With Jim O’Brien bringing his Indiana Pacers into town tonight, it seemed appropriate to run this piece from Michael Passanisi about the legacy of the former Celtics coach.
By Michael Passanisi
In the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s, Celtic Pride meant winning it all. But after the bad years, it meant making you proud to be a Celtic fan again. But let’s go back to 2001.
Under Chris Ford, ML Carr, and Rick Pitino, things had been chaotic for years. Ford couldn’t get along with certain players. Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, and Robert Parish were gone, and between 1992 and 1994, first draft picks were Jon Barry, Acie Earl, and Eric Montross. In 94, the Celtics brought in Dominique Wilkins, an aging superstar who it was thought would help attendance. It didn’t work, because Ford and Wilkins fought all year, and even the fans turned against him. Dominique stayed for one season, and in 1995, Ford and CEO Dave Gavett were let go by owner Paul Gaston. Since Reggie Lewis’ death, Ford’s record had slumped to 67-97. To replace Gavett and Ford, former Celtic player ML Carr assumed both jobs. “Even though ML and I were friends,” Larry wrote in his second book, “I had my doubts. I just couldn’t see ML in that role.” By 1996-97, the team’s record was down to a hideous 15-67, and some accused Carr of deliberately putting inferior players in to improve the team’s draft position in the season’s final weeks. “I wasn’t trying to lose,” Carr has been quoted as saying, “I never increased the talent so we could win. It didn’t make any sense.” Dee Brown, a prominent member of that team, has said that “it was incredibly frustrating because the players wondered what on earth was happening..We had no direction. We were a laughingstock.” It seemed that Celtic Pride no longer existed.
The way thing were going for the team, they failed to get the first lottery pick; that went to San Diego. The great Tim Duncan was not coming to Boston after all, and the Green were left with picks 3 and 6, which were Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups.
Pitino, a great college coach, arrived in Boston in ’97 with much fanfare. He was still considered a hero for bringing Providence to the Final Four in the 1980′s. However, considering everyone’s hopes, Rick in Boston was a huge failure. He demanded and got total control, and one of the first things he did was take the office of President from Red Auerbach, a totally callous move. The team improved for one season,but still was considerably under .500. Author John Feinstein, who wrote a book with Auerbach, said that the egotistical Pitino (coach, CEO, and President) “moved players in different directions like a mad scientist.” Rick had expected to have Duncan, but he was in San Antonio. Billups and Mercer were soon traded. Good veterans like David Wesley and Rick Fox were let go, only to become stars in other places. Danny Fortson, an Auerbach favorite who came in the Mercer trade, lasted only a year because Pitino felt he was a problem in the locker room. Rick apparently listened to no one. Eventually, the Celtic players totally quit on Pitino, who said he would leave if things did not improve. According to a Peter May article, “the players stopped playing for him and stopped listening to him”, and in January 2001, with the squad’s season record at 12-22, Rick resigned. His overall Celtic percentage was .411, with no postseason appearenes. His successor was Jim O’Brien.
Although O’Brien had been a close Pitino associate for years, when he took over the team the players responded to him. Writer Mark Murphy has said that “the coaching change brought a sense of relief, and he benefited.” For the rest of the 2000-01 season the team went .500. They still missed the playoffs, but things were about to improve. Top scorer Antoine Walker had been with the Celtics since 1996, but despite the fact that Pitino had been his coach at Kentucky, it failed to jell between them. According to Murphy, “O’Brien got more out of Walker than anyone has. He was able to work to his strengths.” Reached at his home in Indiana, O’Brien said he”understood Antoine’s strengths and weaknesses, who he was as a man, and what he could do on the court.” Aided by trade acquisition Rodney Rodgers and a young Paul Pierce’s 26 points per game, the 2001-2002 Celtics finished 49-33 and finished only 3 games behind New Jersey in the division standings. They topped it off with a first-round playoff conquest of Allen Iverson’s 76ers and a huge 4-1 upset of first place finisher Detroit before falling in a tough six-gamer to the Nets in the Eastern finals. O’ Brien has said that one of his greatest Celtic memories is bombing the 76ers (120-87) in the fifth and deciding game of the Philly series. It was only the second postseason series win in nine years, and the furthest the team had gone since 1988. The following year, despite the departure of Rodgers, the squad topped .500 again and beat Indiana in the first playoff round before losing one more time to NJ in the semis. It was the first Celtic repeat-playoff performance since Lewis’ death.
O’Brien had now established himself, and he might have been involved in the Celtics’ huge success today. However, the team’s new owners brought in Danny Ainge as Executive Director of Basketball Operations in 2003, and trouble began. Ainge was young and inexperienced at the time, and he had his own ideas about personnel. Murphy says that Ainge “didn’t like Antoine Walker’s game. He was big on three-pointers, but without a lot of movement.” Before the 2003-04 season, Ainge traded Walker for Raef La Frentz, Chris Mills, Jiri Welsch, and a draft pick; one of the team’s best players through the bad years had been replaced by inferior people. When Ainge traded for guard Ricky Davis, a talented but undisciplined offensive star while giving up O’Brien favorite Eric Williams, Jim had had enough. He felt that he and Ainge just weren’t going to make it together. Though O’Brien has called Boston “my favorite stop”, he says that “to win a championship, we had to rebuild, and I wasn’t confident in Danny’s rebuilding.” He resigned on January 27, 2004, leaving with his pride intact and with most players regretting his departure. “He’s a good coach. A good person. I wish him well. I have no ill feelings about Jim O’Brien”, Ainge has been quoted as saying. Celtic captain Pierce called O’Brien “a straight shooter type of guy. I think we had a good relationship. An open relationship. He was real demanding of his players. I looked at him as one of those old-fashioned coaches…he preaches a lot of defense.” After his departure, the team faded badly for the rest of that season.
O’Brien’s overall Celtics record was 139-119, and the chances are good that the Celtics would have remained a respectable team if he could have reached an accommodation with Ainge.
Instead, Jim went to coach the then-troubled 76ers, where big things were expected of him. A native Philadelphian and star college player there, he hoped to better the team as he had in Boston. He brought with him Dick Harter, his trusted lieutenant and another defensive specialist. But as the season wore on, things didn’t work out. Though the squad improved by 10 games, Jim had to deal with personalities like Chris Webber, who openly questioned some of O’Brien’s moves. Philly management apparently wanted former 76ers star Maurice Cheeks to coach, but Cheeks was allegedly under contract in Portland at the time, and despite the improvement, the team went out early in the playoffs. Three weeks later, O’Brien was given his walking papers, and Cheeks was brought in.
Meanwhile, under new Celtic coach Doc Rivers, who was hired in 2004, the Celtics were up and down for three years. A surprising first place finish in 2004-05 was followed by two tough and depressing seasons, before Rivers and Ainge hit the jackpot with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and a rejuvenated Pierce last season. Ainge became Executive of the Year, and Rivers an NBA Championship coach.
Rather than being the mentor of a league champ, O’Brien is in Indiana, where he has been beset by numerous injuries and troubled players and even failed to make the playoffs last season. As longtime Celtics beat writer Mike Fine wrote earlier this year: “Jim O’Brien can’t catch a break”.
For many reasons, O’Brien is not rated today with the all-time great Celtic coaches. But if he had found a way to stay, he might be. All in all, Jim O’Brien should be remembered as the coach who first began to restore Celtic Pride.