In Reluctant Appreciation of Rick Pitino

The ex-Celtics coach leads Louisville to an NCAA title.

For Boston fans, the Rick Pitino era wasn’t much fun. Under his watch, the Celtics didn’t make the playoffs a single time. Pitino made his fair share of personnel mistakes—trading Chauncey Billups four months into his rookie season wasn’t wise—but got pretty unlucky, too. Right after he arrived in Boston in 1997, the Celtics lost out on a chance to draft Tim Duncan.

On Monday night, I found myself watching Pitino closely. During the NCAA championship game, in which his Louisville Cardinals beat Michigan, 82-76, he didn’t crack a single smile. Also: he was white as a ghost. (Seriously, he looked almost vampiric.) And when the final buzzer sounded, he nearly dove for cover when a nearby confetti cannon went off. I guess that’s just Rick Pitino. Tightly wound until the end.

That doesn’t mean he’s not occasionally entertaining. Case in point, this epic Pitino press conference from the winter of 2000. The Celtics were struggling back then, and he was sick of what he considered unfair treatment by the media. It remains one of my favorite moments from his tenure in Boston:

You’re the people being negative. And some of the fans. Larry Bird is not walking through that door. Kevin McHale’s not walking through that door. Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through the door, they’re going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hard-working and we’re going to improve. People don’t realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off.

I wish we had $90 million under the salary cap. I wish we could buy the world. We can’t. The only thing we can do is work hard. And all this negativity that’s in this room sucks. I’ve been around when Jim Rice was booed. I’ve been around when Yastrzemski was booed and it stinks. It makes the greatest city in the world lousy. The only thing that will turn this around is being upbeat and positive like we are in that locker room … And if you think I’m going to succumb to negativity, you’re wrong. You’ve got the wrong guy leading this team.

Understand this, I’m not blaming any fans. I’m not at all doing that. What I’m telling you is you have two choices with a young basketball team—and this is what we are. Get upbeat and positive, help us win, cheer some fragile  self-esteem up. Or go the other way and watch them tank every shot. That’s what I’m telling you.

Look, we have great fans because they’re showing up. In 50 percent of these arenas, they’re not showing up. So we’ve got great fans along those lines, but as I said in my statement, Bird, McHale and Parish, Cousy and Russell  are not walking through those doors. What is walking through those doors are young players who are going to be prone to mistakes at times until they get experience, who are going to play hard and try to play exciting basketball—and not always succeed at doing that.

This is what we are, and that’s it. So you have two choices. You can get upbeat and positive for the future, or you can get negative. And I’m saying getting negative and being frustrated is not the best solution. Being positive and upbeat and having hope for the future is the best.

About a year later, Pitino left Boston to take the Louisville job. Thankfully, the rant lives on.