November 4, 1997
The Celtics will be in New York City tonight, meeting the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The visitors will add at least three intriguing New York stories to a city with millions of them.
There's the Return of Rick Pitino story. There's the Return of Three Young Men story. And there's the old favorite, the Men Who Return and Return Without Ever Winning.
We begin with Pitino, the ex-Knick coach who left New York after two seasons. His teams were successful, but he didn't click with the general manager, Al Bianchi. Yes, he's been to New York since those days. But now the coach of the Knicks is Jeff Van Gundy, a man Pitino hired as a Providence College graduate assistant in 1986, a man who used to stay up so late studying basketball that he would fall asleep on the couch in Pitino's office.
"If he could sleep in a gym, he would," Pitino said. "He just loves the game."
Amazing how times have changed. Van Gundy still loves the game. Now he's loving it as a head coach making $ 2 million a year, about $ 5 million less than Pitino. Amazing stories. Certainly you can imagine Pitino's excitement about tonight's return.
"To be honest with you, I don't have too many thoughts about it because I've been back so many times," Pitino said. "My thoughts are getting my team ready to play."
Come on, Rick. You sound like Bill Parcells. Gotta have some emotional feelings, eh?
"No," Pitino deadpanned. "I really don't."
Van Gundy, 10 years younger than Pitino, remembers his first meeting with Pitino. On that day in '86, Pitino sat across from him at a table and asked if he was sure he wanted to be a college coach.
"I said, 'Yes sir, I do,' " Van Gundy recalled yesterday. "He stood up, so I stood up. And he said, 'Congratulations, Jim, it's your job.' "
Now "Jim" Van Gundy leads a team that many expect to be the best in the Atlantic Division. He says he learned plenty from Pitino, who wanted him to be a part of the staff at Kentucky in 1989.
"He's a bright, bright basketball mind," Van Gundy said. "He's always thinking. He's not locked into doing it the same way just because it's always been done that way."
Obviously, the men are still friendly. It was only a couple weeks ago that they were talking about players on their teams changing cities.
Chris Mills left Boston for New York without ever playing a game here. Dontae Jones and John Thomas left New York for Boston without ever playing a game there. Walter McCarty was part of that trade, too, although he played 192 minutes with the Knicks last season.
On the night he was traded, Jones said he was looking forward to playing the Knicks four times a year. And McCarty? Is the man psyched?
"I'm psyched for every game, man," he said.
So we assume this is nothing special.
"Nah; nothing special."
Mills has played only 29 minutes in two games with the Knicks. He was expected to be a starter here, but he is a backup there. McCarty was expected to be a backup there and is a starter here.
This is all so New Yorkish. Especially the most important part of these matchups: the games. These rivals have certainly had their swings. From 1965-67, the Celtics beat the Knicks 19 straight times. It was ugly. Guess how many consecutive games the Celtics have lost to the Knicks. Yep. Nineteen.
"We beat the Knicks one time," Dee Brown said yesterday. "I think it was 1819 or something."
Actually it was 1993. Four years and no wins. Brown is the only player on the roster who participated in the last Celtic win over New York. He knows what to expect from these contemporary Knicks.
"New York is gonna try to pound us," he said. "We can't get caught in their halfcourt game. If we do, they'll beat us. They don't want to run and we want to run. Their game is power. They've got three animals inside and two ballhandlers. So we have to run, but run with a purpose."
A Celtic win will set off spin doctors and headline writers. People in The City are already unhappy that the Knicks lost at home to the Pistons. A defeat to the Celtics? That wouldn't be acceptable. But at least it would be another story to tell.