Rick Pitino was supposed to be the savior of Boston. A city spoiled with basketball success ended the ’96/’97 season with a 15-67 record. Changes needed to be made and a guy with local ties (played at the University of Massachusetts, then coached at Boston University and Providence College) and coaching pedigree (90-74 with the Knicks; won the 1996 college national title and lost in overtime in the 1997 national championship game coaching the University of Kentucky) seemed like the perfect guy for the job. Jackie McMullan said the announcement seemed like a coronation. Two decades later, it’s considered to be one of the worst periods of Celtics basketball.
The Celtics made one significant change to get Pitino on board – they demoted Red Auerbach to vice-chairman, and gave Pitino GM authority. That will prove to be their greatest mistake. Pitino came in with a college coach’s mindset. He was the star, and when he says ‘Jump!’, the players will ask ‘How high?’ That’s not how NBA basketball works. The problems started in the preseason.
“I saw him flip out in an exhibition game. That’s when they had signed Chris Mills to some long contract, a veteran player who was a terrible fit for Pitino’s system. But they signed him, they lost a preseason game, they weren’t playing defense, they lost by 20. He’s throwing stuff in the locker room, he’s cussing. It’s the preseason, Rick. And you’re in the NBA. So he already had lost the veterans in the locker room before the season started.”Michael Holley, via The Athletic
It’s not like the veterans didn’t try to meet him half-way. Mills went to Pitino and suggested they could ease up on the workload a little bit. All the back-to-backs, long practices, and playing full-court press wasn’t sustainable. Yep, Pitino wanted to play full-court press every game. His reaction was to trade Mills, who he had signed as a GM to a seven-year, $33.6 million contract that summer. Soon a few other veterans met the same fate. It culminated with trading Chauncey Billups after 51 games. Pitino wanted young players that would bow to his every word but was frustrated that they weren’t winning a lot of games.
His former players agree on two things. Pitino has a great basketball mind. His understanding of the game was second to none. He also has a big ego. Pitino was very verbally abusive, loud, and in your face. NBA professionals don’t respond to that, and Pitino wasn’t willing to change. It was his way or the highway. The team wasn’t winning as much as he envisioned, and the frustration started to build up. Then the infamous press conference happened.
“… Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through the door they’re going to be gray and old. … The only thing we can do is work hard. And all this negativity that’s in this town sucks. And I’ve been around when Jim Rice was booed, when (Carl) Yastrzemski was booed and it stinks. It makes the greatest city in the world lousy.”Rick Pitino
Reporters were used to Pitino’s press conferences being wild. He would say absurd things, get proven otherwise with time passing, and then say ‘I meant it when I said it.‘ He was also too arrogant in his style. Pitino claimed the Celtics weren’t trading for Kenny Anderson – they traded Billups for him. That kind of thing.
“He was Trump before Trump. He just said whatever came into his mind. And he didn’t care.”Peter May, via The Athletic
For every Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan comes a Rick Pitino and John Beilein. Teams often try and hire college coaches when starting a rebuild, thinking they are the perfect guys to coach up a young roster. But there’s a catch 22. If you don’t sign veterans, the team usually doesn’t evolve as players don’t adapt to the NBA fast enough. If you do get veterans, the players adapt to the NBA fast enough, and one of the lessons they learn is that college coaching doesn’t fly in the NBA.
So if you are an NBA team hiring a college coach, the first thing on the agenda has to be making sure the coach understands this ain’t Kentucky no more.