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Pitino Has Fans Seeing Red, Or Red

Mike Szostak Providence Journal-Bulletin

Is Rick Pitino the second coming of Red Auerbach … or M.L. Carr? Trading Eric Williams for two second-round draft picks makes one wonder.

It’s possible that Pitino possesses Auerbach’s knack for noticing what everybody else misses. Perhaps he knows something about the NBA draft class of 1999 or 2001, or he has this feeling that wearing a Boston uniform and playing for Pitino will make Chris Mills an all-star.

Or perhaps Pitino and his general manager, Chris Wallace, are throwing darts, as Carr seemed to do. After all, they have replaced Carr’s nobodies with some of their own.

At times during his three months as president and head coach of the Boston Celtics, Pitino has shown signs of having an impact that could rival that of Auerbach, the club’s revered patriarch, whose hand is in each of the 16 NBA championship banners hanging from the FleetCenter rafters.

Without having coached a game, Pitino has restored respect to a franchise that six months ago was a joke. His charisma alone has not just prevented a potential hemorrhaging of thousands of season-ticket holders but has increased season-ticket sales by 2,500.

“As a presence, he has had an immediate and incredible impact on our business,” said Stuart Layne, executive vice president of marketing and sales. “Every time he makes the news … he’s on TV, he creates some excitement, and our phones ring off the hook.”

But at other times, Pitino seems to have adopted the M.L. approach. Carr brought us Pervis Ellison and then secured his marginal services for longer than anyone wants to remember. Pitino is bringing us Travis Knight, who didn’t score or rebound in double figures during four years at the University of Connecticut, last year with the Los Angeles Lakers or this week in a summer league. And Pitino is bringing us Knight for seven years and $22 million!

Pitino’s big trade this week sent Williams to Denver for second-rounders in 1999 and 2001.

Think about that. A pair of second-rounders for the No. 14 pick of the 1995 draft. A pair of second-rounders for a player of whom Pitino said on draft night: “We’re not giving up Eric Williams. We love him.” Oh, really?

Pitino does deserve kudos for stripping M.L. Carr’s underachieving roster of its most expensive player, Dino Radja, raising the bar for the five players remaining from last season’s 15-67 embarrassment and publicly challenging them to clear his new hurdle.

Any player wearing a Boston Celtics uniform this season will run, trap, hustle, rebound and play passionate defense. Pitino has made that objective clear from the May day he took the job as president and head coach. There’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. Skeptics need only look at his record. The man has won everywhere he has worked.

Pitino drafted two players, Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer, stamped with potential. He has signed journeyman free agents eager for a chance to prove themselves. His record and personality have convinced free agents to come here. Would Tony Massenburg have left New Jersey a year ago to come to Boston for a three-year deal?

“Not willingly,” he said. “But coach Pitino is a winner.”

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