For proven item Pitino, Celtics prove dollar-wise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Seventy million dollars for a coach?

Sounds crazy, but it's not.

Rick Pitino is worth every penny of that and more to the Boston Celtics, who lured Pitino away from the University of Kentucky yesterday with a contract that is reportedly the largest ever signed by any coach in any sport.

With Pitino, the Celtics are virtually assured of returning to pro basketball's upper echelon in the next four years.

Without Pitino, there is no assurance that the Celtics would ever win anything again; that's how low they have fallen.

Sure, it's possible, though not probable, that another coach could lead them out of the darkness in which they've slipped to expansion-level status; Larry Brown surely would have improved them, just as he surely will improve the 76ers, his latest new team.

But Pitino is different. At age 44, he is at the peak of the coaching profession after almost winning his second straight NCAA title at Kentucky five weeks ago. He went to the Final Four at Providence, turned around the New York Knicks in two years and brought Kentucky back from the ashes of NCAA probation to the pinnacle of college basketball.

He will lead the Celtics back to a semblance of their former glory, and quickly, too. Of that, there is no doubt.

Given those alternatives, the Celtics didn't overpay at all.

How can you overpay someone who will revitalize your moribund franchise, bring back your lost fans and return your team to the playoffs?

Sure, it's a lot of money. But what's a lot of money buying these days?

If a solid, unspectacular player such as Juwan Howard is worth $105 million in today's inflated market, Pitino is a bargain at $70 million.

If a debatable coaching talent such as John Calipari is worth $30 million, Pitino's contract is right in line.

Howard can't reinvent a franchise all by himself. Nor can many other players outside of a certain one in Chicago. And nor can many coaches other than Pat Riley.

Pitino will.

The Celtics are better off giving big money to a coach with an insatiable will and work ethic -- a coach who simply won't settle for losing -- instead of one of today's indifferent superstars, who might deign to care.

Give a coach that much money, and the players have to care; they're not making more than the coach, unlike on most other teams. The chain of command is right, for a change.

Let's see Penny Hardaway try to get him fired.

OK, maybe Pitino is overpaid compared with Brown, who signed with the 76ers for $25 million, but who cares? Brown was looking for work after walking away from the Indiana Pacers, and Pitino was happily employed at college basketball's mecca. He was royalty in Kentucky; fans were literally on their knees at the Kentucky Derby last weekend begging him to stay.

As much as the chance to "save" the Celtics was irresistible, the franchise still had to blow his mind to get him to come in and take over a team in such disarray.

Hello, $70 million.

Pitino denied yesterday that the money was a factor, but who believes that? Maybe he doesn't need the extra $40 million that he got and Calipari didn't, but you can be sure his ego did. He loves the statement that contract makes.

The people at Kentucky couldn't compete, of course; no college can offer a basketball coach even close to that kind of money. And while Pitino did love it in the Bluegrass, he had done just about all there was to do there.

For a guy who writes about the importance of "raising the bar" professionally in his latest, just-published motivational book, this was an easy decision.

Especially when he saw how far the Celtics were willing to go.

They had no choice, really; after making the decision to chase Pitino, they had to get him or settle for another, less accomplished candidate. That would only have reinforced their image as a faded power.

This does the opposite. This makes the Celtics into the Celtics again. No price was too high for that.

It's going to take Pitino time to rebuild, of course; the Celtics were horrible this year after a decade of bad luck (Len Bias, Reggie Lewis) and bad decisions (Dana Barros, Pervis Ellison, Dominique Wilkins, M. L. Carr as boss).

Things could get better in a hurry if they wind up with the first pick in the draft, Tim Duncan. But you watch: Even without Duncan, Pitino will draft well, trade well and put together a quality team in three years.

If you know what you're doing, which Pitino does -- and Carr didn't -- you can win 50 games pretty easily in an NBA watered down by expansion. There are plenty of easy nights.

The Celtics will play just like Kentucky, and just like Pitino's Knicks. They'll press, run, shoot jumpers and force the tempo. They'll take smart shots.

They'll win.

Yes, the price was high. But nothing comes cheaply in the NBA anymore. And besides, if you're the Celtics and you have a chance to sign a coach and guarantee a successful future, and you don't because the price was too high, why bother fielding a team?

Pub Date: 5/07/97

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