November 5, 1997
Last night Rick Pitino's Celtics were Travis Knight and the Pips. Knight led all Boston scorers with a measly 13 points in a 102-70 defeat at the hands of the New York Knicks. The Celtics shot 35 percent and committed 22 turnovers. Celtic fans watching at home must have had visions of M.L. Carr dancing in their heads. It was disorganized chaos, Clippers East.
"I think we were overmatched," said a Pete-Carroll-calm Pitino. "Nobody's proud of this kind of play. But we have a game tomorrow and we have to stay upbeat."
Then, sounding like Chauncey, the gardener from "Being There," he said, "Failure is fertilizer for future things to grow."
Indeed. This was fertilizer. It stank.
It was an embarrassing homecoming for Pitino. Madison Square Garden is the home court of his youth, not to mention a place where he served as head coach back in the heady days of the late 1980s.
"I grew up hearing late public address announcer John Condon's voice," Pitino said. "But for any coach, it's great to play in a place like Madison Square Garden. It's a wonderful experience and the Knicks are back."
A son of Oyster Bay, Long Island, Pitino was hoping for a happy return to the gym where he first watched pro basketball. But the young Celtics were terrible. It was New York's 20th consecutive victory over Boston, a sorry string that goes back to 1993 when Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were Celtics. The late Reggie Lewis scored 37 points in Boston's last victory over the Knicks. And it happened at Madison Square Garden, just before the inauguration of Bill Clinton.
Pitino's return was nothing like Pat Riley's celebrated comeback with the Miami Heat two years ago. New Yorkers didn't like the way Riley left and they hooted him madly when he brought his new team to "The World's Most Famous Arena."
There was hardly a ripple of applause when Pitino was announced. That's because he left on good terms and it was eight long years ago. Patrick Ewing (26 last night) and Charles Oakley are the only holdover Knicks who played under Pitino.
"They were an absolute delight to coach," recalled the Boy Wonder of Whistles. "I don't think I ever had a bad day as their coach."
He said Boston presents a different situation from the one he faced when he took over the Knicks. The difference is Ewing. Pitino's first Knick team went 38-44 and was knocked out of the playoffs by the Larry Bird Celtics. His second Knick team went 52-30. Unable to work under then general manager Al Bianchi, Pitino took his estimable game to Kentucky.
There were plenty of subplots involving Little Ricky and the Knicks. New York coach Jeff Van Gundy got got his big break when Pitino hired him as a graduate assistant in 1986.
"I knew he'd be good," said Pitino. "We used to have early meetings, and he'd sleep on the couch in my office to make sure nobody beat him to work."
There was also Chris Mills, the forward Pitino signed to a seven-year, $ 33.6 million contract, then dumped after eight weeks, before a real game had been played. Mills scored 17 points in 28 minutes against Pitino & Co. - 4 more points than any Celtic scored.
Pitino's kids trailed, 23-22, after one period, but in perspective, this represented great progess. In Pitino's first two games, the Celtics carved deficits of 32-12 (vs. the Bulls) and 29-15 (vs. the Magic).
Then it got ugly. The Green fell behind, 56-39, at intermission. There were times Pitino was so furious, it seemed his eyes would pop out of his head. His voice started to fail him in the third quarter when the Knicks inflated the lead to 20.
"We're going to try to be entertaining, but we were not tonight," said the coach. "The majority of nights are not going to be like tonight."
The streak lives. Twenty and counting. Boston's next crack at the Knicks won't be until Jan. 19 in New York. Pitino's baby bulls might be ready by then.