SPRINGFIELD — It took nearly 13 minutes into his speech during Sunday’s induction ceremonies at the Basketball Hall of Fame before Rick Pitino addressed his three-plus seasons coaching the Celtics.
Pitino initially gave the impression he would rather skip that forgettable period, as he jumped from talking about his tenure at Kentucky — calling it “Camelot” — to his current job coaching the University of Louisville.
It was understandable if he wished to omit the Celtics years. They weren’t pretty. There are still many Celtics fans who are bitter about the decisions he made during that time.
Pitino devised a brilliant way to discuss that tenure. He said he was taking pictures at Symphony Hall before the ceremony when Larry Bird walked in, and Pitino couldn’t pass on the opportunity to acknowledge the coincidence.
“He finally walks through the door,” Pitino said, in reference to his infamous March 1, 2000, postgame speech after a loss to Toronto, when he chastised Celtics fans for glorifying the past. “And I said, ‘What took you so long to walk through that door?’ And he said to me, ‘You don’t want me now.’
“You may wonder what I learned about the Boston Celtics. I am really, really grateful to them. I learned more than I gave. I didn’t give too much except leaving Jim O’Brien to master the helm. But I learned patience, humility, and a lot of people think it’s because of losing that you learn humility and it’s a major factor. I gained the humility because I had the greatest treat for four years.”
Pitino has enjoyed great success since resigning from the Celtics in January 2001. He has resurrected his career, emerging as one of the great college coaches of all-time. His speech mostly addressed those years at Boston University (1978-83), where he said the players called him “POP,” a name he was humbled by until he found out it stood for “Prisoners of Pitino,” describing his unrelenting practice schedule.
He talked about reaching the Final Four at Providence (1987) when it appeared he would never win a game in the Big East with coaches such as John Thompson, Jim Boeheim, Lou Carnesecca, and Rollie Massimino as rivals.
He talked about telling his wife they were going on a vacation to Kentucky after his tenure with the Knicks and sticking around even after athletic director C.M. Newton told him that the program was in ruins after a well-publicized probation. He touched on the 1996 national championship at Kentucky and then skipped to Louisville.
Would Pitino bypass his humbling stretch with the Celtics? But standing less than two hours from TD Garden, in the shadows of murals of Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, and Tommy Heinsohn, Pitino acknowledged that time, talking about a conversation he had with Auerbach, who was removed as president when Pitino took the reins of the organization in 1997.
“One night I called Red and said, ‘Red, it’s not going well. What advice do you have?’ ” Pitino said in his speech. Auerbach said he would ask his players, such as Russell, Heinsohn, and Cousy, what plays he should run.
Pitino said with a roster featuring players such as Travis Knight and Andrew DeClercq, that was nearly impossible. But he said he did ask Antoine Walker, Chauncey Billups, Ron Mercer, and Walter McCarty.
“ ‘How the hell would I know coach?’ ” Pitino said Walker told him. “ ‘You get paid to coach and we get paid to play.’ Verbatim.”
Pitino said he called Auerbach and he laughed hysterically at that story. Obviously times had changed. Players played. They weren’t students of the game. The strategy stuff was up to the coach.
“But I learned about humility with the Boston Celtics because of that legendary organization,” Pitino said. “When you see the way Bill Russell talks about the Celtics. When you see the way Cousy, Heinsohn, and John Havlicek carry themselves, you learn that’s the way you should act. Although I didn’t give too much to the Boston Celtics, I gained so much.”
Pitino spent nearly one-quarter of his speech on the Celtics. And it may be time for the Celtics faithful who dislike that era to forgive if not forget. The Celtics rebounded and eventually won an NBA championship.
Pitino made some poor roster moves in Boston, allowing his arrogance and impatience to have too much influence on the fate of the organization.
“We had a lot of fun moments; we had a lot of small accomplishments,” said McCarty, who played for Pitino at Kentucky and with the Celtics, and assisted him in Louisville. “But in the end, it wasn’t a fun time. It wasn’t the place for him, but I’m excited he’s found that place in Louisville.”
While the Celtics never got the best of Pitino, the experience in Boston made him a better coach and was critical to his improvement, which eventually led him toward the Hall of Fame. That’s why he spent five minutes on this biggest of days discussing his biggest failure.
Pitino should be commended for that and forgiven for his past Celtics transgressions. It was a painful time, one of transition, but the Celtics were a grand enough franchise to move forward and flourish, as did Pitino, which proves the two sides were a terrible fit but each was strong enough to move forward.