"Get your hands busy! Get your hands busy!"
"Paul! Get down in your stance, Paul!"
"Rebound it! Rebound it! Rebound it!"
These weren't highly technical basketball instructions Rick
Pitino was screaming at his Boston Celtics during their 87-72 win
over the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Nov. 28. They were the
pedestrian commands he hollers almost every minute of every game.
Many around the NBA believe Pitino's nagging is the cause of the
Celtics' malaise. Pitino insists it is the cure.
"Start it! Let's run!" Pitino shouted at forward Antoine Walker
as a teammate grabbed a rebound. "Catch it first!" he yelled when
Walker fumbled the outlet pass. "Start running!" he screamed as
Walker started running upcourt.
"Rick," said a fan sitting behind the Boston bench, "you're too
controlling. Relax. Sit down."
Relinquishing control has never been Pitino's style, especially
since May 1997, when Boston gave him a 10-year, $49.1 million
deal to resurrect its dynasty. As the team's president and coach,
however, many of Pitino's lifelong strengths have come to
resemble weaknesses. His foot-stomping impatience has resulted in
a revolving-door roster; his incessant barking has spurred those
ever-changing players to a 98-133 record through Sunday's games
and zero postseason appearances. In fact, Pitino himself
questions whether he is the right man to lead the Celtics'
efforts to end their 14-year championship drought. Immediately
after a 114-90 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers at the FleetCenter
on Nov. 20, he angrily told his players that he would offer his
resignation to chairman Paul Gaston--and walk away from the
remaining $22 million on his contract--if the team wasn't playing
better defense by January.
Pitino has since called his outburst a "motivational tool,"
which prompted a couple of players-only meetings and lukewarm
results. After winning four of seven following the ultimatum,
Boston was 8-9 at week's end and tied for sixth in the weak
Eastern Conference. "It's early," says 23-year-old co-captain
Paul Pierce, who points out that Pitino has made similar threats
before about bolting, though this is the first with a deadline
attached. "You can't let your highs get too high and your lows
get too low. You have to keep it sane."
If nothing else, league sources say, Pitino's remarks served
notice to every major college program that he may be available as
early as February--just in time to swoop in and sign a few high
school stars for next season. Taking into account his great
pride, Pitino is more likely to try to drive the Celtics into the
playoffs for the first time in six years, in order to leave on
something of a high note. In any case, he refuses to indicate
whether he'll be back after this season. "I don't see anything
positive in what he's doing," says a general manager who claims
to have no ax to grind with Pitino. "What he's saying to the
players is, 'I'm doing everything I can; you guys will cost me my
job if you don't respond.'"
Pitino was hired to replace M.L. Carr, who had coached Boston to
a franchise-low 15 victories in 1996-97. What made the job
appealing to him was that between the Celtics' own draft choice
and the one they had acquired from the Dallas Mavericks, he
figured to emerge from the lottery with one of the top two picks.
"This job has turned out to be tougher than I thought," Pitino
concedes. "The thing that attracted me here was the thought that
we were going to get Tim Duncan."
What were Boston's chances of winning the lottery and landing the
No. 1 choice? "About 38 percent," Pitino says.
Meaning that there was a six-in-10 chance that another team would
draft first. "If that failed," Pitino shoots back, "it was almost
50 percent we were going to get the Number 2 pick and Keith Van
Alas, the Ping-Pong balls bounced the wrong way. The Celtics
wound up with the third and sixth picks, taking guard Chauncey
Billups first, then swingman Ron Mercer, while passing on talents
such as Tim Thomas and Tracy McGrady. Only four months into the
season Pitino swapped Billups for Kenny Anderson as part of a
seven-player trade with the Toronto Raptors. "It turned out that
Chauncey was more of a two guard than a point guard," says
Pitino. Anderson, not surprisingly, has failed to become the kind
of playmaker needed to run the high-intensity, full-court game
that Pitino prefers. As for Billups, last Friday he returned to
Boston and added insult to injury, scoring a season-high 29
points (he was averaging 16.0) for the Minnesota Timberwolves in
their 102-98 victory.
Except for Walker, Pitino has overhauled the entire roster since
his arrival, earning a reputation as a fickle wheeler-dealer.
Although he takes full responsibility for each transaction,
Pitino insists he has sought advice from his staff before making
deals. "I don't just trade a player after he has a bad practice,"
Pitino says. "We went to the draft this year, and when it turned
upside down after the first few picks, we realized we were going
to have to change our strategy. I gathered everybody and asked
them, 'Who would be your top three choices for us to draft?' We
were going around the table when this voice comes out from across
the room: 'This is not a democracy! You decide! Who do you want
to coach?' It was Red Auerbach."
General manager Chris Wallace maintains that the Celtics have
risen from the ashes of 1996-97 in decent shape. With the 10th
selection in '98, Boston took the 6'7" Pierce, who, with the 6'9"
Walker, could give the team a solid foundation for years to come.
Boston has been criticized for its commitments to Tony Battie
(six years, $25.2 million) and Vitaly Potapenko (six years, $33
million), but Wallace points out that through November the center
tandem was averaging a respectable 16.3 points (12th in the
league in production at the center position), 13.6 rebounds
(eighth) and 2.8 blocks (tied for ninth). The Celtics also could
have three first-round picks in 2001, depending on when the team
exercises its option on a choice obtained from the Denver
However, that long-term view is asking for more patience than
Celtics fans seem willing to give. Attendance has dropped each of
the last three years, to an average of 15,110 this season through
Sunday. For a 98-87 loss to the Vancouver Grizzlies on Nov. 26,
ticket sales were 11,551--fewer than 9,000 fans showed up--making
it the smallest home crowd in 21 years, going back to the third
game of the Larry Bird era. The poor quality of play and the
introduction of annoying sideshows at the FleetCenter have
combined to drive away the fan base that the Celtics worked four
decades to build.
Everything might have been different if Boston had closed a deal
to acquire Scottie Pippen for the third and sixth picks in the
'97 draft. Because Pippen was in the last year of his contract,
his presence might have forced Pitino to be more accommodating
toward his veteran players. When the Chicago Bulls backed out of
the trade at the last instant, Pitino took the opposite approach,
slashing veterans Dee Brown, Rick Fox and David Wesley off the
payroll. Over the last two years his teams have suffered from the
absence of experienced players, failing to win tight games and to
develop locker room leadership. Walker, a gifted but inconsistent
player who might benefit from having a mentor, was named team
co-captain three years ago at age 21.
"Pitino is very much a 'me' person," says Brown, who is now with
the Orlando Magic. "People come to games to watch me
coach--that's how he thinks. He didn't want veteran players when
he got there. Now he realizes that wasn't right."
Recognizing that his players may need to hear criticism from
someone else, Pitino has begun replaying broadcasts in which
color man Tom Heinsohn scolds the Celtics for not getting back on
defense. But the exercise only proved how far removed this team
is from Boston's glorious past. After listening to Heinsohn's
barbs, Battie approached Cedric Maxwell, a Celtics radio
commentator, and asked, "Hey, did Tommy ever coach someplace?"
"Yes," responded Maxwell with a blank stare. "Here. He won two
In guards Bryant Stith, 30, and Randy Brown, 32, Pitino has found
two veterans who have bought into his system. When preaching
strong man-to-man defense and unselfish offense, he can cite them
as flesh-and-blood examples. "There are three coaches whose
reputation for toughness precedes them: Pat Riley, Larry Brown
and Rick Pitino," says Stith, who was acquired from Denver and is
in the final year of his contract. "I had heard all the stories,
and they were all true--the grueling practices and all of that.
But Coach Pitino was up front with me, and I'm hungry. I'm trying
to resurrect my career."
It is conceivable that the Celtics will linger around .500 into
March, then finish with a hot streak to enter the playoffs with
momentum. But it's not going to happen unless the players
establish an identity for themselves, independent of Pitino's.
While college basketball is the province of marquee coaches,
charismatic players dominate the NBA. Knowing when to back off
and let his players play is a skill Pitino, a compulsive
micromanager, has yet to learn.
Last week his Celtics held Cleveland to four second-quarter
points en route to their first road win of the season. Not only
did they fulfill his wishes defensively, but they also swung the
ball crisply at the other end of the court. "That's it! Nice
pass!" Pitino cried as he watched a series of dishes set up
forward Eric Williams for a three-pointer. The coach hopped,
swung his fist and shouted, "That's basketball!"
A moment later the fan behind the Boston bench said in a loud
voice, "Rick, you sound like Al Gore, for God's sake." Pitino
snorted. Smiling, he looked at the heckler and admitted, "I don't
Those may be, for Celtics fans, the most encouraging words ever
heard from Pitino.
Rick Pitino is one of six NBA coaches who is also his team's
primary decision-maker in personnel matters. Here's how they've
COACH, ADDITIONAL DOUBLE DUTY RECORD, BEST PLAYOFF
TEAM TITLE SINCE PCT. RUN
Pat Riley, President '95-96 250-145, '97 conference
Heat .633 finals
Gregg General '96-97 174-120, '99 championship
Popovich, manager .592
Larry Brown, Vice president '97-98 122-108, '99 and '00
76ers of basketball .530 conference
Dan Issel, President of '99-00 44-55, None
Nuggets basketball .444
Rick Pitino, President '97-98 98-133, None
Don Nelson, General '97-98 86-130, None
Mavericks manager .398