Bird's status as basketball messiah in Boston is one reason that McHale believes Bird is better off coaching the Pacers. "Once you play for the Celtics, you get put on a different level in Boston," says McHale, who returned to his native state of Minnesota to run the Timberwolves. "Larry's comfort level in Indiana is much higher. They revere him, but they leave him alone. His friends are there. His family is there. I think it's a perfect situation for him."
There are other advantages to the Pacers, even though Indiana finished 39-43 this season and missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The Indiana roster features veterans such as guard Reggie Miller, center Rik Smits and forward Dale Davis, who have been as far as the conference finals. "They remember Bird as a player," says McHale. "He has credibility with them. They're figuring, He's been to the top. Maybe he can get us there."
Bird solicited at least 30 opinions on whether he should take the Indiana job, and nothing he heard scared him away from the challenge. "I'll have fun watching Larry coach," says Ford. "He never understood how tough it was. He'll find out."
The second question: Is Rick Pitino worth $7 million a year?
To Boston chairman of the board Paul Gaston he is. The Celtics won their last NBA title in 1986. Some of the novelty of their two-year-old arena, the FleetCenter, has worn off. as shown by an attendance decrease from 17,874 a game in 1995-96 to 16,196 this season. Boston had a 15-67 record (second worst in the NBA, after the Grizzlies' 14-68) and an abominable 1-23 mark in the Atlantic Division in '96-97. Furthermore, ownership was worried that Bird, the Celtics' special assistant and the fans' favorite to take over from M.L. Carr as head of basketball operations, would fly the coop, leaving Boston with a public relations debacle. Gaston needed instant credibility from a dynamic coach who could offset Larry Legend's departure, rejuvenate the fan base and revive the team.
The choice was obvious: Pitino. By landing the college coach most coveted by teams in the NBA, the Celtics reaped immediate financial dividends, including 1,000 new applications for season tickets in the three days following Pitino's hiring. Boston can also rest assured that when its television and radio contracts expire next summer, there will be plenty of bidders.
It is not coincidental that the Celtics' two most glaring weaknesses on the floor this season—defense and discipline—are Pitino's forte. The fact that Pitino will be paid more than any player on the Celtics' roster (forward-center Dino Radia is the top earner at $5.3 million a season) will further empower him. So will his title as president, heretofore held by Red Auerbach, who used to symbolize the Celtics. The 79-year-old Auerbach, who now has the title of vice chairman, has been less active in the past decade, leaving matters to a masthead top-heavy with executives who often confused other teams looking to make deals with Boston. Too often, general managers asked, "Who's running the show up there?"
There no longer will be any doubt. Gaston ordered a housecleaning of his organization before bringing Pitino aboard, forcing the resignation of general manager Jan Volk and the reassignment of Carr, who was director of basketball operations as well as coach. He will now handle corporate development. Want to talk trade? Pitino is now the Celtics. Period.
His charisma and his history of success with the Knicks and three college teams (Boston University and Providence in addition to Kentucky) should serve Pitino well as he looks to revamp the Celtics' roster. Since its last NBA title Boston has failed to sign a free agent of any significance. The Celtics thought they had one when they lured Xavier McDaniel from the Knicks in 1992, but the X-man couldn't return Boston to title contention. Dominique Wilkins became a Celtic with much fanfare in '94, but his career was clearly in decline. Meanwhile, top potential free agents such as Alonzo Mourning, Horace Grant and Danny Manning had no interest in what Boston was selling. The Celtics hope Pitino will change that, the way Pat Riley did when he assumed control of the Miami Heat. Does anyone believe that before Riley's arrival, Mourning gave even a passing thought to playing for the Heat?
The foundation for making Boston attractive to free agents could well be laid this Sunday, when the order of the draft lottery is announced. The Celtics have two high picks (their own and that of the Dallas Mavericks, acquired in the trade that sent center Eric Montross to the Mavs) and the best chance (slightly more than 36%) of any team of landing the No. 1 pick, which they would use to draft Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan. "You take Pitino, the two draft picks and the Celtic tradition, and we'll be back on top before you know it," says Auerbach.