Pitino wins one game - and wins over Boston

November 2, 1997
A couple of hours after it was over - after the loudest cheers ever heard in the New Garden - Rick Pitino celebrated with family, friends, and associates upstairs at Fours Boston on Canal Street in the heart of downtown Celtic Nation.

By now we know that there are no small gatherings when it comes to toasting Little Ricky. This young coach has a bigger entourage than Mike Tyson, Frank Sinatra, or Bill Clinton.

On Friday night/Saturday morning at Fours, Pitino was surrounded by Kentucky Guys, Wall Street Guys, Horse Race Guys, NBA Guys, Agent Guys, Providence Guys, Boston University Guys, and an assortment of drivers, chefs, and hangers-on. Joanne Pitino was there accepting the embraces and congratulations of all those who made the evening special for her husband. 

Special, it was. There haven't been many nights like this around here in the last 10 years. TheCeltics might get routed tonight at home against Orlando, and they no doubt will struggle to win games with a new system and baby ballplayers, but Friday's defeat of the Bulls in Pitino's debut goes down as one of the great nights in Boston sports history.

Naturally, 80-year-old Red Auerbach got things off to the right start.

"I had him address the team," Pitino said, not remembering if Red had the cigar going. "He was great. He told them that David Stern's name is on the basketball - not Michael Jordan's name. It was a great talk. Just what they needed."

Pitino's reverence for Red runs deep. It's certainly no accident that the old coach and the new coach share the cover of the team's 1997-98 media guide.

. . . And then there was a threat of the Celtics switching to white sneakers, which would have been like the New York Yankees wearing 1986 Houston Astro rainbow jerseys.

"The sneaker thing was something I really didn't know about," admitted Pitino. "After I came here, some players came to me and asked if they could wear white shoes. I didn't care. But then some writers told me about the tradition and I checked with Celtic publicist Jeff Twiss and that was the end of the white sneakers. Of course, Red told me that the only reason he started it was to save money - the black ones didn't get as dirty - but if that's the tradition we'll stick with it."

It was a wacky Halloween crowd at the New Garden. An attractive young woman held up a sign that read, "Dennis, my boyfriend, Louie, would rather go home with you." Another patron was dressed in a Marv Albert costume with a Marv wig, a Marv microphone, and Marv women's underwear worn on the outside of his broadcasting suit. Festive.

Then the game started and those who witnessed the first quarter (32-12, Bulls) of the first game of the Pitino Celtic Era could have arrived at only one conclusion: time to bring back M.L. Carr.

But Pitino yelled "just keep playing," and his hungry-hearted players outscored the world champs, 56-26, over the next two periods, then hung on for the shocking victory.

Chauncy Billups, subject of trade speculation and clueless in the first half, came on strong after intermission. Travis Knight, equally hopeless in the early going, looked like he was worth the money in the final two quarters. And the Kentucky trio ran rings around the Team Of Rings. With Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, and Walter McCarty dealing, it made you wonder if the 1996 NCAA champion Wildcats should have demanded a masters-of-the-universe game against the '96 NBA champion Bulls.

Long after midnight, Pitino was still basking in the glow. He wanted to know what Jordan had to say after the loss. He said he worried when Walker turned the ball over late in the game by inadvertently stepping out of bounds because "Antoine hates to be embarrassed." He said he'd heard some insulting offers for Billups ("teams trying to dump cap money on us"), and that Billups can be the team's most dazzling player at practice. He conceded that superior conditioning might have won the game, noting, "most teams are not in shape this time of year."

"It was a big night for a lot of people," Pitino said. "Any time you build a franchise it has to start at home. This was like an enthusiastic college crowd tonight. They haven't had a night like this in a long time."

So how do we feel about that 2-3-2 format for the NBA Finals?

Just kidding, folks. But it was nice not to have to talk about the Patriots for one night. They've been New England's only team for a long time, and they've got a mega-game in Minnesota this afternoon, but they have no single figure as compelling as the new Celtic coach.

Boston is Rick Pitino's town today. He should ask for a raise.

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