Pitino Means What He Says . . . At Least When He Says It
October 23, 1997
Let's hope Rick Pitino can run a basketball team. We can hold him to his deeds and results. It's getting harder and harder to hold him to his words.
Last night Pitino traded away a player who, less than three weeks ago, he was praising as an almost indispensable part of the Celtics. "The reason we traded Eric Williams," Pitino said back then, "was because we had a chance to get
Chris Mills. We lost a lot of maturity with Rick Fox, and I needed to replace that with Chris Mills. Mike Fratello said he wanted to keep Mills badly. That meant a lot to me. He is a wonderful person who comes to work every day."
That was then. This is now. Mills is still presumably a wonderful guy who will now go to work every day for the New York Knicks. And the much-needed maturity? Gonzo. The three players who arrive here - courtesy, we're told, of Leo
Papile's scouting and salary cap expertise - have a grand total of 35 games of NBA experience. Forward John Thomas is, as they say in the NCAA, a true freshman. Dontae Jones missed all of last year, his first, after foot surgery. Walter
McCarty is the Cal Ripken of the three, playing the aforementioned 35 games and 192 minutes. (Forget about Scott Brooks; he'll be waived.)
What are we to believe when Pitino talks? And should it even matter? What he says doesn't affect the economy, advances in medical technology, or crime. It's sports, for goodness' sake. There's an old saying: "A wise man changes his
mind. A fool, never." Pitino is, in basketball terms, a magi.
But ever since the Pitino courtship began, there have been piles of quotes which now look positively ridiculous in hindsight. Remember when Pitino said he would come to the Celtics only if Larry Bird was a part of the equation? Or that
his chances of leaving Kentucky were 1 percent?
Remember on draft night when he turned down all those deals for Williams because Williams was untradeable and a big part of the future? That was before Williams blew off all those meetings with the strength and conditioning coach over
the summer and was dealt to Denver (so the Celtics could sign Mills).
Remember when he said, unequivocally, that he would not consider drafting Tracy McGrady at No. 6? He subsequently changed his mind there, too, after working the youngster out.
As for Mills, Pitino said he made those statements before he had a chance to coach the guy.
"When you make those statements, then after you've coached him for a while, you see where your needs lie," Pitino said. "The question now is, will we be better off in three years with the development of Chris Mills or with the
development of Walter McCarty, Dontae Jones, and John Thomas? I thought our frontcourt speed was very suspect and very thin."
Say this for Pitino. He's not going to be hung up on his own words. He was positively upbeat last night, just as he was upbeat the day the Celtics signed Mills. McCarty is another ex-Kentuckian - that makes three from the 1996 title
team, if you're counting at home - coming back to The System. Jones is a real X factor - "he could be a great player or a bust" - and Thomas is . . . well, they now have 17 players under contract and 12 spots.
(The longest faces of the night belonged to the Celtics media relations staff, whose just-completed media guide is now about as relevant as "The Hitler Diaries.")
One thing that has not changed, and will not change, is Pitino's unflagging desire to get results and get them fast. He has an itchy trigger finger. You may also recall that this past spring, he said one thing he could never, ever do
again was take over a rebuilding team which stood to win 25 games. He'd been there, done that, and won more at Kentucky, anyway. He has a reputation as a Turnaround Guy, and there is plenty of room to turn here. There's also plenty of
evidence that this team might win, oh, 25 games.
The results will, of course, be the ultimate yardstick. No one will care, or even remember, if Pitino said this, did that, and the team won, anyway. He's not being held to a truth standard. He's being held to the same standard that all
coaches are held to: wins and losses. Plenty of coaches have been earnest, forthright, honest to a fault, and then out of work when their teams lost. We can't think of a coach yet who lost his job for contradicting himself in the public domain.
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