Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were the faces of the early 2000’s Los Angeles Lakers dynasty. However, the supporting cast — players like Derek Fisher and Robert Horry — played a huge role in LA’s three consecutive championships.
One of the integral members of the supporting cast was Rick Fox. Known as the starting small forward for three championship Laker teams, the 13-year veteran began his career with the Boston Celtics, spending his first six seasons in the Green and White. However, Fox very likely would’ve stayed in Boston and never come to LA, had it not been for a broken promise by Celtics head coach Rick Pitino.
Rick Fox was the engine of the rudderless Boston Celtics
A first-round pick out of North Carolina, Fox joined the Celtics in 1991. While he only got five starts, the 6-foot-7 forward played in 81 games, averaging eight points and receiving All-Rookie Second Team honors. Fox eventually moved into the starting lineup, upping his scoring totals until he averaged a career-high 15.4 points per game in 1996-97.
Unfortunately for Fox, his production didn’t translate to wins. The former Tar Heel experienced four losing seasons with the C’s, all from 1993 to 1997. The worst of it came in his personal-best season, where Boston went a dismal 15-67 to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference.
“God, we sucked,” Fox said in Jeff Pearlman’s book Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty. “I was basically the captain of the Titanic, and the boat was sinking.”
Following their miserable 1996-97 season, the Celtics moved on from M.L. Carr and hired Rick Pitino as their next head coach. Pitino, whose lone NBA experience came from a two-year stint with the New York Knicks, left the University of Kentucky for Boston and signed a record 10-year, $70 million contract.
Rick Pitino promised Fox a sizable extension, but withdrew it without warning
With Pitino serving as the new head coach and team president, one of his first orders of business was to speak to Fox. The new coach reassured his veteran player he would remain in Boston, and two days later, the two parties agreed to a six-year, $33 million deal. It was a sharp increase for Fox, who had made $1.75 million each of the past three seasons.
After failing to land Wake Forest standout Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft, Pitino was on the hunt for a big man. Shortly after agreeing with Fox, the new head coach flew to Los Angeles to offer Lakers center Travis Knight a seven-year deal worth $22 million. Knight had spent his rookie year as Shaq’s backup, averaging 4.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in just over 16 minutes per game. Once they agreed, Pitino asked Knight to keep quiet until he could figure out how to finesse the salary cap to sign Fox as well.
Unfortunately for the new Celtics head coach, word leaked on Knight receiving a large offer from Boston. That prompted a call from NBA commissioner David Stern, who more or less told Pitino he was breaking the salary cap rules and had to pick between Fox and Knight.
Unaware of everything transpiring between Pitino, Knight, and Stern, Fox was planning to head to Boston Garden for the press conference announcing his return. But on the way, he received a call from his agent, who let the veteran know he was being renounced by the Celtics, thus making him a free agent.
“I was furious. This was really late in the game, and teams didn’t have any money left for free agents. So instead of making $33 million, I was pretty much available for $1 million. Which made me the hottest remaining free agent on the market.”Rick Fox, Three-Ring Circus
Fox went from being one of the building blocks of the Celtics to a free agent in a matter of days. Worst of all, Pitino, the man responsible, wasn’t even the person to tell him the unfortunate news.
Fox became a key role player for the Los Angeles Lakers
As a free agent, Fox turned down larger offers to come to LA for $1 million. Although the difference in money was substantial, the difference in talent between the Lakers and Celtics was worth it.
Bringing veteran mentorship to Bryant as well as the rest of the team, Fox also contributed to the stat sheet. He started all 82 games in his debut season with the Purple and Gold, averaging 12 points on 47.1 percent shooting. He played in all 82 regular-season games in each of LA’s championship seasons (1999-2002), adding toughness and discipline to the Lakers dynasty.
As for the Celtics, Pitino made it three-and-a-half years into his 10-year deal. Under his leadership, Boston went 102-146 before the current Iona College head coach resigned in January 2001. Knight, meanwhile, played one season with the Celtics before being traded back to the Lakers.
In the historic Lakers-Celtics rivalry, chalk this one up as a win for Tinseltown.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.