On June 25, a full 15 minutes before the start of the NBA draft, new Celtics coach Rick Pitino announced to 5,000 season-ticket holders gathered at the Fleet Center that Boston would choose Colorado point guard Chauncey Billups with the No. 3 pick. In public relations terms, it was a brilliant stroke. Not only did Pitino provide the fans with a moment of intimacy by sharing this inside information, but also his subsequent impassioned praise of Billups left the crowd convinced that regardless of which players were still available at No. 3, Billups was the right choice.
In truth, Pitino was able to declare his unwavering love for Billups because he had found out moments earlier that the 76ers would use the No. 2 pick to select the player he really wanted, Utah forward Keith Van Horn. The Sixers then turned around and traded Van Horn to the Nets in a multiplayer swap.
It was not the only time in the days leading up to the draft that Philly thwarted Pitino's plans. On June 20, Boston dealt forward Dino Radja to the Sixers for forwards Michael Cage and Clarence Weatherspoon, a move that could have cleared $5.3 million from the Celtics' salary cap by the summer of 1998. But the trade was voided when Radja, who at first balked at taking the mandatory posttrade physical, failed the exam because of a troublesome left knee. In fact, Radja, who missed 57 games last season—52 of them after surgery to repair his left patella—had been so worried about the knee that he had previously solicited the opinions of two doctors without informing the Boston front office, which believed he was well on his way to a full recovery. Sixers sources said that Philly's examination of Radja revealed "bone on bone" in the knee, raising questions as to whether Radja will be able to play a full NBA schedule.
The botched trade, which would have been the first ever between these long and bitter rivals, left both teams frustrated. The Celtics initially thought Philadelphia was backing out of the deal because the Sixers were having second thoughts (not medical misgivings) about Radja's ability as a player; the Sixers initially found it hard to believe Boston was not aware of the extent of Radja's injury.
According to Pitino and Larry Brown, Philly's new coach, subsequent conversations cleared the air. Yet the Radja fiasco, combined with the 76ers' plucking of Van Horn from the Celtics' reach, sent the rumor mill turning with reports of a rift between Pitino and Brown, including this statement made by new Nuggets coach Bill Hanzlik to the Denver Post: "If you want to know two guys that hate each other the most in the NBA, I suggest you look at Larry Brown and Rick Pitino." Late last week, when Hanzlik's comments were relayed to him. Brown angrily denounced the Denver coach. "Whenever I've talked about Rick, I've shown him the utmost respect," he said. "I don't even know Bill Hanzlik. He ought to just coach and worry less about being a gossip columnist."
"Larry and I are fine," Pitino said. "If we weren't so busy, we'd play golf together this weekend."
Until draft night, it had been a discouraging week for Pitino. He had been tantalizingly close to acquiring forward Scottie Pippen and center Luc Longley from the Bulls in exchange for the No. 3 and No. 6 picks plus a 1999 first-round selection. But the deal fell apart on draft day. Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf confirmed that if the Bulls had made the deal, they would also have considered trading the newly acquired No. 3 pick to Denver for the No. 5 pick and center Ervin Johnson, but only if Van Horn was available at No. 3. Reinsdorf, who would have been faced with his own public relations nightmare had he traded Pippen—not to mention the wrath, and possible retirement, of Michael Jordan—said he ultimately backed away because the ('cities' offer "wasn't one that knocked our socks off." Asked if Pippen was in Chicago to stay, Reinsdorf answered, "I have to assume he's back. There's nothing we can do with Scottie right now."
That may not be so. Lakers sources say Los Angeles would like to take a run at Pippen. Bulls sources say Los Angeles shooting guard Eddie Jones (a Lakers untouchable) would have to be included in any such deal.
Although the Nuggets, who won only 21 games last season, did not come away with Van Horn, whom they coveted, they did get an infusion of new bodies. They picked Texas Tech's 6'11" forward Tony Battie at No. 5, traded a second-round pick to the SuperSonics for the No. 23 pick, point guard Bobby Jackson from Minnesota, and then dealt Johnson to the Bucks for three players, including No. 10 pick Danny Fortson, a 6'7" forward from Cincinnati who had wowed the Nuggets with his superb conditioning. According to sources with the team, Denver put all its prospective draft picks through a grueling 20-minute fast-break drill in which Hanzlik and one of his assistants, T.R. Dunn, participated and which required sprinting virtually nonstop. Two point guards. Bowling Green's Antonio Daniels (eventually chosen No. 4 by the Grizzlies) and Stanford's Brevin Knight (who went to the Cavaliers at No. 16) vomited following the drill; Fortson kept running hard until the coaches stopped in exhaustion.
Boston may have lusted after Pippen and/or Van Horn, but it considers Billups and former Kentucky star forward Ron Mercer (the No. 6 pick) excellent consolation prizes. Pitino told several players he auditioned, including Billups, that the Celtics, who won 15 games in 1996-97, would make the playoffs next season. Without Pippen or Van Horn, and with a damaged Radja, that looms as a tall order. The only true center on the Celtics' roster is 30-year-old Pervis Ellison, who missed most of last season with a crushed toe. Perhaps the Sixers would be interested....