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Rick Pitino fondly recalls Celtics years

Decorated college coach Rick Pitino said he learned his lessons in the pros.

kevin c. cox/getty images

Decorated college coach Rick Pitino said he learned his lessons in the pros.

The man in those pristine white suits, looking like a descendant of Colonel Sanders on the sideline of the KFC Yum! Center, is headed to Springfield this weekend for induction into theBasketball Hall of Fame.

Those suits are an indication of Rick Pitino’s passion for the University of Louisville. So is the Pitino who stood at the foot of Kevin Ware’s bed with the Midwest Regional championship trophy after the Cardinals forward awoke from surgery to repair a horrifying broken right tibia suffered in a March victory over Duke.

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The Pitino we see now is quite different than the one who strutted into Boston coming off a national championship and NCAA Finals appearance at the University of Kentucky, personally anointing himself the man who was going to change the fortunes of a declining franchise that was quickly becoming insignificant.

He had NBA success with the New York Knicks in the 1980s and admittedly assumed he would exceed those accomplishments when he took over the Celtics. It was four mostly miserable years, a period in which the organization was attempting to compete with the Bulls, Lakers, and Spurs while deep in an organization upheaval and devoid of talent.

Pitino has led three schools — Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville — to Final Four appearances and is one of the most decorated and respected coaches in NCAA history. His induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame was hardly a surprise, but the 60-year-old Pitino, hair graying, 35 years into his coaching career and coming off an impressive national championship run, reflected on his four-year tenure in Boston as the turning point in his career.

It served as a warning for college coaches that the NBA is a different species, with salary caps, disgruntled players and their posses. It taught Pitino he is better at convincing parents in a rural Kentucky home to allow their child to start his next phase of life at Louisville than crossing his fingers for good luck in the NBA draft lottery.

Turning point

Although Pitino’s years with the Celtics are viewed as an abject failure for the organization and coach, one the Celtics would not recover from for a half-decade, Pitino considers that period as one that humbled him and prepared him for the success he now enjoys at Louisville.

In three-plus seasons with Boston, the Celtics were 102-146, missing the playoffs in his first three seasons. Pitino resigned after a 112-86 loss at Miami on Jan. 6, 2001. He retreated to his Miami-area home and never returned to Boston, as promised, to address the media.

Two months later, he accepted the coaching position at the University of Louisville.

“I think it sort of defined me in the end because there [were] probably two things missing in my life as a coach,” he said Thursday in a phone interview from New York. “One was humility and the other one was failure. We took over a 15-win team before we got there and I banked everything on getting Tim Duncan [in the draft]. And when that didn’t happen, you failed them. But I left there understanding that there’s nothing wrong with failure if you learned the lesson of why you failed, and the other thing is it taught me great humility of why you win and why you lose.

“I think I wouldn’t be complete today if I didn’t learn that. To me, Boston was, although it wasn’t the success stories of all the other programs, it was probably the most lessons learned in my life. To me, it was a great experience.”

Bad bounce

The word “great” is relative. For Pitino, the Celtics experience taught him that even the most brilliant and astute coach can’t single-handedly lead a franchise to prosperity. He needed help, he needed luck, and he needed patience. And he had none during that time, partly because he pushed away those who wanted to aid in the resurrection of the Celtics.

“You pick yourself up, you don’t blame anybody and you don’t point any fingers and you say ‘OK, what can you do better this time around?’ and that’s exactly what I did,” he said. “For about a couple of months, I blamed the Ping-Pong balls, I blamed it being on unlucky, I blamed it on everything but the truth.

“The [fact of the] matter is I didn’t do a good enough job as an executive. It also taught me about wearing a lot of hats, focusing on what you can do. It was a class organization. They treated me great. I [had] nothing but great things to say about it when Brad [Stevens] got the job. It’s just that it didn’t work out for me, but it did work out for me because without the Celtics, I wouldn’t have learned all about failure and all about humility.”

Being general manager and coach was too much responsibility. Coaching, working with young men and wrapping up his game program in his right hand, smacking it on the floor and pushing his team to increase the fury of his full-court press was his passion.

“Being at Louisville going on 13 years now, and it feels like it was yesterday,” he said. “That means you’re having a lot of fun.”

Pro education

Pitino says the Louisville experience is challenging. Convincing recruits to stay in school past one season and dealing with teenage support systems who are banking on the player’s NBA success is stressful, as is the pursuit of the nation’s top talent.

“That’s probably the thing I learned most about Boston; I had to throw darts at myself that I was very impatient because I wanted to win, wanted to win, wanted to win,” he said. “You don’t learn. The NBA is a very impatient way of doing it and you have to look at the way you make trades, the way you draft, everybody wants it now. That was one of the things I took away was patience.”

Pitino admits his lack of patience and arrogance caused him to trade Chauncey Billups after just 51 games, a move that eventually exemplified the hastiness of the Pitino era. Yet, he was faced with a similar situation at Louisville, when he recruited a high-scoring guard out of Franklin High School in Seattle named Peyton Siva.

Siva arrived at Louisville with more Allen Iverson in his game than Rajon Rondo and a troublesome freshman year sparked those Billups memories.

“When you’re young and not as good as the other people, it takes time and it takes patience,” Pitino said. “Looking back on it today, if I could live in the past, I would have said I’m going to be patient and make this young man into a point guard. [For Siva], I said, ‘He’s going to be a point guard someday. We’re going to be patient.’ Those are the lessons that I learned from the Chauncey Billups thing.”

Pitino arrives in Springfield a made man. He will be greeted by a large group of his former players to celebrate his accomplishment. Winning never gets old, especially with kids too young to remember Providence, the Knicks, Kentucky, or even the Celtics. Pitino’s incoming freshman class was 6 years old when he began at Louisville.

And Pitino is proudly not the man he was 15 years ago. He has been rejuvenated — and humbled.

“I’m probably more passionate in the last three years than I’ve ever been since working at age 24 at Boston University,” he said. “But I’m passionate for the right reasons. I’m actually at a really good place right now and I understand that my window is closing but passion is probably as [high] as it has ever been.

“Humility is what makes teams great. I’ve preached it for a long period of time.”

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