DRAFT DRAMAS THE CELTICS AND THE NUGGETS GOT HELP, THOUGH NOT EXACTLY THE HELP THEY WANTED

July 06, 1997

On June 25, a full 15 minutes before the start of the NBA draft,
new Celtics coach Rick Pitino announced to 5,000 season-ticket
holders gathered at the Fleet Center that Boston would choose
Colorado point guard Chauncey Billups with the No. 3 pick. In
public relations terms, it was a brilliant stroke. Not only did
Pitino provide the fans with a moment of intimacy by sharing
this inside information, but also his subsequent impassioned
praise of Billups left the crowd convinced that regardless of
which players were still available at No. 3, Billups was the
right choice.

In truth, Pitino was able to declare his unwavering love for
Billups because he had found out moments earlier that the 76ers
would use the No. 2 pick to select the player he really wanted,
Utah forward Keith Van Horn. The Sixers then turned around and
traded Van Horn to the Nets in a multiplayer swap.

It was not the only time in the days leading up to the draft
that Philly thwarted Pitino's plans. On June 20, Boston dealt
forward Dino Radja to the Sixers for forwards Michael Cage and
Clarence Weatherspoon, a move that could have cleared $5.3
million from the Celtics' salary cap by the summer of 1998. But
the trade was voided when Radja, who at first balked at taking
the mandatory posttrade physical, failed the exam because of a
troublesome left knee. In fact, Radja, who missed 57 games last
season--52 of them after surgery to repair his left patella--had
been so worried about the knee that he had previously solicited
the opinions of two doctors without informing the Boston front
office, which believed he was well on his way to a full
recovery. Sixers sources said that Philly's examination of Radja
revealed "bone on bone" in the knee, raising questions as to
whether Radja will be able to play a full NBA schedule.

The botched trade, which would have been the first ever between
these long and bitter rivals, left both teams frustrated. The
Celtics initially thought Philadelphia was backing out of the
deal because the Sixers were having second thoughts (not medical
misgivings) about Radja's ability as a player; the Sixers
initially found it hard to believe Boston was not aware of the
extent of Radja's injury.

According to Pitino and Larry Brown, Philly's new coach,
subsequent conversations cleared the air. Yet the Radja fiasco,
combined with the 76ers' plucking of Van Horn from the Celtics'
reach, sent the rumor mill turning with reports of a rift
between Pitino and Brown, including this statement made by new
Nuggets coach Bill Hanzlik to the Denver Post: "If you want to
know two guys that hate each other the most in the NBA, I
suggest you look at Larry Brown and Rick Pitino." Late last
week, when Hanzlik's comments were relayed to him, Brown angrily
denounced the Denver coach. "Whenever I've talked about Rick,
I've shown him the utmost respect," he said. "I don't even know
Bill Hanzlik. He ought to just coach and worry less about being
a gossip columnist."

"Larry and I are fine," Pitino said. "If we weren't so busy,
we'd play golf together this weekend."

Until draft night, it had been a discouraging week for Pitino.
He had been tantalizingly close to acquiring forward Scottie
Pippen and center Luc Longley from the Bulls in exchange for the
No. 3 and No. 6 picks plus a 1999 first-round selection. But the
deal fell apart on draft day. Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf
confirmed that if the Bulls had made the deal, they would also
have considered trading the newly acquired No. 3 pick to Denver
for the No. 5 pick and center Ervin Johnson, but only if Van
Horn was available at No. 3. Reinsdorf, who would have been
faced with his own public relations nightmare had he traded
Pippen--not to mention the wrath, and possible retirement, of
Michael Jordan--said he ultimately backed away because the
Celtics' offer "wasn't one that knocked our socks off." Asked if
Pippen was in Chicago to stay, Reinsdorf answered, "I have to
assume he's back. There's nothing we can do with Scottie right
now."

That may not be so. Lakers sources say Los Angeles would like to
take a run at Pippen. Bulls sources say Los Angeles shooting
guard Eddie Jones (a Lakers untouchable) would have to be
included in any such deal.

Although the Nuggets, who won only 21 games last season, did not
come away with Van Horn, whom they coveted, they did get an
infusion of new bodies. They picked Texas Tech's 6'11" forward
Tony Battie at No. 5, traded a second-round pick to the
SuperSonics for the No. 23 pick, point guard Bobby Jackson from
Minnesota, and then dealt Johnson to the Bucks for three
players, including No. 10 pick Danny Fortson, a 6'7" forward
from Cincinnati who had wowed the Nuggets with his superb
conditioning. According to sources with the team, Denver put all
its prospective draft picks through a grueling 20-minute
fast-break drill in which Hanzlik and one of his assistants,
T.R. Dunn, participated and which required sprinting virtually
nonstop. Two point guards, Bowling Green's Antonio Daniels
(eventually chosen No. 4 by the Grizzlies) and Stanford's Brevin
Knight (who went to the Cavaliers at No. 16) vomited following
the drill; Fortson kept running hard until the coaches stopped
in exhaustion.

Boston may have lusted after Pippen and/or Van Horn, but it
considers Billups and former Kentucky star forward Ron Mercer
(the No. 6 pick) excellent consolation prizes. Pitino told
several players he auditioned, including Billups, that the
Celtics, who won 15 games in 1996-97, would make the playoffs
next season. Without Pippen or Van Horn, and with a damaged
Radja, that looms as a tall order. The only true center on the
Celtics' roster is 30-year-old Pervis Ellison, who missed most
of last season with a crushed toe. Perhaps the Sixers would be
interested....

--JACKIE MACMULLAN

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER In workouts, the inexhaustible Fortson ran himself to the topof Denver's draft list. [Danny Fortson in game]

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