October 15, 1997
Rick Pitino won't need directions to the gym tonight. Neither will Chris Mills, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, the assistant coaches, nor Shaun Brown, the strength and conditioning coach.
They're all going home for the night.
Tonight the Celtics will play an exhibition game in Rupp Arena on the campus of the University of Kentucky. It's a building where Pitino worked his coaching magic for eight years, so much so that a jersey with his name hangs in the rafters with the other retired numbers of Kentucky greats.
The game was scheduled long before Pitino took over the team, drafted Mercer, traded for Mills, and relocated his staff. The game was supposed to be against the Chicago Bulls, but the Nets were added as a late replacement when the Bulls were summoned to Paris as the NBA titlists for the McDonald's Championship.
"Obviously, this is going to be special," Pitino said yesterday after running the Celtics through another workout at Brandeis. "I've got quite a schedule. It's going to be an action-packed day."
There's a morning visit scheduled for a homeless shelter in Owensboro (hometown of Rex Chapman). There's a morning shootaround at the arena. Then there's the game against John Calipari and his crew, who Pitino said are playing much better than the Celtics.
"I don't think we're ready to win a game yet," Pitino said of the Celtics, who are 0-2 in exhibition play.
He was asked if he would be tempted to stay in Kentucky, where he has adoring fans.
"Maybe after they see us play, they'll want me out," he said.
Walker and Mercer will be in the starting lineup and, along with Pitino, should receive a thundering ovation. That combination led Kentucky to its only title in the Pitino Era. Both players left school after their sophomore seasons and were the No. 6 picks in the last two drafts. They still bleed a little Kentucky blue.
"It's going to bring back a lot of special memories," Mercer said. "It's a chance to play in front of the Kentucky fans and it will be great to be back in that gym. I think it'll even be more special for Coach. Everybody loved him down there. It's a special place. It's a big deal."
Walker didn't have time to talk about the game yesterday. Mills was at Kentucky for only a season and transferred to Arizona (he never played for Pitino at UK, leaving as Pitino was arriving). Brown spent the last five years working on the delts and pecs of Wildcat hoopsters. One of the new Celtic assistants, associate coach Jim O'Brien, settled in Lexington, Mass., after being in Lexington, Ky., the last three years.
Assistant coach Winston Bennett left the gym yesterday sporting a Wildcat blue blazer for the flight to Lexington.
"It's going to be special, no question," Bennett said. "I have a lot of roots there. I played there as a player and graduated. I coached there. It's a warm feeling to be going back."
Asked if he thought Pitino would be warmly received, Bennett said, "I don't see how it could be anything other than that. The fans down there appreciate what Coach Pitino did."
Added Andrew DeClercq, who played in Rupp Arena as a visitor with Florida, "It'll be nice going there and not getting booed for a change. It'll be nice to have Coach Pitino on my side for a change."
The last time the Celtics had this celebrated an alumni crew returning to the alma mater was in 1987, when Greg Kite, Danny Ainge, and Fred Roberts helped bang out the Marriott Center on the campus of Brigham Young. However, the lasting memory of that game is of Larry Bird following a missed layup by Jerry Sichting and dunking the rebound with two hands. The Boston bench erupted in equal parts celebration and disbelief.
Bird said later that he was in the best shape of his career at that point. A few weeks later, he snapped his Achilles' tendons in Cleveland and was never really the same after that.