In Rick We Trust


March 5, 1999 
Believe it: Celtics are back;

   There will be bumps in the parquet - like the narrow loss to the Nets on Monday and the hideous beating in Cleveland Tuesday - but the Celtics are New England's feel-good team of this spring season.


The Green Team hasn't played a postseason game since 1995 (the Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots all made the playoffs last year) and they are under .500 as they prepare to play the Nuggets at home tonight. Still, the C's are the team that pleases. Maybe it's the 16 banners. Maybe it's Rick Pitino's suits. Maybe it's just illogical hope. 

Whatever the reason, there's a feeling around the Celtics today that is much like the karma that engulfed the upstart Patriots in 1994 - Bill Parcells's second year on the sidelines. That Patriots team won its last seven games to sneak into the NFL playoffs. They were beaten by Cleveland, but it felt like they were going to be important again. Two years later, they were in the Super Bowl.

Pitino is to the Celtics what Parcells was to the Patriots. In Rick We Trust. Of course we have to tease him about "lyin' and laughin' " (why do we write down anything the man says?) but there's a confidence and command about Pitino that makes the New England fandom believe.

The Celtics are young, hungry, and entertaining. They have the blocks necessary to improve. The NBA's new basic agreement will allow them to keep their best players. They have a good coach. They are going to get better. They are going to get back to the big games. And it is going to be fun to watch.

Consider the other three New England teams:

The Red Sox won 92 games last year, but lost Mo Vaughn, who was their blood and thunder. Like the rest of the American League, they are hopelessly behind the Yankees. Meanwhile, general manager Dan Duquette has sapped all color and controversy from the clubhouse. It is spring, but the Sox are not the hot topic around here.

The Patriots are dissolving in front of our eyes. A new player bails out every other day, the coach is embarrassingly powerless, the director of player personnel is in a draft slump, and the owner just wants to make money, move to Hartford, and fire anyone who still speaks to Parcells.

The Bruins continue to skate their wing and make us wonder when they'll next go deep into the playoffs. Even the Hockey Krishnas seem resigned to the fact that the B's are doomed to one-and-out playoff bids while the man in Buffalo puts more cash in his mattress.

The Celtics, meanwhile, are giving fans reason to believe. After five home games, attendance is running ahead of the last three seasons (an average of 17,747 compared with 15,767 last year after five home games). Not only that, but fans are getting to the game on time and staying until the end. In recent years, we've grown accustomed to the empty lower bowl at the start and finish of most Celtic games. (By the way, who decided to put loud yellow/orange seats near courtside in the new building? They exaggerate the no-shows and late arrivals.)

When the Celtics played the lowly Nets Monday the lower bowl was almost full at the start of the game. No one left early. It was a thrilling 48 minutes of basketball, not decided until Keith Van Horn's putback broke the Green at the buzzer.

Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Paul Pierce, Kenny Anderson, and Tony Battie are lottery picks. With the possible exception of Anderson (who has suspect knees), all of these players should be around for the next championship run. In the meantime, there will be rough nights like the ones we saw Monday and Tuesday. And could Antoine burn his Dino Radja Defense Manual?

The Celtics have no legitimate big man, no offensive scheme, and no transition offense. But they've got the energy of the innocent.

"We know who we are and where we're going," says Pitino. "We're painfully young. But the great part is, we're young and talented. There's a promise for tomorrow. This is a young talented team that keeps getting better and better, continues to play hard, and continues to grow."

Boston sports fans are unusually patient when it comes to the Celtics, but it would be nice to see the C's in the playoffs this year.

"I'd say we're not ready yet," says Pitino. "Would it shock me? Absolutely not. We could make it, but things don't come easy yet. But I look down the road and I see Antoine and Kenny and Paul and Ron. I think the future is really bright."

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