WALTHAM -- Jim O'Brien resigned as head coach of the Celtics yesterday, shocking players, owners, and director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, and leaving a significant amount of money on the table. Assistant coach Dick Harter, a defensive specialist and longtime friend of O'Brien, was fired by the team.
Assistant coach John Carroll was installed as interim head coach for the remainder of the season, and new assistants may be added to the staff.
During a brief press conference at the team's practice facility at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint, Ainge cited philosophical differences with O'Brien regarding the direction of the team and personnel decisions. While Ainge said he did not view the differences as insurmountable, O'Brien apparently did, and in the wake of a blowout loss to the New Jersey Nets Sunday, O'Brien determined he could no longer coach the team.
According to team and league sources, O'Brien vented his frustrations Monday afternoon to Ainge. He offered his resignation in a meeting with Ainge yesterday morning.
O'Brien, whose guaranteed contract runs for two more seasons after this one, declined comment at his home last night. Those remaining two years are believed to be worth approximately $6 million.
"Jim vents, but I usually don't disagree with his venting," said Ainge. "That's why I don't feel our differences are that monumental. But he disagrees. He thinks that they are monumental and I don't see it that way. But we are different.
"I guess if a guy doesn't want to work on the relationship and see the things going forward, then I respect the fact that he's willing to walk away and not drag us down, in his own words.
"I think Jim O'Brien is just a great human being. I'm a big fan and always will be a big fan of his. But he just didn't believe that it was going to work.
"With these things, there always has to be a reason, there always has to be somebody that's at fault. But I don't really think that I'm at fault. I don't think that Jim's at fault. Jim just recognized that it wasn't going to work in his mind."
Far from dragging down the team, O'Brien returned the Celtics to the playoffs in 2001-02 after a six-year absence. They won two rounds, in fact, and lost in the Eastern Conference finals to New Jersey, four games to two.
O'Brien, 51, took over in January 2001 after Rick Pitino resigned. He posted a .500 record (24-24) for the remainder of the season, earning the job on a permanent basis. With an unwavering emphasis on defense, O'Brien posted a 139-119 record in his tenure, 13-13 in the postseason.
Last year's Celtics lost in the second round of the playoffs to New Jersey. Currently, the Celtics are 22-24 as they head into tonight's game against Detroit, in second place in the Atlantic Division and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Despite public statements avowing mutual respect, Ainge and O'Brien were thought by many to have a problematic relationship for some time. Trades with Dallas (last October) and Cleveland (in December) -- plus the indefinite suspension of Vin Baker for alcohol-related problems -- left O'Brien with only three holdovers from last season: Paul Pierce, Walter McCarty, and Mark Blount.
The Celtics increasingly became a team O'Brien was uncomfortable coaching. "I think Jim was ultimately frustrated by the situation where Danny made all the decisions, frequently against his objections," said Basketball Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, who is O'Brien's father-in-law and frequent confidant. "The net result was a team that wasn't of Jim's liking and not one he wanted to coach especially.
"This was an extremely difficult season for Jim."
O'Brien was strongly opposed to the Dec. 15, 2003, deal that sent Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and Kedrick Brown to the Cavaliers in exchange for Ricky Davis, Chris Mihm, and Michael Stewart. The loss of Williams, who was a vocal veteran leader and defensive stalwart, was especially tough for O'Brien.
The Cleveland trade came after the Celtics had won five games in a row.
The other major trade, made a few days before the season began, sent Antoine Walker and Tony Delk to the Mavericks for Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch, Chris Mills, and a first-round pick.
With the revamped roster, O'Brien was forced to start instructing the team almost from scratch.
"He thought they had turned the corner and had gotten the team really focused after they had that five-game winning streak, and they come back and he loses three players," said Ramsay. "Eric Williams was a key guy for Jim. It was fighting an uphill battle from there.
"The whole process, the evaluation of players and where Danny thinks the team is going with the players that they have, that he's acquired, is not the same evaluation that Jim has.
"I think the loss at New Jersey on Sunday was a key loss. The way they played and just the whole atmosphere of that game was not the way he wanted the team to play."
Players were told of O'Brien's decision yesterday afternoon, and the news was understandably painful for those who had played under him the longest. One reason O'Brien succeeded in returning the Celtics to the playoffs was his ability to earn the trust and respect of his players.
"It's painful," said Blount. "He is just good people. His family has a good man, a really good man. If anybody wanted to know what a father figure is, they just have to look at O'Brien. He's a gentleman. He's first class."
Ainge, who coached the Phoenix Suns for three-plus seasons from 1996-99, said he had no intentions of getting back on the sidelines.