It was the pinnacle of the Rick Pitino Era.
Opening night, 1997. The defending champion Chicago Bulls in Boston on Halloween to open the season against the Celtics' youthful, new-look roster. Pitino, having already strong-armed the title of president from Red Auerbach, was eager now to prove his college pressing system could translate to the NBA.
And, for one night, it kinda did.
The Celtics rallied from a 20-point first-quarter deficit. Antoine Walker went for 31 points against the team he grew up rooting for. Michael Jordan labored through a poor shooting night (7-for-23) and the Celtics emerged with a 92-85 victory that left the Garden delirious with thoughts about what the future might hold.
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For those enthralled by the “Last Dance” documentary detailing Jordan and the 1997-98 Bulls' season, Boston’s win was largely glossed over in the early episodes. Remember, though, the Bulls that night had an out-of-shape Dennis Rodman and were without Scottie Pippen (who finally had ankle surgery after not wanting to "f— my summer up” by getting it earlier).
But if the Pitino Era ever got a documentary, that night would be a focal point.
"We knew it was going to be special,” Antoine Walker told NBC Sports Boston for our "Classic Celtics" re-broadcast of that season-opener, which airs Sunday at 7. “Obviously, Coach coming in and there was so much excitement about him taking over and being the coach. Also, excitement about me having my [Kentucky] teammates on the team with me, a couple of them on the team with Ron [Mercer] and Walt [McCarty].
“Then also, it’s the NBA champions on national TV, too. I think that was the icing on the cake, it being on national TV. Plus with me being a childhood Bulls fan and going against the Bulls. Obviously, I got over the shock [of playing against Jordan] after my first year of playing against them but I was excited because I felt like we had a better team, we were more equipped to have a good season.”
Despite falling behind early, the Celtics deployed Pitino’s press, eventually took better care of the basketball, and Walker keyed Boston’s rally, all while Jordan struggled to find his shot (he still finished with 30 points; no other teammate had more than 13).
"For me, it was unbelievable,” said Walker. "To have an opportunity, to beat Michael Jordan, to beat the Chicago Bulls, a team I had rooted for, knowing that my whole family and friends were watching this game on national TV, it meant the world to me.
"I was just excited about the season. But the reason we were able to come back and make that run, it was about training camp. Having fresh legs, being in great shape, continuing to put pressure, apply defensive pressure to a team that was more older savvy veterans. I think our youth and athletic ability took over at the end of the night.”
One of the bright spots for Boston on this night was rookie Chauncey Billups, who came off the bench to chip in 15 points, four assists, and two steals in 17 minutes. On the national broadcast of the game, there were references to how Billups might already be on the trading block.
By February, even as the Celtics were floundering at 23-29, Billups was dealt away. Reflecting back, Walker admits that it was Pitino’s impatience that torpedoed Boston’s chances at truly building a competitive team.
“I didn’t know that Coach was going to be so impatient. I think impatience really hurt him. It hurt the organization, too,” said Walker. "I played with so many different players over a two-year span. I think that was probably the downfall of it. Not letting the situation and players develop.
"Case in point: Chauncey Billups. You pick a guy third in the draft, he should be there for a while. Coach gave up on him at the All-Star break. I think those are the type of things that happen that really kinda crushed what we were trying to do and what he was trying to do.”
Walker admits he wonders what could have been if the Celtics let Billups find his way in Boston, even if it took years and multiple stops for Billups to emerge as Mr. Big Shot on the league’s biggest stages.
"I loved Chauncey,” said Walker. "The reason why I loved him is because he’s a big guard that could shoot the basketball. He played the game with very good pace. I thought he could be a star in this league. I thought we meshed really really well.
"I thought he was going to be a great complementary guard. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. Pitino had...Kenny Anderson was a kid that [Pitino] saw blow up and play in high school and I guess recruited him. … Coach loved Kenny Anderson and the opportunity was there for him to get him. Probably the downfall of Rick Pitino, just the impatience of letting guys develop and he wanted to win right away.”
For one night against the Bulls, there was reason to believe it might all work. The press worked against a shorthanded Bulls team that was coming off a preseason trip overseas. Even after drafting Paul Pierce the following summer, Pitino’s relentless tinkering and allegiance to a college system prevented the Celtics from ever reaching their potential.
It never got better than that first dance with the Last Dance Bulls.