11.28.2014

Celtics Never Interviewed Pierce



Celtics Never Interviewed Pierce

June 25, 1998

The nature of the NBA draft is such that in the last month, the Celtics worked out several players all over the United States and, in one case, Italy. But they never thought about interviewing the player they wound up drafting. It's not that they didn't like him. They just thought he was too good for them.

As far as the Celtics could see, their math wasn't working. They knew they held the 10th pick in last night's draft and that Paul Pierce was supposed to go in the top seven. That would leave the Celtics three draft slots away from being able to get the University of Kansas forward. Or so you would think. So why did the Celtics leave the second draft of the Rick Pitino Era smiling about the acquisition of a 6-foot-7-inch forward who grew up rooting for the Lakers?

That's a question that could not be answered by Pierce, Pitino, or most Celtic fans last night. All the Celtics know is that they entered the night thinking about Keon Clark and Dirk Nowitzki. Instead, they came away with a 20-year-old forward who averaged 20 points per game for Roy Williams's Jayhawks.

"To be honest with you, I'm in shock right now," Pitino said after Pierce had become a Celtic. "I didn't expect this."

As for Pierce, he thought he wouldn't get by the Warriors, who picked fifth. But "after that Golden State pick, I was wondering, 'Where can I end up?' " he said. "I was sort of holding my breath after each pick. I really didn't have a clue coming into the draft whether I'd be drafted in the top five or not."

Lester Conner, the Celtics' newest assistant coach, had raved about Pierce to Pitino. He told the coach he and Magic Johnson - who works out with Pierce in Los Angeles - always said Pierce would be an All-Star. They said Michael Olowokandi, who was taken first by the Clippers, would be a fine pro. But Pierce wouldn't be far behind.

"We just changed the subject and didn't follow any of that up," Pitino said. "We didn't think we had a shot."

But they got their shot, and once again, they should thank a team formerly known as the Southwest Celtics (the Dallas Mavericks) and the Sacramento Kings. It was the Mavericks who allowed the Celtics to draft Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer in 1996 and '97. In '98, the Mavericks took Robert Traylor with the sixth pick, which led to the Kings shocking everyone and taking Florida point guard Jason Williams, who wasn't projected in the top 10. That upset the order of the draft and began the buzz: Could the Celtics get Pierce?

First they had to get by the 76ers, who took Larry Hughes. Next, Pitino got word that the Bucks would take Nowitzki, whom the Celtics worked out in Italy. That left the Celtics with a chance to take Pierce.

"We were a little unlucky last year," Pitino told a group of cheering fans at the FleetCenter. He was referring to the '97 lottery, an event that led to the Celtics getting the No. 3 overall pick (Chauncey Billups) while the Spurs finished first and took draft prize Tim Duncan. "We got lucky this year. We will take, from the University of Kansas, Paul Pierce . . . "

The crowd erupted as the NBA wondered why Pierce slipped so low. Some suggested that he did not arrive at all his workouts in the best shape. He worked out for the Clippers, Warriors, Raptors, Grizzlies, and Nuggets. Any of them could have used the 220-pound forward from Inglewood, Calif., who sharpens his game daily by working out with Johnson.

But no one was talking about wind sprints and "suicides" last night. Most were imagining a starting five which includes Pierce, Antoine Walker, Kenny Anderson, and Ron Mercer. "We've got four pieces to the puzzle in place," Pitino said. "I'll tell you, this young man will have all the ingredients. I don't have to get him on my program. Roy Williams already has him on it. So we're extremely lucky as far as that's concerned. We're getting somebody who is going to be well schooled in all phases of our style."

Pitino was asked if he truly had his lineup set since there has been speculation that Walker will be traded because of his contract demands. The coach said Walker was never mentioned in trade talks. He also said there was no truth to the rumor that the Celtics had a chance to trade Travis Knight straight up for the Lakers' Nick Van Exel.

For now, Pitino said, all anyone has to worry about is Pierce in Boston. And that's what Pierce, a lifelong Lakers fan, has on his mind, too.

"I think it's a system where I can go in right away and play well," Pierce said on a conference call from Vancouver, British Columbia, site of the draft. He added that what concerns him most about the NBA is "the long season and a lot of frustrating moments."

Pitino left the building saying he would sleep with a smile on his face. That's assuming he got any sleep. And if he did sleep and happened to dream, perhaps he had visions of the kind people in Sacramento.

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