Waltah Hits the Ground Running


The man in the suit walked by Walter McCarty at about 5:30 p.m. yesterday, 90 minutes before the Celtics' exhibition game against the Bucks, a 103-98 loss at the FleetCenter. McCarty was approaching the parquet wearing his stylish green-and-white Celtics shooting shirt. The man in the suit nodded and said, "You look good in green, Walt."

McCarty smiled. Soon he would play his first game as a Celtic. And the compliment from the man in the suit was nice, considering that the man's name is Rick Pitino. It was Pitino who ultimately agreed to the deal that brought McCarty, Dontae Jones, John Thomas, and Scott Brooks to Boston from the Knicks for Chris Mills Wednesday. He said the addition of McCarty and Jones made his frontcourt quicker. He was not exaggerating.

There is a natural bounce in McCarty's step, as if the 6-foot-10-inch forward is privy to a rhythm no one else can detect. In New York, he was known for exciting his teammates even when they could see nothing to be excited about. At about 7:20 last night, he excited most of the announced crowd of 15,164. In a six-minute span, he had a shot blocked, made two short jumpers, and put in a layup. And he ran all over the place. He would wind up with 42 minutes of playing time, running constantly.

But running has never been a novelty for McCarty. "He plays every second as if it were his last in life," Pitino said afterward. Because of this, his fingerprints can be found in each area of a stat line. Exhibit 1: last night. The numbers: 17 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 fouls, 2 steals, 4 turnovers, 1 block. All of that after only one practice.

"I don't know," McCarty said with a shrug. "I guess I'm very blessed to have a lot of energy."

You see the energy stirring in his thin legs. They look like bronzed thimbles. He was a track star in Evansville, Ind., and was always a gifted sprinter. He was delighted to join the sprint relay team Pitino has in Boston now. He was on a similar squad in Kentucky with teammates Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer. They won a championship there; last night they trailed the Bucks, 55-47, at halftime. The McCarty-Walker-Mercer point total at that time: 25 points.

Maybe the Celtics could have used McCarty at shooting guard. He says he can play the position, although there isn't a single 6-10 shooting guard in the NBA.

"He may be able to play it," Pitino said, "but he never will." McCarty laughed when he heard that. "That's OK," he said. "But I think I've got the 2-guard skills. Nah, nah. I'm just playing, man."

He laughed again. People around him laughed, too. This McCarty has a way of passing on his energy. This was evident in the third quarter. The FleetCenter was buzzing. McCarty was still running. His teammates were, too. And the other new guy, Jones, was testing the patience of the man in the suit.

"This is going to be great," Jones said before taking the court. "I'm a little nervous, but I love this situation. I've got the chance to play. The system is great. And look at Pitino's record as a coach. He's proven."

He's also not the type of coach who is afraid to say what he feels. On Jones's ninth shot - which came in the third quarter - Pitino spoke up. Jones, who wears jersey No. 13, had launched an outrageous 24-footer that reminded everyone of the last man to wear No. 13, Todd Day. It was a shot Pitino would label "challenged." Pitino got the forward's attention and yelled, "Take good shots." Good enough. Jones and the rest of the team understood the message. They cut the Bucks' lead to 3, 80-77, at the end of the third.

In that same quarter, The Running Man, McCarty, got the crowd on its feet again by celebrating with Walker. The team's best player, Walker, made a basket and motioned to the fans to stand. They did. McCarty ran up to him and gave him a chest bump. When McCarty is happy, Pitino usually is as well. They both understand the often-discussed Pitino "system." McCarty studied the phenomenon for four years, although it didn't take him that long to learn it.

"You're going to find that he is an extremely bright young man," Pitino said. "You can tell him something once and he picks it up."

For the rest of the Celtics, it will take more time. Many of them are intelligent men. But this is like a new language to them, and who is well versed in a new language after one month? The Celtics, all of them new to each other, are convinced they'll wake up one day and, you know, get it.

The fans certainly understand that the contribution may take a while. Pitino does, too. He says it may be January before his players understand what he wants. Never mind the 360-degree turn he did on the sideline, a spin that came from frustration. Never mind his riding of rookie point guard Chauncey Billups. Or his irritation with a blown defensive assignment by Mercer. By the time the season begins, this team will be made up of "his" guys.

Those men will go into fourth quarters similar to last night's. It was 99-98, Bucks, with 42.6 seconds to play. The Celtics could have taken the lead a few seconds earlier, but Walker lost control of the ball. With 25.9 seconds left, Walker committed a foul that gave the Bucks a new 24-second clock. Trying to trap guard Ray Allen with 21.4 seconds left, Walker fouled Allen again. Growing pains.

But at least there is evidence that the grown-up Celtics will be OK. Walker finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds. The Running Man was already being sought out by operators of television cameras and fans with hats and cards to be signed. Everyone will have to learn to defend (30 points for Glenn Robinson; 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists for Allen). Everyone will also have to learn that the coach is a stickler for players taking advantage of picks. Lots of learning to be done. In the meantime, you can find the Celtics on an aged parquet floor in the North End. They'll be running.

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