Coach a Bigger Deal than the Team

June 23, 1997

Rick Pitino doesn't think it strange at all. He doesn't blink an eye when people discuss the basketball season ahead and talk more about the coach than the players.

He's been through this before, and he understands that for now the tendency is for fans to lean on a person who - unless he has some wild fashion ideas in store - won't even be wearing shorts during the games.

"That's the way it works," said Pitino as he prepared for Wednesday night's draft, his first as coach and president of the Celtics. "That's just what you build on.

"At Kentucky in my first three or four years, yes, everyone was talking about me. But in the end, they started talking about (Jamal) Mashburn, (Ron) Mercer, (Derek) Anderson, (Antoine) Walker and all the players. That's because I did my job.

"In the beginning, when you're down, they talk that way. But in the end, they start going the other way. That's what you have to do as a coach. You build on your system and build optimism and excitement. Then you get your players to play, and people start talking less and less about you and more and more about the players."

Pitino knows that Celtic fans are talking a bit over the club's head right now, but, quite interestingly, he doesn't mind in the least. The crowd may not know much about the individuals currently on the roster (and certainly not about those Pitino hopes to have in the fold come opening night next November), but it believes whomever is taking direction from the coach will take a giant leap from the 15 victories of this past season. The players, too, see a large change on the horizon.

Even though he runs the risk of looking poorly when painted on such a rosy canvas, Pitino is dipping his brush in the bright colors. (The man seems clearly unaware he already has the job.)

"I don't ever try to diffuse their optimism," Pitino said. "If you tell a team, 'We only won 15, so the best we're going to do is 25 or 28 - if you do that, you never overachieve. You just achieve.

"And I'm not a believer in killing dreams, so I want the optimism. I want the excitement. If, in the end, we're not as good as we thought we'd be, then we live with that. But up until the end, we want to be overly optimistic and overly excited.

"It's a dream of ours next year to make the playoffs. Now is that realistic? Of course it's not. It's not realistic at all, but you have to build that spirit in your team."

When Pitino did so at Kentucky, he was viewed through quizzical eyes in his early days. He inherited a team on NCAA probation, but in order to create a situation where he could attract the top recruits, he knew he had to bring a new outlook - and a healthy dose of showmanship - to the program.

"I had a team at Kentucky in my first two years thinking they were going to win the national championship - and they weren't even in the tournament," Pitino said. "They used to look at me. I'd say, 'We're going to go to the Final Four and we're going to win it,' and they were looking at me as if I was crazy.

"But you have to have those dreams. Yes, I understand it's going to be a long haul. And it has to be. We're not Miami or some of those other teams who had a lot of room under the salary cap to go out and get the players they needed. We still have handcuffs on, but we're loosening them up a little (e.g. trading Dino Radja's contract). There were some moves made. . . . I won't say they were bad moves, but there were moves made that did not keep in mind the cap. Whether a gun was held to people's heads and this is what they had to do to keep those guys . . . it's very easy to judge someone from afar when you don't know what they had to do."

Pitino knows what he has to do now, and he has a clear goal in mind - the oft-stated need to get three All-Stars in Celtic uniforms.

Between now and late Wednesday night, he will have a large opportunity to wheel and deal, and his general manager, Chris Wallace, is on the same page. The Radja deal is geared squarely toward clearing cap space to attract a major free agent next summer.

"My goal is to get three All-Stars," Pitino reiterated. "We have to develop from within to get maybe one or two, and that means the draft and working with the players we have. Then we have to go out and use free agency to get another."

And if he is successful, Pitino will get to hear his name less often when the Celtics are up for discussion.

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