Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Updated: March 31, 3:21 PM ET
Pitino's moment of truth
By Bill Simmons
Note: With Rick Pitino's Louisville team making the Final Four, I thought it would be interesting to look back at three Pitino-related columns from my old website in Boston. This third column was written one month after he resigned, on February 8, 2001, as interim coach Jim O'Brien was improbably turning the team around. Unlike the other two columns, I didn't have to tinker with this one -- it was pretty clean.
You know it's killing him.
He probably wakes up in the morning, slips on a $200 bathrobe and some $150 slippers, brushes his teeth, walks downstairs to the first floor of his mammoth estate, opens his front door, finds his Miami Herald, turns to the sports section ... and just starts muttering to himself. After all, when you jump off a sinking ship, isn't the ship supposed to, you know, sink?
(Hmmmm ... maybe it wasn't the ship.)
Nope. It couldn't have been him. Impossible. It was them. They were selfish. They wanted "more touches." They wouldn't reverse the ball. They weren't ready to make a committment to defense. They didn't listen. And the fans ... all the negativity in that town sucked. Terrible situation. Hopeless cause. Sinking ship. Wasn't his fault.
And yet he can't stop thinking about it. What's going on up there? So he puts aside some time on Wednesday night to watch them play Milwaukee. No way they hang with the Bucks. Can't match up. Too many shooters. Milwaukee killed them when he was there. Terrible matchup. They'll go into the break at 21-28, that 8-game road trip will cripple them and that will be the end of it.
The Jim O'Brien Era? Hah! He taught O'Brien everything. O'Brien was his lackey. Saved him after the disaster in Dayton, saved his friend's rear end, gave him his old job back at Kentucky, even weaseled the highest assistant salary in NBA history for him. It's not O'Brien ... it's the players. They're playing harder so they can stick it to him, because he left. This is payback time. They'll flame out. This team has no heart -- he knows it. That's why he left. He couldn't help but notice how Toronto manhandled them on Monday night. Here comes the slump. First Milwaukee will beat them, then the All-Star Break will kill all their momentum ... and that killer West Coast swing is looming. Let's see if they're talking about The Great Jim O'Brien in three weeks. Contract extension? He'll be lucky to make it through the season.
He goes through the rest of his day. Eighteen holes of golf. Eighty-degree weather. Lunch at the club. His friends tell him how he looks 100 times better since he left Boston. The bags under his eyes are gone, the pasty complexion replaced by a golden tan. He feels his mojo slowly returning. He contemplates a few speaking gigs, where he can earn some quick cash discussing the failure in Boston, how it humbled him, how he learned about life from those spoiled players who wouldn't listen to him. He can tell the Lottery story, how he thought they were getting Duncan and Van Horn. Dammit. Duncan would have changed everything. Just goes to show you ... you never know. A little luck goes a long way. In Boston, he was snakebitten from the start. Yup. That was it.
He returns home in the late-afternoon and spends time with his wife and kids. They head out for an early-dinner and return in time for the opening tip of the Bucks-Celts game. His family scatters; it's just him and Direct TV.
And he watches ...
And he watches...
And it's a different team.
Walker and Pierce, Walker and Pierce, Walker and Pierce. They're everywhere. Everything runs through them, every possession, every decision, everything. It's their team. And they're playing harder than he's ever seen them -- much more focused, almost possessed -- and well, it just doesn't make sense.
It goes deeper. He keeps watching ... and things keep jumping out...
The vaunted press? Gone. Kaput. O'Brien had been urging him for months to dump it. Said it tired out Walker and Pierce. Said they needed to keep those guys on the court as much as possible, at least 40 minutes a game. Said it was their team. Said they would respond with the added responsibility. Maybe he should have listened...
The roster? Chopped down. No more Bomb Squad. The best players play as much as possible. Three or four guys come off the bench for limited minutes, just to spot the starters. Everything revolves around Walker and Pierce. Walker and Pierce, Walker and Pierce, Walker and Pierce.
The rotation? According to the announcers, everybody gets an assigned amount of minutes these days. For instance, Vitaly comes in at the six-minute mark of the first and third quarters and plays eight-minute stretches. And that's every game. Maybe that's why he isn't looking over his shoulder at the bench every two minutes.
The defense? Who are these guys? This certainly couldn't be the same team he coached, right? Look at all the deflections, the rotations, the floorburns ... these guys are beyond inspired. Could the press really have worn them out that much? Are they communicating better because he's not screaming instructions at them?
The coach? Seems pretty laid back. You can barely hear him. Almost like he rolled the ball out and let the players play. Hmmmm.
The crowd? Going bonkers. Crazy. Wildly supportive. Best crowd since Opening Night in '97. Why didn't they cheer like that when he was there? Heck, they're even cheering Antoine! Where did these fans come from? Didn't Celtic Pride expire with the Garden?
The players? Suddenly they don't look so terrible. When did Eric Williams become an upper-echelon defensive player? When did Vitaly start banging bodies again like he did in Cleveland? Where does Milt Palacio get off logging crunch-time minutes? Does Mark Blount always seem to be around the rim or is it just tonight? And where were these guys when he was there?
Pierce? A different guy. Playing hard on both ends, just like when he was a rookie. Right now he looks like the best small forward in the league. Maybe he wasn't reaching Pierce? Even if they got along off the court, was it possible that he failed to inspire Pierce as a basketball player? Did Pierce just start tuning him out?
Antoine? Totally focused, totally determined. Keeping the Celts in the game even though Pierce can't throw a penny in the ocean right now. The box scores claim that Antoine turned into a legitimate "25/10/7" guy every night ... now he's seeing it with his own eyes. Yup. That jerk waited until he left town before turning into a franchise guy. Look at him. Leader on the floor. Never acting out. Dropped the "Hey, look at me!" attitude and just seems to care about winning games. When he's playing like this, there's nobody in the league quite like him -- a power forward who runs the offense, shoots threes and scores inside. What's left? And why now? Did Walker just start tuning him out?
Now it's crunch-time ...
He finds himself rooting for these guys ... they were his guys, after all. All of them. Even if he didn't want them. He sees Pierce willing himself to the line time and time again. That's intelligent, heads-up basketball; the guy doesn't have his jumper tonight so he's getting to the stripe. And Walker keeps making the right decisions -- spinning the right way on the double teams, reversing the ball, driving to the basket with the right mismatch and so on. And the Celts keep hanging on to that lead. And that defense ... good God, they're holding the Bucks under 40% shooting! What's going on here?
He inches closer to the TV. He's pulling for them and he's dying inside, all at the same time. He sees the crowd standing and cheering ... makes him jealous. Three straight possessions in the final minute, Pierce gets to the line each time. Buries the free throws to boot. Williams forces a steal in the final seconds and the Bucks run out of time. It's over. They held off the freaking Bucks. Antoine finishes with a 36/13. Pierce misses 17 of 22 shots and still squeaks out 27 points. The team shot 35% and still won the game. Those are the best kind of victories, when you scratch out a "W" on an off-night. He remembers ... that used to happen at Kentucky all the time. Good teams always find a way to win. Always.
So why didn't it happen for him?
Deep down, he knows. He revolved the team around himself instead of Walker and Pierce. It was always his team. His team. Now? Walker and Pierce, Walker and Pierce, Walker and Pierce. They didn't want to win for him ... they wanted to win for themselves. That's the NBA. Players rule, coaches follow. That's just the way it is. In college, you're driving a race car -- hands on every step of the way -- but coaching an NBA team is like steering a boat. In other words, the boat does most of the work; you just have to guide it in the right direction and rely on your equipment. That's it.
Maybe that's why college was much more fun ... and maybe that's why he never belonged in the NBA in the first place. Just because you can drive a race car doesn't mean you know how to drive a boat. He knows this now. And as he watches the players celebrating ... suddenly, he feels it. A sinking tug in his stomach. The moment of truth.
It wasn't them. It was me.
End of an Error
Note: This column was written on January 8, 2001.
Doesn't seem that long ago. Halloween, 1997. Opening Night. The defending champs in town. Day One of the Pitino Era. Hottest ticket in years. Even the loathsome FleetCenter had a special buzz that night. No small feat.
My buddy Chip and I were watching from midcourt, throwing down Sam Adams as the Celts fell behind by 20 to the decidely uninterested Bulls. The whole night seemed a little overwhelming for Antoine and the boys -- too much pressure, too much noise, too much MJ and Scottie, too much too soon -- and they were folding in front of everyone. You could hear Chicago fans sprinkled around the arena, erupting after every Bulls basket. A wave of disappointment started to sweep through the building: "Oh no ... we may have a $50 million coach, but we still stink." You could feel it.
Rick Pitino never stopped working on the sidelines. I remember watching Coach P that night -- really watching him, studying him, taking in everything he did -- then nudging my buddy and telling him, "See that. Look at him. He looks like a real coach, doesn't he?" After suffering through two years of the Joke That Was ML Carr, it felt like dying and going to basketball heaven. This guy knew what he was doing. And there was something special about him, the way he carried himself, the twinkle in his eye, the way he was dressed, the way he clapped, the way he screamed at officials, everything.
I remember saying that some people just seem like they should be famous, like Bird, Jordan, even Pat Riley. They carry themselves differently than the rest of us, make you feel privileged just to be sitting in the same room. I have always gotten a special rush from seeing talented artists in action, whether it's an athlete, an actor, a singer, a comedian or whatever ... and Pitino seemed to fit the bill. Seeing him prance along the sidelines, hollering out instructions, changing plays, prodding his players, riding the officials and generally carrying on, he gave me a that unexpected thrill we get from watching someone exceed our expectations, when we say to ourselves, "Man, I'm not sure of many things in life, but I'm sure of one thing -- that person is good."
And then a strange thing happened: The Celtics started clawing back in the third quarter. Pitino's vaunted press forced a few turnovers, igniting him and his team. Suddenly he was hopping around like a 4th-grader with A.D.D., screaming out defensive calls like "WHITE! WHITE!" and "RED! RED!" And then the crowd started to get excited, and you could feel that special buzz in the stands again. Once the fans were involved, the young Celtics started flying around on that press as if their lives revolved around getting the basketball. The Bulls appeared to be old and tired; better yet, they looked like wanted no part of this game anymore. We were breaking their will. We were breaking the champs. Even Jordan looked like rattled, a sight so stunning that it defies description.
The crowd grew louder and louder (I'm talking Garden-level loud), and it kept building, a frenzy, and suddenly we were within two, and it felt like Game Friggin' Seven of the '84 Finals.
And then it happened.
The Celts forced another turnover as we screamed like a group of teenage girls at an N'Sync concert. (Larry Bird could have sprinted out of the tunnel wearing a #33 jersey and we couldn't have gone any louder). Antoine ended up with the ball on the right side of the court, with Jordan covering him, as everyone settled into an excited hush. Twan backed MJ down a few feet -- suspense building, the crowd ready to erupt -- and faked like he wanted to drive left towards the middle. Suddenly, Twan was spinning towards the baseline for a fall-away jumper ... a surprised MJ jumped out and fouled him ... the referee blew the whistle, but the shot was in the air ...
AND THE FOUL!
Almost like he had choreographed the whole thing, Antoine punctuated the basket by calmly performing The Wiggle right in MJ's face -- showing a watermelon-sized set of balls, but who cared? -- then adding a shriek and a fist pump as McCarty scurried over for a thunderous chest bump. Now we were jumping up and down, practically beside ourselves, and the Celtics were good again and ML was gone and we were beating the champs and everything was right with the world again. Celtics Pride, baby. I'm telling you, it was a GREAT moment.
That was the turning point. The boys held off the champs in the fourth quarter, sending everyone skipping towards the exits. We believed. We cheered as the players high-fived their way off the court. Pitino followed behind them, his face covered by an enormous grin, as the fans near the exit runway gave him a heartfelt ovation. He waved and pumped his fist, finally disappearing into the back and out of sight.
The Pitino Era had already peaked.
We had no idea.
I found myself thinking about that story on Saturday night during the tail end of the Miami-Boston game, a spiritless 28-point loss that doubled as Pitino's last night coaching the Celtics. Truth be told, he lost the team a long time ago; none of his Boston teams ever played as hard as they did in that first season, with the constant player movement taking an inevitable toll. There were just too many trades, too many rumors. Nobody felt safe. They liked him ... they didn't trust him. The fans turned on him as well. So did the media. There was something tragic about watching such a talented guy fail so miserably, so collossally, so spectacularly. You couldn't help but feel sorry for him, even though he skipped off with thirty million and left the franchise in such dreadful shape.
Near the end of the Miami game, there was a memorable moment when Paul Pierce came out and walked by Pitino on the bench, who inexplicably hugged Pierce and looked as if he might start sobbing on the sidelines. Pitino's face appeared pale and gaunt, years of defeat finally catching up to him over these past few months. His eyes were moist and looked red. His mouth clamped shut, like he was fighting off tears. He looked like a shell of himself, a guy at the end of his rope, a guy ready to quit, to give up, to walk away and never look back. And he did.
Drinking the Pitino Kool-Aid
Note: This column was written on March 2, 1998.
My two favorite television shows right now? "Beverly Hills 90210" and "The Rick Pitino Show." Sure, they don't have much in common. Pitino's show doesn't have anything resembling fake breasts, drug use or wanton sexual misconduct (unfortunately, Channel 4 edits those things out). There isn't any Ian Ziering-caliber bad acting in Pitino's show either, unless you count all the times that co-host Bob Lobel forces himself to laugh at Coach P's jokes.
So what does "The Rick Pitino Show" have? Rick Pitino, easily the most mesmerizing television presence this side of Anthony Robbins. When Pitino explains something in detail -- with a confident smile, bulging eyes, and an approving nod -- you start to feel like the people of Guyana when Jim Jones wanted everyone to drink poison. He could convince Kenneth Starr that Clinton never got naked with Lewinsky. He could convince Bob Costas to hate baseball. Hell, he could convince the guys on the Patriots defense that Drew Bledsoe's not a wuss. Rick Pitino is John Wooden, Michael Corleone, and David Koresh all rolled into one.
Last night's "Pitino Show" was the best episode of the year. In case you missed it, here's what transpired:
SEGMENT ONE (11:35 PM):
Our first glimpse of Pitino and Lobel, coming on tape from the team's practice facility at Brandeis. Pitino is wearing a white Celtics t-shirt and green warmup pants. A whistle hangs around his neck. He looks very coach-like. Lobel is wearing a green-and-white striped sweater covering a white turtleneck, with khakis and white sneakers and a happy, "Who's up for some drinks after the taping?" glow about him.
The Kenny Anderson trade is the first topic of conversation. Coach P describes the team's "road trip from hell" -- eight games on the West Coast in 13 days, with a major trade thrown right in the middle. He describes the mechanics of the trade: Anderson became available because he refused a trade to Toronto, then Pitino called around the league to find out about his personality and learned that, on a Portland team full of "characters," Anderson was apparently one of the sane ones. Of course, this is like saying Nicolas Cage was the only sane passenger on "Con Air," but it's good to hear nontheless.
Coach P mentions that his first Knicks team had a similar record to this year's Boston team, and that team ended up making the playoffs. Hmmm. He thinks they need 42-43 wins to get the eighth seed, which seems attainable. And as Coach P astutely notes, "Any time you talk about a team that can beat Seattle and L.A. on the road (AKA the Celts), maybe we can WIN in the playoffs."
At this point, I'm sitting on my sofa nodding to myself, as if that made all the sense in the world. Maybe we can WIN in the playoffs. Has a 15-win team ever made the Finals the next season? I actually wondered that in my living room. That's the power of Pitino. Maybe we can WIN in the playoffs. Why not? Stranger things have happened. Do you think we can get past Michael and the Bulls in a seven-game series? Maybe if Antoine gets hot and he carries us ... maybe we can win ... maybe we can win ... maybe we can WIN in the playoffs ...
SEGMENT TWO (11:43 PM):
Now we're in the locker room looking at Coach P and Lobel in front of a chalkboard. The chalkboard lists all seven players in the trade (guys we gave up on the left, guys we got on the right) and looks something like this:
Billups ------ Anderson ----- $2.8
Pitino proceeds to recount each reason why the Celtics made the Kenny Anderson trade, with startling efficiency, like he's giving a dissertation on the five reasons how Jack Kennedy avoided war with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It takes about 200 seconds in all:
1. The Celtics had salary cap problems. Other NBA teams offered to take on some of Boston's useless big-money contracts (AKA Dee Brown, Greg Minor, or Pervis Ellison), but only if the Celts gave up one of their rookies (Chauncey Billups or Ron Mercer) in the deal. Pitino had two goals for any potential trade: "Create cap room and get value for value." In other words, they weren't giving up Chauncey unless they got a good player back, too.
(Sounds good. I'm already sold.)
2. As Pitino says, "It would take Chauncey 4 or 5 years to get to the level that Kenny Anderson is at right now, so we improved our team immediately." He also believes Kenny "will be an All-Star in our system."
(Absolutely! At this point, I'm starting to think Kenny Anderson is Isiah Thomas, Tiny Archibald, and Tim Hardaway all rolled into one.)
3. The Celts gave up four players and received only one one player signed through next season (Anderson). This move created an additional $2.8 million in cap room, which will give the C's $4-to-5 million to spend this summer on a free agent. Therefore, it's almost like getting a player-to-be-named later in the trade -- whichever free agent the team signs this summer.
(Seriously, this trade is starting to sound like the Lufthansa heist. I hope this trade doesn't end up with Zan Tabak's body found frozen in a meat truck.)
4. Because every rookie becomes a free agent after three seasons, the Celts faced a situation in which Walker (a two-year player) and the rookies (Billups and Mercer) would all be signing big contracts 12 months apart before the end of the century. With Anderson already signed through 2003, the team only needs to re-sign Mercer and Walker for big money down the road.
(Personally, this sounds like a load of crap, but I'll buy it because Pitino would never lie ... ummm ... would he?)
5. As part of Toronto's previous deal with Portland, the Blazers are paying Anderson's contract for this season and next season ($6.7 million). More money for Antoine? More money for a free agent?
(Okay, it's official: This was the greatest trade in the history of sports. And Pitino never even mentioned the most important part of the deal -- the fact that Anderson will be able to create shots for players like Walker and Mercer, which Billups couldn't do.)
Speaking of Billups, Lobel then asks Pitino about giving up on a young player like Billups, the third pick in the 1997 Draft who played just 50 games in a Celtics uniform before Pitino traded him, mostly because he couldn't play point guard in an up-tempo offense. Pitino's response?
"It wasn't giving up on a young player because we thought he was fantastic!"
That answer was the equivalent of the final scene of "The Godfather," when Michael's wife asks Michael if he had his brother-in-law Carlo killed: "Is it true, Michael? Is it true?"
And Michael says, "We didn't have Carlo killed! We thought he was fantastic!"
Remember, Carlo wasn't a true point guard either.
SEGMENT 3 (11:50 PM):
Brown ------ Jones (FA) ----- $4.0
Thomas ----- Tabak (FA) ----- $6.7
This is the best segment of the show, when Coach P gives coaching tips and does coach things. Today we're discussing "how to defend pick-and-rolls" in the Brandeis practice gym, and Pitino is forcing Greg Minor, Dana Barros, Andrew DeClercq, and Ron Mercer to participate. Just as an aside, what other NBA coach could make four of his players participate in a televised drill for local sports show? That's the power of Coach P.
We see Mercer guarding Barros and Minor guarding DeClercq. They all have stupid grins on their faces, looking like they might wave into the camera to say hi to their girlfriends. For the next five minutes Mercer and Minor demonstrate the three ways the Celtics defend the pick-and-roll play:
1. "Blitzing" the point guard.
2. "Hedging over and sprinting out."
3. "Hedging out and then sliding underneath."
I'll explain the three theories using the Store 24 in Charlestown as an example. Let's say I walked into Store 24 to buy a USA Today with my buddy J-Bug. As I pick up the newspaper about ten feet from the cash register, I notice two old ladies meandering inside the store, ready to purchase about 200 lottery tickets each. This means I'll be waiting in line behind them for at least eight hours, and all for a lousy USA Today. So J-Bug and I must figure out a way to prevent these ladies from getting in line before us. I take the bigger lady with black hair who also might buy cigarettes (she's setting the pick); J-Bug takes the smaller lady who's holding $200 in cash in her hands and eyeing the lottery machine (she has the ball).
We have three choices:
1. Before the Big Lady sets the pick on J-Bug, we dart out in front of them and "blitz" the Cash Lady. We let the Big Lady roll off and head towards the register because we don't mind giving up a pack of cigarettes. Then we double-team the Cash Lady, beat her into submission, and steal her money.
2. As the Big Lady sets the pick, J-Bug "hedges" over in front of the pick and "sprints out", forcing the double-team on the Cash Lady. There's a chance she might try and toss the cash over our heads to the Big Lady, who's rolling towards the register -- that's why we must keep our hands in the air and stay in Cash Lady's face. Then we'll beat her into submission and steal her money.
3. The Big Lady sets the pick and J-Bug "hedges over and slides" underneath her, keeping himself between the cash register and the Cash Lady. I also hedge over and slide, keeping myself between the big lady and the register. We still have position on them and nothing's really happened. This way, we can turn and dart for the register so I can pay for my newspaper before they get there.
Personally, I like the option #2 -- "the hedge and sprint-out" -- because we force the issue and potentially might get a turnover. But that's just me.
(Did I mention I love "The Rick Pitino Show?")
The final segment brings Pitino and Lobel into the studio to answer fan mail (a chance for Coach P to show his "lighter" side). Today's questions come from the Boston Red Sox spring training camp in Fort Myers!
First off, Sox outfielder Darren Bragg asks about good Italian food places in Boston. Where should he go? Pitino tells him that there's a million great places in the North End, but he should definitely try Old Cantina, Pagliuca's and Filipo's. And you should never forget about Davio's or Ciao Bello. Adds Lobel, "Tell 'em Rick sent you ... and he'll pick up the tab." Yuk yuk yuk. Where's the laugh track?
That's followed by Sox infielder Tim Naehring asking the Coach, "How do you stay out of (The Boston Herald's) 'Inside Track'?"
This question is funny on three levels. First of all, Tim Naehring is always in the "Inside Track" because he's a ladies man and hits the town all the time. Second, the "Inside Track" gals worship him and keep his baseball card in their purses. When rumors were flying around last November that Naehring was getting traded to Cleveland, they both went on anti-depressant medication. Finally, Pitino has made the "Track" about 50 times since he was hired last spring anyway ... but it's never "good" gossip; it's always stuff like "We hear that Rick Pitino ordered not one but TWO cannolis at Cafe Pomidoro last night!"
Pitino's response to Naehring: "Stay at home, read a good book, turn on some music, watch TV ... stay out of Daisy Buchanan's and Faneuil Hall, stay out of all the hot spots, and you won't be in the 'Inside Track.' Then again, if I were single I'd love to be in the 'Inside Track!' I'd be right with you, Timmy!"
(Note to the Track Gals: Is that an open challenge to you or what? You're not taking that sitting down, are you?)
Finally, Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette asks Pitino, "What's Bob Lobel like to work with?" This is an apparent reference to the fact that Duquette and Lobel are rumored to be teaming up on a weekly show (along the lines of Pitino's show), which should be the most successful NBC programming decision since "Manimal."
Pitino uses the question to lay into Lobel AND Duquette: "Well Dan, Bob's the life of the party here. He lights up a room when he leaves it. The two of your personalities will really knock 'em dead here in Boston." Then he calmly pulls out a gun, shoots a bullet through Lobel's head and walks off the screen. Okay, I made that last sentence up. But that's Rick Pitino, the most mesmerizing presence in television today. And maybe his show doesn't have fake breasts, drug use, and wanton sexual misconduct like "90210." But in a mere thirty minutes, the following things that happened:
Coach P made the 1998 NBA Finals seem like a reasonable goal for a Celtics team that can't even win three consecutive games. He detailed every facet of the Kenny Anderson trade in less than 200 seconds and made it seem like highway robbery. He demonstrated how to defend against the pick-and-roll in less than 300 seconds. He lied about "giving up" on Chauncey Billups with a straight face. He listed some fine Italian restaurants in the Boston-area. He warned Tim Naehring about the gossip sheets. And he managed to insult Bob Lobel and Dan Duquette at the same time.
Maybe next week, he can tell Noah from "90210" how to get out of this whole "date rape" thing with Valerie
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.