LEXINGTON, Ky. - It is not money that motivates Rick Pitino, but mountains. He is a compulsive climber, the Sir Edmund Hillary of hoops. Always in search of a higher summit. Proud that he has yet to peak.
He leaves Kentucky because it no longer tests him as a basketball coach. He joins the crumbled Boston Celtics because it is too late to rebuild the Roman Empire. Rick Pitino is a man who craves challenges and recoils at comfort.
He would rather tame a lion than tend sheep. He would rather fall on his face than stand still. He could have stayed in Lexington for life, but he is reluctant to repeat himself. Among the burdens of brilliance is a low threshold of boredom.
"I think you're in a comfort zone," Pitino said of his position at Kentucky. "You work very hard to get in a comfort zone each year to put a team on the court that can vie for the national championship. That's a zone that, through hard work, is something I look forward to each year.
Won't stand on his record
"But a lady across the street in Providence, R.I., said to me, 'You're too young to be comfortable. Take the challenge.' That was when I was thinking about leaving Providence. I still think I'm too young to be comfortable."
What little Rick Pitino has left to prove in college basketball is no longer worth his effort. He has won one NCAA title with the Wildcats, and reached the Final Four three times in five years. He has rebuilt UK's recruiting base, revived its traditions, and returned the program to its accustomed dominance of the Southeastern Conference. Pitino might have built a formidable legacy on this foundation, but he didn't want to do it on automatic pilot.
"Everyone was doing everything they could to get him to stay," said UK guard Wayne Turner. "But in the end we knew he was a man who liked challenges."
"There's always a challenge here," Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton said. "But I think there's an even greater challenge (in Boston) that appeals to him."
Pitino has roots in Boston - both career and family - and the Celtics will reportedly pay him $70 million over 10 years to revisit his old stomping grounds. Yet he says Kentucky could have created a similar deal if finances had been the determining factor. What drove this decision, Pitino said, was a scenario similar to the one that first led him to Lexington. In a word, desperation.
Celtics can't get much worse
The Celtics, professional basketball's most successful team, have lately reached low ebb. They finished 15-67 this past season - the worst record in franchise history - and caused Hall of Fame guard Bob Cousy to conclude he would not live to see his old team claim another NBA championship.
Similar despair surrounded UK basketball when Pitino showed up in 1989. He arrived with the 'Cats looking at two years of NCAA probation, saddled with scholarship limitations and marginal talent. Because of Kentucky's many built-in advantages, Pitino's rebuilding process was swift. Because of Pitino, it should be sturdy.
"I guarantee you, Kentucky will not lose one step - not one," he promised. "If we don't stay at the same level, then I haven't built a very strong house."
Odds are, Kentucky will raise another championship banner before the Celtics do. Pitino's rebuilding job in Boston is complicated by a common draft, the NBA's salary cap, and the difficulty of convincing callow millionaires to bend to a coach's will.
Yet public confidence in Pitino's skill is so strong that stock in the publicly traded Celtics rose by 2ó points Monday. In a single day, the market value of the franchise increased by more than $14 million. (Traders took profits Tuesday, following the Wall Street adage: "Buy on the rumor, sell on the news.'')
"If we win, I will grow old with the Celtics," Pitino promised. "If we lose, I'll just grow old."
It promises to be a long, hard climb, which should suit Rick Pitino's purpose perfectly. He needs the challenge, for he is starting to run short of meaningful mountains.
Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.