Celts Add One Player, Whack Nine

July 8, 1997

They are quickly becoming Rick Pitino's team. Anyone who watched last night's transactions at Brandeis University knows that the previous statement is steeped more in fact than opinion.

As expected, the Celtics' coach and president announced that the team had signed 7-foot free agent center Travis Knight. That was significant, considering that the Celtics' only big men under contract - Pervis Ellison and Dino Radja - played in a combined 31 games last season. Just as important, though, was the process that brought Knight to Boston: all Celtic free agents, nine of them in all, were renounced. There was no other way to fit Knight's seven-year, nearly $ 22 million contract under the salary cap.

"We're under the cap now," Celtics general manager Chris Wallace said. He paused and joked to a group of reporters, "We have enough money to take you all out to get something to eat."

The restaurant, though, would have to feature some $ 3.99 and under specials. The Celtics began yesterday with nine free agents, including team captain Rick Fox and FleetCenter favorite Marty Conlon. By sundown, all of them were gone. Now there are seven players on the roster who can tell you about last season's 15-67 wreck. That number may be lower soon. After acknowledging that "there isn't much left of last year's team", Pitino emphasized that the salary-cap restricted Celtics still have a pulse.

"There will be other moves," Pitino said.

The team needs big men and, supposedly, will find itself competing with the 76ers for players. Last month, the teams had trouble trying to complete a trade involving Radja. Now, sources say, both are in the market for free agent forward Derek Strong and free agent center Andrew DeClercq. Before the Celtics can sign either, however, they will have to move one of their contracted players and Radja may help them in that matter. Sources indicate he is close to striking a deal to play in Greece.

For now, the Celtics have a 7-footer who chose Boston over the Los Angeles Lakers in a recruiting struggle.

"Yeah, it was crazy," Knight said. "I had Jerry West and Magic Johnson calling me one day. Then I had Coach Pitino and Chris Wallace calling me the next."

The Lakers told Knight that they wanted him and that he could be part of a championship team in the next couple of years. The Celtics told him that he would have a chance to play more than the 16 minutes per game he logged in LA and that he could help rebuild a franchise that has seen only 48 wins in the last two seasons. Knight's Lakers won more games than that last year alone, but he was still intrigued by the chance to come to Boston and join Pitino. He was whisked to New England Baptist for a physical yesterday afternoon (he passed) and was watching the team's rookie-free agent camp a few hours later. He wanted to be a part of the New Celtics.

"The man makes $ 70 million a year," he said laughing, pointing to Pitino. "He must know what he's talking about."

Pitino returned the smile and said, "Oh, he's giving me a raise, too."

It seemed appropriate that so much time was spent talking about money. That was the co-theme of the day. The other? Youth.

The money talk dominated the first half of Knight's press conference. It was money (or lack of it), in part, that led to the renouncing of folks such as Fox.

"I hated to lose Rick Fox and Marty Conlon," Pitino said. But he said he had no choice if he wanted to sign Knight.

It was money, in part, that gave the Celtics an advantage over their rivals from the 1980s. The Lakers could only offer Knight $ 300,000-plus next season; the Celtics gave him a contract that averages $ 3 million.

"The Lakers really wanted him," Pitino said. "That made us feel good."

And it was money that led many to ask why a career 4.8-point scorer could command the most lengthy contract on the team (Knight does have the option of voiding his deal after three seasons).

"We want players who have the most upside," Pitino said. He also said he liked the 22-year-old Knight's ability to run the floor and pass. While at the University of Connecticut, Knight played in Jim Calhoun's trapping defensive set, and Pitino said those skills would help him with the Celtics. "He's still 7 feet tall, but he runs the floor well for a 7-footer."

Knight, who was only 178 pounds five years ago, knows he has to get stronger. Pitino said he wants him to get up to 240-245 by the start of training camp. "I know I'm going to have to play some strong centers in the East four times a year," he said. "But I played against the strongest man in the world during practice last year."

He was talking about 300-pound Shaquille O'Neal. Now he will practice with one of the youngest teams in the league. If they start Chauncey Billups, Ron Mercer, Knight, Antoine Walker, and Eric Williams, the Celtics will have Williams as the old man of the group. He'll be 25 in nine days.

Pitino said a few times that the team wasn't done tinkering. It was hard not to believe him. In a matter of minutes, he added one player and subtracted nine.

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