Rick Pitino

Celtics can thank Michael Jordan for allowing them to draft Paul Pierce

Celtics can thank Michael Jordan for allowing them to draft Paul Pierce

After a month of watching "The Last Dance," you know all the things Michael Jordan did for the Chicago Bulls.

But he also gave the Celtics a huge, unintentional assist.

Let’s say it another way: Thanks to Michael Jordan, the Celtics had the opportunity to enjoy 15 seasons of Paul Pierce.

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In June 1997, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was on the verge of completing a deal with the Celtics’ Rick Pitino. I was covering the Celtics at the time for the Boston Globe and my colleague, Peter May, had the story ready to go. The Bulls would get the third and sixth picks in the draft along with a player (probably Eric Williams), and the Celtics would receive Scottie Pippen and Luc Longley.

What does that have to do with Pierce, who was still at Kansas? Hold on. We’re getting there.

The trade actually would have been good for what both Krause and Pitino wanted at the time. Krause, as the series explained so well, was looking ahead to a rebuild. He planned to select Tracy McGrady and Ron Mercer with those picks, and he would have gotten them. Pitino wanted to take away the sting of losing the draft lottery — and Tim Duncan — and was desperate to make the playoffs in his first year.

With Pippen and Longley, Pitino would have gotten his wish of a 45- to 47-win team, if not better.

The presence of those two would have strengthened the roster in other ways, too. There wouldn’t have been Pitino’s disastrous panic signing of Travis Knight. You can’t make this stuff up: Because Pitino didn’t know the salary cap — no joke — he didn’t realize that bringing in Knight forced him to get rid of Rick Fox, which he didn’t want to do.

So take away that error and you still have Fox as a valuable starter/role player here instead of an eventual champion/actor in Los Angeles.

Jordan shut it all down. 

He’d already promised to retire if the Bulls didn’t bring back Phil Jackson (they did), and now he was raging about the potential departure of the versatile Pippen. The Bulls went on to win their sixth title and the Celtics, with 36 wins, dropped into the lottery. They got the 10th pick and smartly and happily took Pierce.

(A what-if for another day is imagining who the Celtics would be if Pitino had gotten his preferred player in that draft, Dirk Nowitzki.)

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Looking up at the Garden rafters now, and looking through the Celtics’ record books, there’s a good lesson on patience somewhere in there. Pierce is either ranked first, second or third in at least a dozen categories in franchise history. He helped break a generational championship drought and picked up a Finals MVP along the way.

As for Pippen, his trade here would have been received well in ’97 because Pitino got the benefit of the doubt on everything he did then. Clearly, I feel some kind of way about it; don’t get me started.

After the Bulls’ Last Dance, it was a last dance of sorts for Pippen as well. He was never an All Star after ’98, and Pierce was better than Pippen by his second year in the league.

If the unfolding of Pierce’s story provides a lesson on patience, one of my small-print takeaways from "The Last Dance" is that it shows the flaws of arrogance. It served Jordan well on the court, and I still haven’t seen a better player, stylist, and international phenomenon. But with all those years he spent watching Krause, and making fun of him, he missed an opportunity to learn some team-building techniques from him.

Krause had one of the best 10-year runs of general managing in the history of the sport, highlighted by his discovery of Phil Jackson, drafting of Pippen, and trade for Dennis Rodman. A talented team builder, Jordan is not.

But I’m nitpicking. Jordan was clutch in the front-office move that matters to us. He shut down a trade and Pierce wound up here because of it.

Thanks, Mike.

Rick Pitino recalls Michael Jordan ruthlessly trash-talking Antoine Walker

Rick Pitino recalls Michael Jordan ruthlessly trash-talking Antoine Walker

Rick Pitino's tenure as head coach of the Boston Celtics didn't go as well as he hoped, but he still has some fond memories of the experience.

Pitino, who coached the C's from 1997-2001, earned a victory over Michael Jordan's defending champion Chicago Bulls in his first game with Boston. Antoine Walker led the surprising Celtics comeback with 31 points en route to a 92-85 win.

But the moment that has stuck with Pitino to this day isn't anything that transpired on the court that night in 1997. Rather, it's how Jordan trash-talked Walker after the game.

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“I’ll never forget, as long as I live, we were going back to the locker room, and Michael Jordan is yelling at Antoine,” Pitino told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. “He’s screaming at him and swearing at him. And I said, ‘Holy [expletive], what happened there?’

“Then the assistant coaches explained to me that apparently Antoine was shimmying and dancing, and Michael started screaming, ‘Antoine, you won’t be [expletive] dancing when you come to Chicago.’ He kept saying it, and I said, ‘Oh, [expletive].'”

Pitino didn't get to celebrate the win for too long, because he knew getting on Jordan's radar didn't bode well for Boston in future matchups with Chicago.

“There’s two guys you never wanted to piss off — don’t say anything, don’t make them angry: [Larry] Bird and MJ,” Pitino said. “You just didn’t want to piss either one of those guys off, because it would always come back to haunt you. When Antoine got him mad in that first game, I’m saying, ‘Oh, [expletive], this puts a damper on this night, because we have to go back in there against him.’

Sure enough, Jordan and the Bulls topped the C's in each of their next three meetings. Chicago went on to win its third consecutive NBA title to wrap up a season that's the subject of ESPN's hit docuseries, "The Last Dance."

Walker relived that win over Jordan's Bulls during NBC Sports Boston's "Classic Celtics" series, though he failed to mention any "shimmying and dancing" that took place at Jordan's expense. Thankfully, we have Pitino to recall that hilarious anecdote.

Celtics' First Dance with Michael Jordan's Bulls was start - and peak - of the Rick Pitino Era

Celtics' First Dance with Michael Jordan's Bulls was start - and peak - of the Rick Pitino Era

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.”

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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.