PHILADELPHIA – Rick Pitino and Brett Brown go back nearly 35 years. When the Louisville coach noticed on the ESPN ticker six weeks ago that the Philadelphia 76ers were about to hire Brown, he texted congratulations to his former player and longtime friend, telling him he was going to have some champagne in his honor.
Brown told him to “have the glass, but hold off because this is far from over.”
Pitino explained it was all over the ticker.
“I know Coach, I don’t know where that’s coming from but there’s no truth to it,” Brown said.
Pitino told that story Tuesday from California, where he is taking in the races at Del Mar.
In the last few days, Pitino has been able to congratulate Brown for real. He is indeed the next Sixers coach. Pitino is not surprised. He saw a coach when he recruited Brown as a high school player out of South Portland High.
“His dad (Bob) was the high school coach and I wound up later hiring his dad, as well,” said Pitino, who was a first-time head coach at Boston University at the time. “Was really, really impressed with the program his dad ran. His dad was super well organized, one of the better high school coaches in the history of that state.
“Brett had great speed, very quick guard, outstanding playmaker, had a great mind for the game. It was a no-brainer for me to recruit him.”
Brown was a very good player for Pitino.
“He was the starting point guard,” Pitino said. “He was much more athletic than most of the kids you see coming out of Maine. He was very, very fast and had outstanding hands.”
When Brown went to Australia to coach, Pitino lost contact with him. When Brown became one of Gregg Popovich’s assistants in San Antonio, the two got close again.
“He’s got a world of experience and he’s also just a tremendous person,” Pitino said. “He’s someone that listens as well as he directs. He’s got a great personality. And he understands the job at hand.”
The coaches talked about the Sixers. There’s no confusion. This will be a bad team this season and probably next.
“He said, ‘Coach, it’s going to be a difficult two years,’ ” Pitino said. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s going to be a difficult two years for the Celtics as well.’ It’s moving forward (toward) what Year 3 and 4 will be like. If you think 3 and 4 is a great opportunity, that’s what you have to base it on — the future, not where you are right now. And he agreed with me.”
Pitino, who won the national title this year with Louisville, knows enough about the NBA to understand teardowns are often the only prelude to a contender.
“It’s rebuilding it the right way so once you get there, it holds on for about six, seven years, and you have a really good run,” Pitino said.
Brown will need to be the good teacher everybody, including Pitino, knows him to be. And he will need to be lucky, something Pitino wasn’t when he left Kentucky in 1997 for the Celts’ job.
Boston had all those pingpong balls in the lottery but did not get Tim Duncan. The Sixers will need to get lucky in the 2014 and 2015 lotteries.
“I thought this year’s draft was as weak as I’ve seen it in quite some time,” Pitino said. “The good thing is I think the next two years will be stronger than quite some time. Obviously, Philadelphia is going to have some draft picks that, if you get lucky, you’re going to get an outstanding basketball player.”
Despite the overall lack of talent in the 2013 draft, Pitino thought the Sixers did fine. He coached against Michael Carter-Williams and Syracuse three times last season. He coached against Nerlens Noel and Kentucky once.
“The thing I like about Michael Carter-Williams most is he’s got size,” Pitino said. “He is very fast down the line. Like most NBA guys, he’s an average shooter right now, but you go back to Mark Jackson, to Ron Artest, even to (Michael Jordan), they start out as average shooters and as time goes on, they all become very good scorers with a good jump shot. Once he develops that, with his size and length and defensive ability, with his quick hands, I think he’s going to be an outstanding player.”
Noel, Pitino said, was “definitely No. 1 if his knee is fine.” Noel tore his ACL in February and is sidelined indefinitely.
“I think they got very lucky (with Noel),” Pitino said. “I think he’s a game-changer with his low-post defense. There’s a lot of great shot blockers. His quickness in blocking shots is unbelievable. His offensive game will get better as time goes on. He knows how to pass the ball. I thought that was a great pick. This young man could be a more talented version of Theo Ratliff.”
For those with short memories, go find videos of the 2000-01 Sixers before Ratliff got hurt. They were playing the best basketball in the NBA.
It will be Brown’s task to develop Carter-Williams and Noel. Pitino believes that what these players have, Brown will find.
“His dad was a great skills guy,” Pitino said. “He was a great developer of footwork. Brett took a lot from his dad. That was his niche in skill development, working out players and making them better. I think he’s a natural fit where you are going to start young, he’s an excellent coach to do that.”