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Annual report: Celtic owners comfortable

If the Celtics owners were guilty of wrongdoing last season, it would be for the alleged sin of acting overly enthusiastic. Too much of a shock to the system after the absentee ownership of Paul Gaston. But in a town where capturing the American League wild card ignites an hourlong celebration, overly enthusiastic sports fans are easy to find. Most of them just don't own teams.

This past Saturday, Wyc and Irv Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca marked the one-year anniversary of their agreement to purchase the Celtics from Gaston for $360 million. They became the 15th owners of the storied franchise and the first local owners in 40 years. The Grousbecks, Pagliuca, and Robert Epstein, who officially joined ownership as part of The Abbey Group 11 weeks after the initial announcement, recently discussed their brief tenure, which officially began when they assumed control Dec. 31, 2002.

The enthusiasm is still there, albeit a bit tempered by a better balance between fan and businessman. At the Celtics' practice facility, Pagliuca excitedly points to Paul Pierce on the court in an offseason pickup game. In his Merrimac Street office, Wyc Grousbeck receives a call from Red Auerbach and wishes him a happy birthday. But above all, they talk about their commitment to winning. With the start of preseason practices today, the owners are eagerly preparing for their first full year in charge.

"We're dying to get the season started," said Wyc Grousbeck.

To date, the hiring of Danny Ainge as executive director of basketball operations last May 9 has been the new owners' biggest move.

"Danny Ainge will literally keel over and die if he doesn't win a championship for the Celtics," said Wyc Grousbeck. "And we've told him we will happily retire No. 44 when that happens. We've asked him to do the job for us. He seems to be about the happiest man on the face of the earth right now because he's got a challenge and he might be able to achieve it."

Since Ainge took over, the Celtics have added five players through the draft, free agency, and a sign and trade with Cleveland. They also re-signed Walter McCarty and Mark Blount for more than the veteran minimum, the kind of money it initially appeared the new owners would not pay. The Celtics begin training camp with much-needed depth: 14 players under contract as opposed to the 12 last year.

The basketball staff also has expanded under Ainge, with the support of the owners. For example, the team brought in two strength and conditioning coaches, Brian Doo and Walter Norton, to replace Shaun Brown.

Most important, Ainge made it a priority this summer to extend the contracts of coach Jim O'Brien and the assistants.

The owners are comfortable with Ainge making the basketball decisions and trust his judgment enough to spend. They are focused on running the business and charitable sides of the organization, while enjoying, but not evaluating, the basketball side.

"Any time you enter a new type of business, you have a lot to learn," said Irv Grousbeck. "We've certainly tried to learn some things and probably have a lot more to learn. There are also some basic principles of business practice that apply to all businesses. Those would include things like trying to get the best people in your organization, trying to treat everybody fairly with respect, and trying to listen well and learn while you're managing."

Added Epstein, "I don't think we had that much official second-guessing. But when you're doing something and you're watching something unfold in front of you that you have a high level of responsibility for, inevitably you have to sit there and ask yourself lots and lots of questions. Sometimes the questions get answered in the next game or the next practice. But I would say we're probably all much more into the drill now and get it much better than when we started."

The owners also have emphasized an upgrade of equipment and scouting resources. While those changes are not as visible as a new free agent, the owners believe they can be of equal or greater value over the long term. They have increased the scouting budget to allow a greater presence in Europe. They have devoted more financial resources into information-gathering systems that produce analyses of players. On Sunday, the Celtics were making preparations to install all new fitness equipment at the practice facility.

According to Pagliuca, who has been heavily involved in upgrading the basketball side, the owners have spent more than $20 million in improvements this offseason.

"We are not running the team to maximize profitability," said Pagliuca. "But instead, we are investing to try and build a championship program. It's being run more as a labor of love than from a bottom-line, profit-and-loss perspective."

In response to criticism voiced by many season ticket-holders over the steep increase in seat prices at the FleetCenter, Wyc Grousbeck said, "The fans are stepping up. Ownership is stepping up. We all decided we have to do everything we can. It's not going into my pocket. Those ticket prices are probably paying a third of this basketball budget increase. Most of it's coming from the ownership's pocket. This is what it takes to improve the basketball side, to get Danny here, to renew Jim O'Brien and his coaches and give them raises, carry 14 players instead of 12. And let's see what happens this fall."

As the Celtics make their way through the preseason, the ownership promises to again step up financially. But this time it will be for the Boston Celtics Charitable Foundation. On Oct. 20, the owners will hold a massive fund-raiser at the team's training facility, similar to the event held there on draft night, with plenty of food and plenty of Boston legends. Fans and businesses have the opportunity to buy tables for the night for $10,000 to $20,000.

The ownership's executive committee plans to match every dollar raised that night, hoping to relaunch the Boston Celtics Charitable Foundation with more than half a million dollars in startup funds. The foundation focuses on improving the lives of children. Initially, the money will be directed toward three charities: Boston Children's Hospital, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the Horizons Initiative. The owners are looking for ways to make an even greater impact in the community through the Celtics.

"[Last year], it was the most overwhelming and exciting thing," said Wyc Grousbeck. "I had no idea what it would feel like a year later. Now, it feels like we've got this ownership group together. We think the city has really accepted it and there's been real enthusiasm. We've got Ainge in place. We've got an improved team. We know we can spend to win. And we can't wait for the games to start.

"It's a totally different feeling from a year ago, which was we've grabbed a bucking bronco and we don't know what's going to happen. Now, this feels very comfortable."

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