Tuesday, January 9, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 9, 2001

In Boston, Pitino dropped the ball

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

When he formally resigned from the Boston Celtics yesterday, Rick Pitino should have said the mess he left behind wasn’t the coach’s fault.

He could have correctly laid the blame for his 102-146 record of 3 1/2 years squarely at the feet of the real problem, the Celtics’ president.

Except, of course, the guy with the title and power of president also happened to be Pitino.

For in this episode Pitino, the president of the Celtics, let down Pitino, coach of the Celtics. And together they let down a once-proud franchise that now plumbs the depths of what would be a record eighth consecutive losing season.

When Pitino took over the Celtics in May of 1997, not far removed from a national championship at Kentucky, he demanded full control of the place, lock, stock and jock, as his price for coming aboard. That and $5 million per year, of course, would allow him to work his magic.

He wanted absolute power over personnel moves, a free hand to draft, trade and sign as he pleased. Do that and, he promised, the Celtics would be back in the playoffs within three years.

Pitino got everything he asked for. But under his stewardship the Celtics got · well, they sure didn’t get what they expected. They certainly didn’t get better. They didn’t begin to approach the renaissance that Pitino had promised for the once-proud franchise that hasn’t hoisted a championship banner since 1986. They didn’t even make the playoffs. They made the M.L. Carr era look good.

As good a coach as Pitino is — and his track record since leaving the University of Hawaii has been brilliant in stops at Boston University, Providence, the New York Knicks and Kentucky — he never had to run the front office side, too.

With the Knicks, Al Bianchi supplied the players and Pitino did what he does best, he coached them.

With the Celtics, Pitino spent his way out of salary cap space, turned over his roster regularly and never found the mixture he wanted or felt comfortable in coaching.

Chris Mills, on whom he lavished $33 million over seven years, had a shorter ride in Boston than Paul Revere. Pitino invested $33 million in Vitaly Potapenko, $24 million in Tony Battle.

Maybe it would have been different if the draft lottery had bounced Boston’s way in the 1997 Tim Duncan draft, but you don’t pay a guy $5 million a year just to be lucky in levitating pingpong balls.

In college, Pitino could out-work and out-recruit the vast majority of his opponents, as he will at whatever high-profile campus he ends up at next season.

But in the NBA, where it comes down to talent, talent and talent, he couldn’t work his way out of the hole that bad personnel decisions had dug for the Celtics.

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