By Ferd Lewis
When he formally resigned from the Boston Celtics yesterday, Rick Pitino should have said the mess he left behind wasnt the coachs 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 didnt get what they expected. They certainly didnt get better. They didnt begin to approach the renaissance that Pitino had promised for the once-proud franchise that hasnt hoisted a championship banner since 1986. They didnt 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 Bostons way in the 1997 Tim Duncan draft, but you dont 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 couldnt work his way out of the hole that bad personnel decisions had dug for the Celtics.
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