camp at Brandeis University this weekend. Mercer smiled when he heard that. "I guess I'll be there then," he said.

If not, he and Billups will certainly be in the area in October for training camp. By that time, Wesley may be with the Hornets. As for last season's shooting guards, some may be in Boston (Dana Barros) and some could be in other cities (Greg Minor, Dee Brown). Speaking of Brown last night, Pitino joked, "Right now, it would be great to go out to dinner with him in the North End, but not to play basketball."

The message from management is clear: this is a new start. And the response of the players is just as poignant: They want to be in Boston.

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