I remember very clearly the day the Boston Celtics hired Rick Pitino.
It was the first moment I discovered the concept of Celtic Pride. Too young to remember the Big Three, I grew up watching the Celtics fall apart. None of my memories were positive. Brian Shaw held out for a contract and missed an entire season by playing in Italy. Larry Bird was a broken warrior and eventually retired. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish began declining and retired or departed.died.
I watched the Acie Earl era, the Eric Montross era. I watched M.L. Carr fail miserably as general manager. I watched the FleetCenter open and the Boston Garden come down.
The only thing I knew about the Boston Celtics was that they had the most championships in the NBA, but I never saw a single one of them.
So when the Celtics hired Pitino, my generation was finally introduced to the concept of Celtic Pride. They brought in a guy with the brash and the bravado to take the Boston Celtics franchise back to the top. He had taken the Kentucky Wildcats to the Final Four's championship game, and he'd helped the New York Knicks win a division championship. He was a proven winner, and it was time for the Celtics to become winners again.
But instead of embracing and rebuilding Celtic Pride, he nearly destroyed it.
In 1996, the Boston Celtics bottomed out even as they rooted intense optimism. They traded center Eric Montross for two first round draft picks. The first was used in the '96 NBA Draft to select forward Antoine Walker. The second was Dallas' first round pick in the '97 Draft. After winning just 15 games, Boston had the best chance at the #1 overall pick. Those chances increased when Dallas finished with 24 wins. With Tim Duncan entering the draft, the thought process was that Pitino would come, get Duncan, and rebuild the team with two centerpiece youngsters.
That obviously didn't happen. San Antonio won the NBA Draft Lottery and took Duncan. The Celtics ended up with the third draft choice and selected Chauncey Billups. The Dallas draft pick wound up sixth, and Pitino, installed with full general manager and player personnel authority, picked Ron Mercer, who played for him at Kentucky. The next year, after improving Boston by 20 wins, he selected Paul Pierce after the Kansas product fell to the Celtics with the 10th pick. Even though he missed on Duncan, the assembled roster of Billups, Mercer, Pierce, and Walker formed the core of a team that, with the right development, could lead Boston back to the promised land.
Billups clashed with Pitino, who didn't know if he should be a point guard or a shooting guard and subsequently never developed him. He was sent packing after 50 games. Ron Mercer? After lying to the rest of the world so he could draft him, Pitino traded him after two seasons.
Pitino took the title of President away from Red Auerbach, essentially marginalizing one of the most recognizable and famous faces in NBA history. Already alienated, the fan base fast lost patience with a guy who promised the world and failed to deliver. After a few years of struggling, it led to his infamous press conference where he lashed out at the fans and his eventual departure in 2001. He said the team was "young and exciting," but four years in, they should've been contenders. Instead, they rebooted the reboot, which itself was a reboot of M.L. Carr's reboot.
As a youngster, it was the first time I realized how a guy can sell a bill of fake goods. Pitino sold himself to the Celtics as this basketball guru who built the Roman Empire at Kentucky. He came into town on this red carpet with fanfare, then threw away the past foundation on which the entire franchise was built. Doing so might've brought an initial rejuvenation at a time when the franchise needed an injection of life, but it eventually made him a rogue who turned his back on the rich tradition on which the foundation was built.
Less than ten years after Larry Bird retired, Pitino built a team that was no better than M.L. Carr, himself an unmitigated disaster as a general manager. For a guy who came into town promising the world, he failed to deliver and alienated everyone along the way. He marginalized the history of the franchise by essentially getting rid of Auerbach. Given complete control, he never built the team, then yelled at the fans growing impatient with his rebuilding of a rebuild of a rebuild. It would be like if the Yankees lost 90 games, gave complete control to someone, then continued to lose 90 games. At the same time, said guy would get rid of Old Timers' Day and tell Yogi Berra he wasn't welcome at Yankee Stadium anymore.
When Pitino left, he retreated to the college ranks, never to return to the NBA. He built Louisville into a national powerhouse. But people up here don't care about his national titles, his redemption, or even his Final Four as head coach of Providence. They remember him for nearly destroying the Celtics.
He mismanaged the salary cap, failed to build a core except for Pierce and Walker, and set the team back for another eight years. By the time it was fixed, the Celtics were 22 years removed from their previous championship. For a franchise who won championships in every decade dating back to the 1950s, Rick Pitino became the first man to manage the team through a title-less decade. Hell, even during the lean years of the late 1970s, there was hope on the horizon when Red Auerbach drafted Larry Bird a year before he left Indiana State. That never happened with Rick Pitino.
When Louisville comes to town, you can call me bitter, and you can call sour grapes. You can say the Celtics fixed the issue by winning a championship. But at a time when Celtic fans were desperately looking for a return to glory, Rick Pitino banked on getting Duncan with no backup plan for if and when it didn't happen.
Rick Pitino comes back to Boston on Wednesday with the Louisville Cardinals. For Boston College fans and students, it might be a chance to watch a top-echelon program for the first time. For me, it's a guy who all but murdered the central structure one of the most storied franchises in the city I grew up in. For a new generation, he was the first one who promised the world, then blamed everyone else. Bravado and Brash. It should've been called arrogance.