Pitino Hires Papile

July 6, 1997

He is tanned, muscled, and ponytailed. He is equal parts World Wrestling Federation and "On the Waterfront." He is Steven Segal if Segal had swallowed a barbell or two.

Leo Papile, 43, is a lifelong gym rat and one of Rick Pitino's first hires in the rebuilding of the once-proud Boston Celtics. Papile is chief scout for the new C's, and he's no typical NBA headhunter.

"I know, I know," Papile said. "The long hair, the beard, the tan. I was a bouncer as a kid. I've had altercations in my life. When I was at the pre-draft camp, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge and Don Nelson all grabbed me and said, 'What's Red going to do when he sees you? You're going to kill him with a heart attack.' "

Pitino just laughs.

"Yeah, Red saw Leo in the gym and said, 'Who's that?' I told him Leo is our chief scout. Red puffed his cigar, and I was trying to imagine what he was thinking. But Red's gotten to know Leo, and it's OK."

Before the draft, Papile spent four 10-hour days with Auerbach, pumping the Green Godfather for information and impressing Red with his knowledge of basketball. Papile, who grew up in North Quincy, remembers Gene Guarilia, Ron Bonham, and some of Red's more obscure players and moments from the golden days. Red likes that.

"You know me," said Auerbach, who will turn 80 in September. "I'm of the old school. These guys with long hair scare me. But I didn't say anything to him about it.

"He talks and sometimes you wonder where he gets all this information, but he's right," Auerbach continued. "I checked him out on a few things just for the heck of it, and he turned out to be right."

That was OK by Papile. "I enjoyed that time with Red," he said. "He still doesn't know my name or anything. I'm just the guy with the ponytail."

Response to the times

It was one of the great visuals of TNT's Draft Night production. Every time the camera cut to the Celtics war room, there were 15 men in snappy suits, plus the guy with hair. Had it been winter, the camera would have caught one of Papile's full-length minks or leather jackets.

Those clothes, this man, are the New Celtics.

Leo Papile, looking like a leg-breaker, is now in charge of procuring players for Rick Pitino.

Papile's hiring is Pitino's response to changing times. The NBA is getting younger. Players only one year out of high school are being drafted. Teenagers are suiting up. Teams need firsthand knowledge of baby ballplayers.

Papile has the knowledge. In his head, he carries a complete dossier of every Basketball Jones from Long Island to Long Beach. He's coached almost 1,200 amateur games over 20 years, driving the country with as many as seven kids ("Two guards and a big man in the front with me, four in the back") piled into his 1966 white Cadillac convertible (280,000 miles).

When the Celtics considered candidates in this year's draft, Papile had seen all of them dozens of times. When top pick Chauncey Billups arrived from Colorado, he walked into the Celtic offices, saw Papile, and said, "You again?"

As coach of the 200-games-a-year Boston Amateur Basketball Club, Papile saw Billups play at least 20 times before the young man even started college.

"What I wanted from our general manager Chris Wallace and Leo is two people who spent their lives evaluating talent," Pitino said. "Leo I've known since I hired him at BU 18 years ago. He has a tremendous passion for the game of basketball. He's always observing players."

Still, Papile hardly looks like an NBA chief scout, and he has little pro experience. He knows he's an odd hire.

"People that don't know me probably think I'm a nut," he said. "Listen, there's 28 other guys in this league doing what I do. Put us all in a room. Put us on 'To Tell The Truth' and let's go. Let's talk expletive facts and figures . . . I've been a coach. I had no interest in going into the NBA or working in the NBA or with a college team. But Rick's a good guy and a good coach and I'm local."

Project post-up

At 8:30 a.m., the Brandeis gym was empty except for two 7-footers and the 6-3 Papile, who was beneath one of the baskets, posting up one of the treetop tryouts (Papile's "finds" and other Celtic rookie hopefuls will be on display at Auerbach's rookie camp at Brandeis today through Wednesday).

"That's the most difficult pass in basketball - the lob pass to a stationary big man," he told one of the players.

"See that?" he told the other, after executing an effective inside move. "I had you in jail. I got the key to get you out. Hey, it's in the hip movement. I got you. I'm an old, fat man, George Foreman, overweight, but I can beat you inside with the right move.

"God gave you guys great bodies, but if you're going to make it in this league, you're going to have to do it with your legs and hips."

The players listened. Making up more than 14 feet of raw talent were Tennessee Tech center Lorenzo Coleman (7-1, 300 pounds) and Garth Joseph, (7-3, 330), who worked as a civil engineer in Dominica after finishing at College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., two years ago.

"He's a project of mine," Papile said. "Last summer he was a waiter at Saratoga Race Track and at night was a pizza delivery boy. He's a legitimate giant. He's brilliant. He will play in the NBA 15 years. Throw me out if he don't.

"One thing I can teach the players is low post play, individual instruction with big kids," he said. "It's pretty much on-the-job training, but it's still basketball. I'm dealing with younger players, and they appreciate people who speak their language."

Basketball was his habit

Lesley Visser, the ABC and ESPN sports reporter, says Papile always thought big, even when he was just one of the little guys.

"At the Final Four in Indianapolis in 1980," she recalled, "he asked me if I wanted to go to a club where he said there was a great band playing. We got in the car and he drove to Chicago! We went to some club on State Street and got back to Indy at about five in the morning."

Papile was born in North Quincy in 1954, the first of two sons of Leo and Loretta Papile. His mother died of cancer when he was a teenager. His father, one of 19 children in a tight Italian family, was a Metropolitan District Commission homicide detective who put in 39 years on the force.

Papile grew up fast. By 12, he was 6-2 and weighed 195 pounds. He was the Wes Unseld of his eighth-grade team, and a fast-talking young man from Somerville named Kevin Mackey talked to Papile about playing ball for Cathedral in Boston. Papile didn't make the move, but he would join Mackey years later in another venture in another town.

By high school, basketball was a 365-day-a-year habit. Usually, he found a game in Quincy. If not, he would hop a bus to Fields Corner and then take the Red Line to the asphalt jungles of Boston.

He played football and basketball at North Quincy High. Hoop was his true love, but his limitations were obvious. "I was a 6-2 white center," Papile said.

Papile played a year at Keene State College, then tried Bridgewater State, then UMass-Boston. He never got a degree, a fact that doesn't bother him a bit.

"I'm a vociferous reader and an amateur historian," he said. "I have no interest in any other stuff that goes on in college. I see degrees as a waste of time and money. I don't think I have to debate my intellect with anyone. I accumulate knowledge on things I'm interested in."

The son of a son of an immigrant, Papile has always worked. He raked beaches for the MDC. He sold insurance. Mostly, he worked in bars. At 19, he lied about his age and got a job as a bouncer at the Boston Club on Commonwealth Avenue. When he was 22, he managed Ryles in Inman Square.

"Hire people. Order liquor. A moron could do it," Papile said. "What else was I gonna do? I'm a blue-collar guy. I did these jobs so I would have time for basketball."

Papile never left the game he loved. His court career ended when he blew out his left knee while playing for the O'Brien Club of the Cranberry League in 1973. So they made him coach. He was 19. He coached a guard named Jimmy O'Brien, who was between American Basketball Association stints with the Kentucky Colonels and San Diego Conquistadors. O'Brien would later become BC basketball coach and recruit Papile players like Scoonie Penn and Jonathan DePina.

In November 1977, when Papile was 23, he was named head coach of the upstart Quincy Chiefs of the long-running Eastern Basketball Association.

The Chiefs were the EBA's answer to the ABA's St. Louis Spirits. Home games were played at the Quincy Voke-Tech Gym off Route 3A; the team traveled to Alaska for a game. Papile had Walter Luckett, who had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Frank Oleynick, whose nickname was "White Magic." The estimable Pat Jordan wrote a book about Luckett and Oleynick.

The Chiefs PR man was Ted Sarandis, now of WEEI sports radio. Papile paid Sarandis $ 100 per month - and that didn't include all the mileage with two clunky 24-second clocks rattling around in the trunk.

"We didn't have much," Papile said. "We needed 24-second clocks. Jeff Cohen then Celtic GM let us use the Garden's 24-second clocks. Teddy used to drive down with them in his trunk, then sneak 'em back up the Garden ramp before Red ever found out."

Bob Bigelow, who played briefly for the Chiefs after he was let go by the NBA's Kansas City Kings, doesn't remember the clocks being necessary. "On that team, you didn't need a 10-second shot clock," said Bigelow. "No one would take the ball out of bounds, 'cause you'd never get it back. The ball would just be left sitting there.

"The first game I played, I hit a shot to tie it and put it into overtime. Leo and Ted started jumping around like five year-olds. I said, 'Leo, we got an overtime to play.' I think I coached the team in the overtime."

The Chiefs folded after a year, and Papile went to Suffolk University to coach under Jim Nelson. By then, he had formed the BABC, and it would become his mission. More than anything, Papile said, he believes in amateur basketball for teen-agers.

In 1978, Papile was coaching a BABC team against a Soviet team. After the game, he was approached by 27-year-old Boston University coach Rick Pitino. Pitino had been asking around town, trying to find someone who knew local talent. He kept hearing Papile's name. He hired Papile for $ 6,000 a year.

Papile found friends and BABC alums to take over the amateur team while he coached in college. After two seasons with Pitino, he took a job as head coach of the Maine Lumberjacks of the Continental Basketball Association. At the time, Phil Jackson was a mere assistant coach in the CBA. During the summer, Papile coached in the California summer pro league where Pat Riley was an assistant.

Maine was like Siberia for Papile. Just to have something to do at night, he'd drive down to Boston. He'd rush to the bank to cash his check, fearing it would bounce if he got there after his players cashed theirs.

Then he went to Cleveland State, where he was an assistant under Kevin Mackey, the same Kevin Mackey who had watched Papile as an eighth grader. Mackey was building a big-time program at the tiny Cleveland school - a team that would upset Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers in the 1986 NCAA tournament.

Papile's time in Cleveland has always been something of a mystery to basketball folks in Boston, primarily because Papile was hardly ever in Clevelandre. As a Celtic hire, Papile gets questions that are not asked of Chris Wallace or Jim O'Brien.

"I realize easily I could be cannon fodder because of the way I look," said Papile. "Let's face it. I'm Italian. I've been around all kinds of people. But I've never been arrested. I'm a basketball guy, and sometimes people have objections because I didn't do it the way everybody else did."

But, like Mackey said, Papile seems to enjoy the image. Though he calls sports talk radio "the growth of idiot culture," he reacted to WEEI's recent bad attempts at humor with tongue in cheek. "I heard they supposedly said the problem with Dino will be resolved when Leo puts him in the Cadillac and he never returns," said Papile, referring to Dino Radja, whom the Celtics are trying to dump. "Now, Dino has a family. Please. If that's going to happen, he shouldn't be tipped off. It should be quiet and painless."

Last winter, when Pitino wanted a recruit's nagging father off his back, the coach made one call to Papile and Kentucky's basketball office never heard from the recruit's old man again.

Though Papile has been accused of just about everything, none of it has proven true. Still, rumors trail him like one of his floor-length coats.

There has been talk of women, and Papile concedes he does adore them. Gambling? He enjoys the track and used to own a few $ 5,000 claimers at Suffolk Downs. There have even been ugly rumors about drugs and dirty deeds. But Papile's legal record is clean. He's never even been arrested, records show.

"You can call J. Edgar Hoover if you want," he said. "I checked all the post offices and I haven't seen my picture on the walls. Did you check where I was November 22, 1963?"

"Leo gets a bad rap," said Al Brodsky, who has coached with him for 15 years. "A lot of people don't like the AAU program. He's a loud person, but he's not as bad as people think he is."

Papile spends a good portion of his winters in Miami. His AAU teams travel and play up to 200 games a year. They stay in hotels, not dormitories. They pay refs top dollar. They wear nifty footwear. Papile has the leather and the gold. Obviously, he has money. But it isn't from basketball.

"I have property," he says. "I'm a small potatoes guy, but I'm in good neighborhoods. These weren't really big down payments. That was the era of buy now, worry later."

Papile says his tenants include Haitian women who own a hair salon and Greeks who sell sandwiches. He says he believes in the immigrant work ethic. If his tenants have to pay the gas company first, he says that's fine by him.

He draws no salary from the BABC and says he puts extra club expenses on his Visa card. But Nike helps out, too. As a major sponsor of the BABC, the company pays up to 70 percent of the team's travel budget. The players wear Nike shoes.

Every coach of top-level amateur basketball teams comes under suspicion of selling players. Papile has coached Patrick Ewing, Dana Barros, Chris Herren, Wayne Turner, Carmelo Travieso, Elton Tyler, and just about every other high-profile Boston amateur of the last 20 years.

"First of all, if anyone ever tried to do that - and they haven't - in my younger days I probably would have said, 'Sure,' taken the money, drove to the airport, and kept the money. But no one ever came to me. It's complete nonsense. I've never seen it.

"Anybody who has the courage to confront me with that, I would go into a steel cage with them and pound them to smithereens, because that's how untrue it is."

He says the greatest tragedy he's experienced was the murder of former BABC player Jamal Jackson. The BABC paid for Jackson's headstone.

"My mission in life," Papile said, "whether I stay with the Celtics for one or 50 years, is making Boston amateur basketball what it is today, arguably the premier program in the country. That will be written on my gravestone, and I want nothing else."

When the BABC was all that mattered, Papile was a small-time guy in this town. But now he is a major player in the New Celtics of Rick Pitino, and NBA fans across New England are wondering about the guy with the ponytail.

Pitino is delighted with his new scout. And who knows? Maybe Garth Joseph - Papile's "legitimate giant" - will someday have his Celtic number hanging from the rafters of the New Garden.

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