- The Washington Times - Friday, November 24, 2000

BOSTON The Boston Celtics handed Rick Pitino the most storied franchise in professional basketball. He might be ready to hand it back.

When Pitino was hired in 1997 his plan called for the franchise to be contending for championships by now. Instead, the Celtics president and coach is talking about resigning.

Pitino told his players after a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday that he is prepared to resign after this season.

"Come January, if we don't start playing better defense and we don't start executing better, I told them, 'You'll have a new coach next year,' " Pitino said Wednesday.

Pitino said he will meet with Celtics owner Paul Gaston in January to discuss his status.

This is hardly what anyone expected when the Celtics hired Pitino in 1997 after he took Kentucky from probation to a national championship and three Final Fours in eight seasons.

Pitino's ability to turn around struggling programs is what attracted the Celtics to the stylish coach. Pitino took a dormant Providence program and got it to the 1987 Final Four in just his second year. He took over the New York Knicks, a team that hadn't won more than 24 games in each of the previous three seasons, and in his first year guided it to a 38-44 record and a playoff berth in 1988. The Knicks went 52-30 and won the Atlantic Division the next season before Pitino took off for Kentucky.

The Celtics gave Pitino plenty of power and plenty of money. Pitino was made team president, with control over personnel decisions, and coach. He signed an extraordinary 10-year contract worth $50 million.

However the results have been only ordinary and deeply frustrating: a cumulative 90-124 record over three seasons, a .421 winning percentage and no playoff appearances. This season his team gives up 98.9 points per game, third worst in the NBA.

"Rick thinks he's coached this team as hard as it can possibly be coached, and they are just not responding," the Boston Globe quoted a source close to Pitino as saying. "He can't get them to play the game the way he wants them to play it.

"Some nights, they listen and play the way he wants them to play. Another game, it will be just the opposite. After that game [Monday], he was really down because he thought they could get back into the game in the second half by being patient, and they just went out and threw up a bunch of 3-pointers."

Before this season, the Celtics again had high hopes. They had a good, young core of players that includes forwards Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce and center Tony Battie. They had a salary cap situation that would allow them to sign free agents. And they were playing in a conference devoid of dominant teams.

But the Celtics (5-6 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference) stumbled out of the gate.

Some in the organization say Pitino's screaming has turned off players; last season, he blasted players, fans and his team for it's failure to execute. Some also say that his players refuse to embrace his trapping and pressing defense.

"It's just a natural process that has got to take its course. Someone has to teach these guys how to play," Celtics great Tom Heinsohn said. "Coaches are coaches. When I played and I played on eight championship teams in nine years you think Red Auerbach didn't scream? And these were teams that were winning championships.

"The problem is that you're seeing an expression of babies, not grown-up players. Too many people are telling them they're great before they are great."

But Pitino and his players downplay talk of friction.

"We all enjoy each other. It's a tight-knit group," Pitino said.

Said guard Bryant Stith: "[Pitino's threat to resign] came totally out of the blue, and it caught me off guard. But we have [71] games left that we can change his mind. That's my every intention."

Pitino is rumored to be interested in returning to the college ranks if the Celtics do not meet his expectations this year.

Pitino dismisses that speculation.

"Right now the only thing I'm concerned with is rebuilding this franchise," Pitino said last week. "When I took over this team, they had won 15 games the previous season. I think we have continued to improve and we'll see where we are at the end of the season."

He knows where they aren't. The Celtics are far from on the course he expected them to be by this time. Pitino's plan called for postseason appearances in his third and fourth seasons and championship-caliber play by his fifth and sixth.

Pitino's frustration at that lack of progress is obvious.

"I'm still optimistic about the situation here, mainly because that's me and I don't really know any other way to be," Pitino said. "I've seen that optimism has a way of backfiring on you if your goals don't come in. It can be a bitter pill, especially while you're young and rebuilding."

As Pitino moves forward with this season, nobody has ever questioned his commitment to winning. What has been questioned is his extreme confidence he could rebuild a struggling franchise quickly, and his public declarations that his pattern of winning would certainly continue in Boston.

"I think Rick and the Celtics are far ahead of the curve from the rest of the league. The Celtics are doing what every team is going to have to do: Take young players and teach them how to play," Heinsohn said. "Some of these teams have gotten young players, one player, potentially two, and they Band-Aid with washed up over-30 type big guys.

"Everyone's desperate now. The problem Pitino is faced with is that everyone's comparing now with the past. Nobody was faced with what Pitino is faced with. Years ago the talent pool was much greater, more experienced, better trained than it is right now. You got high school kids and underclassmen dominating the draft. Who teaches them how to play? They're paying them like bank presidents. Someone's got to teach them how to be a bank teller."

There was speculation at the end of last season that Pitino would quit. But, after a meeting with Gaston in New York, it was decided Pitino would stay.

Now, less than a month into this season, Pitino again is talking about walking. If he did resign after the season, he would walk away from nearly $30 million.

But for a man used to winning Pitino has had four losing seasons in 20 as a college and pro coach the walk might be worth it.

"All I would be doing if I stayed at that point is trying to take Paul Gaston's money," Pitino said. "If I don't see a major difference in our ballclub and we're still struggling, I think enough's enough. What I will do is just go on and try my next job and wish everybody well."

• This story based in part on wire reports.

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