Pitino Knows How to Teach: But Will the Celtics Learn?

October 9, 1997,

The place is called Building 1801. The exterior painting is chipped. The inside reminds you of a hangar or barn rather than a basketball court. Walls? Please. If you run into a wall in this Naval Training gym, you'll probably be tumbling out the door. The Celtics are using a good facility for their training camp here, not a pretty one.

"We don't want it to be too nice for them," Rick Pitino said with a grin.

Last night was the first time the new coach of the Celtics let visitors into his temporary house. If you're into housewarming gifts, this is the best one you could have brought Pitino: silence.

You learn very quickly that this is a business atmosphere. Against a wall, the scoreboard clock is always running. Very important. Pitino's practices are segmented into eight parts and time is essential. Offensive and defensive improvement are first. Then there is fast breaking, followed by two segments of pressing, half-court offense, half-court defense, and full-court defense. There is talking, but no monologues.

"For every 10 minutes," said Pitino, "I like to let them play for nine and I'll lecture for one."

Was that something he developed as a young coach at Boston University?

"Oh, no, no," he laughed. "When I was there, I probably lectured for nine and let them play for one."

Some lecturing will have to be done off the court. Pitino's presses are similar to football zone defenses. You do different things depending on where you are on the court. So you have to be aware, constantly, of where you are.

"No one does a system like this," said Richie Adubato, a Celtics consultant who was a Knicks assistant with Pitino under Hubie Brown in the mid 1980s. "This is not an easy system to learn. But these guys will get it. Rick is such a great teacher."

He quickly displayed his succinct style 15 minutes into practice. There was a fast-break opportunity and rookie point guard Chauncey Billups had the ball. He bounced a pass to his right, intended for 6-foot-9-inch forward Tony Massenburg. The big man, not known for his hands, caught the ball. But he was closely defended and wound up traveling. Pitino blew his whistle.

"Chauncey, that's your turnover, not his," he said. "You've got to beat your man off the dribble. If you beat him, you've got a two-on-one."

He wasn't picking on Billups. Anyone making a mistake was going to receive instruction. Free agent 7-footer Lorenzo Coleman was told not to be a "test tube rebounder." Pitino held his hands straight up and said, "Don't wait for the ball to come to you; go get it." Antoine Walker was asked why he was passing the ball when he should have been dunking it. Everyone was told that "if you begin to pick up your man below the foul line, you will lose every time. You have got to pick him up out here," he said, walking some 3 feet north of the line.

These brief comments were spliced with suggestions from assistants Winston Bennett on the left of the court and Jim O'Brien on the right. It was surround-sound coaching. Pitino didn't want any critical comments to be misinterpreted as being anti-aggressive. You want to know what really upsets the coach? When a player grimaces after missing a shot.

"I've never been upset with missed shots," he said.

What bothers him is players taking the misses to heart. And when they begin doing that, they'll lose some of their fearlessness. Which means they have no use in the Pitino system.

Once again, Billups was a perfect example of this. There was another fast break and the rookie from Colorado had the ball. He kept driving, driving, driving until the last possible passing instant. He dished. Easy hoop.

"Nice job, Chauncey, nice job," bellowed the man with the thick New York accent.

Tuesday afternoon, there were at least three players hooked up to IVs after one of Pitino's two-hour affairs. So conditioning is a factor. "Just lots of running. Always running," said Walker, who is going into his third season with Pitino (two at the University of Kentucky).

It's not as if the players can say Pitino is being unfair. Yesterday afternoon, he once again took to the streets of Newport, running 13 miles. He did the same thing Tuesday.

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