In eight years at Kentucky, Rick Pitino transformed a team that was in shambles into one of the premier college basketball programs in the country. And that kind of challenge, Pitino said, is why he is heading back to the NBA to coach the Boston Celtics.
After weeks of speculation, Pitino officially said "yes" to the Celtics yesterday, accepting a contract that's worth a reported $70 million over the next 10 years.
In signing the NBA's most lucrative coaching contract, he also will become the team's director of basketball operations and reportedly will receive 3 percent ownership interest in the team.
He announced his decision during a news conference in Lexington, Ky.
"It's been eight wonderful, wonderful years," Pitino said. "This just crystallized in the last week. I thought about it very seriously and came to the understanding that I couldn't and shouldn't turn down the opportunity, because it's the same one I had eight years ago."
This will be Pitino's second stint as an NBA coach. In 1987, he left Providence to coach the New York Knicks, leading them to a 38-44 record and a playoff berth in his first year. The next season, the Knicks won 52 games and the Atlantic Division title.
The courting of Pitino by NBA teams had almost become an annual ritual. Last year, after leading Kentucky to the NCAA title, he was offered a lucrative contract as coach and director of operations of the New Jersey Nets, a deal that also included part-ownership of the team and control of player personnel.
Pitino was close to accepting the job, but chose to remain at Kentucky, where he led the Wildcats to the 1997 championship game, which they lost to Arizona.
Pitino said yesterday that he didn't even think about coaching in the NBA again until former Celtics great Larry Bird, a team consultant, brought up the idea in a phone conversation little more than a week ago.
"I didn't know what was behind it," Pitino recalled. "I had very little interest. I didn't know the owner [Paul Gaston]."
Everything was set in motion last Wednesday when M. L. Carr resigned as head coach. Within several days, Pitino met with Gaston.
"I felt he had integrity and honesty," Pitino said of Gaston. "And I thought he had a strong thirst and desire to win."
That was enough for Pitino to seriously consider returning to New England, where he had spent 11 years -- four as a player at Massachusetts, five as coach at Boston University and two as coach at Providence. Pitino's record in college is 317-124 (.719), with one national championship and three trips to the Final Four.
Pitino, who said he made up his mind on Monday night, takes over a Celtics team that finished the regular season at 15-67, second worst in the league to the Vancouver Grizzlies (14-68). Boston's 4-37 road record was the worst in the NBA, and only a win in the last week over the Philadelphia 76ers helped it avoid becoming the first team in league history to fail to win a division game.
Before he made his decision, Pitino spent the previous two days speaking to his Kentucky players.
"I wanted to talk to them about the feelings they had, because they're important," Pitino said. "I waffled back and forth for the last 48 hours. I expressed to them why I wanted to move on. I told them their loyalties are to the next coach and program.
"We built an incredible house here. If we don't stay at the same level as we have the past two years, then I haven't built a very strong house."
Pitino's signing with the Celtics is the second big-money NBA coaching contract in as many days. On Monday, Larry Brown, who resigned as the coach of the Indiana Pacers last week, signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Pitino's and Brown's deals this week, along with the multimillion-dollar contracts given last season to the Miami Heat's Pat Riley and the New Jersey Nets' John Calipari, might be a sign to players that coaches will not be easily removed for poor performances. Pitino said he doesn't think he'll have any problems coaching in the NBA today.
"I'm not a big believer in players are different, younger players are different," Pitino said. "Young kids always change, but you have to change with them as a basketball coach."
Pitino said joining Boston "is probably the last move I'll make coaching." He described the lure of the Celtics as "magical."
"If it's successful, we will grow old with the Celtics," Pitino said.
"I can't promise a championship next year. [Celtics Hall of Famer] Bob Cousy made a statement recently that he didn't think he would see another championship in his lifetime. I hope Bob lives a long, long time. And I do believe Bob Cousy will live to see another championship."
Rick Pitino file
Date of birth: Sept. 18, 1952
Hometown: New York City
Family: Married to Joanne Minardi Pitino. They have five children.
College: University of Massachusetts (1974)
Head coaching positions: Boston University (1978-83), Providence College (1985-87), New York Knicks (1987-89) and University of Kentucky (1989-present) Assistant coaching positions: University of Hawaii (1974-76), Syracuse University (1976-78) and New York Knicks (1983-85)
Coaching achievements: Led Providence to NCAA Final Four in 1987 and Kentucky in 1993, 1996 and 1997, winning national title in 1996. Coached Knicks to NBA Atlantic Division title in 1989.
Books: Author of "Born to Coach," "Full-Court Pressure: A Year in Kentucky Basketball" and "Success is a Choice."
The highest-paid coaches in the four major sports:
Coach, Team, Sport, Avg. sal.
Pitino, Celtics, NBA, $7M
Parcells, Jets, NFL, $3.3M
Leyland, Marlins, MLB, $1.5M
Lemaire, Devils, NHL, $.75M
Note: Average salary is per year. Parcells' salary is unofficial.
Pub Date: 5/07/97