Oh Celtics, take me to the promised land
When I was a fresh journalism graduate in the late 1970s, newspaper jobs around Boston were scarce, and I found myself scrapped to work as a freelancer. I had tried my hand at waiting tables and my manager at 33 Dunster Street at Harvard Square had not very subtly suggested I try another line of work – after a shift.
I managed to get some stories from a few publications and on a lark I called the Boston Celtics front office to see if there might be work for an ambitious young writer who was also a basketball fanatic. . As a young kid in New Jersey in the 60s, I had watched the Celtics dynasty unfold on television. Led by Bill Russell, the team seemed to win every year. Little kids inevitably hitch their wagons to champions: I’ve become a lifelong Celtics fan and avid pick-up hoops player.
Howie McHugh, the former public relations manager who had been with the team since its inception in 1946, told me that I could interview players and write articles for Hoop magazine, the NBA publication sold during matches. The pay was lousy, but it got me into the gym and got me into the press row at the old garden.
At the time, the Celtics were in a serious crisis. It was after their 1976 championship against the Phoenix Suns and a few years before the arrival of a certain Larry Joe Bird. After John Havlicek, their transcendent star retired, the team fell off a cliff. The list was a mix of fading stars like Dave Cowens, Charlie Scott and Jo Jo White and a promising youngster named Cedric Maxwell. Head coach Tom Heinsohn was replaced at the start of the 1977 season by Satch Sanders and the team would finish 32-50, a record not good enough for Celtics fans accustomed to installing new banners in the rafters on a base. annual. It was a far cry from the dynastic Celtics of the 50s and 60s who won 11 championships in 13 years.
I interviewed the likes of Jeff Judkins, a second-round draft pick who showed early promise and went by the name “Little Hondo” to compare him to Havlicek. He lasted two seasons, mostly on the bench. I interviewed Rick Robey, a big man from Kentucky, which ran for five seasons. His claim to fame was being Larry Bird’s best friend on the team. I interviewed Marvin Barnes, a talented but enigmatic former All-American from Providence College. He told me he wanted the Celtics to be his last stop in the NBA. It was. He was cut after just a few games and never played in the league again.
In August 1979, Howie asked me to interview newcomer Bird, fresh from French Lick. I met the reluctant young college star at her agent in Brookline. He was clearly uncomfortable answering questions and nervous about the weight of inflated expectations that had presaged his arrival in Boston. He was billed as the savior of the franchise and he was well aware that he was coming to a town with rabid, some say, crazed sports fans who were hungry for a return to glory.
At that time, it was unclear exactly how he would fare. I remember hearing that he mowed his agent’s lawn and avoided the trappings of fame.
I look at Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with the same expectations I had for Bird, Havlicek and Garnett.
He would, of course, become one of the greatest players in the game and bring three championship banners to hang in the rafters. My reward was a front row seat in the Bird era of the 1980s, the remarkable decade-long run when Bird and Magic Johnson transformed the NBA into a glittering gem of the sports world. I saw the big three of Bird, McHale and Parish bring the franchise to fame. I was in the house when the Celtics beat the LA Lakers in Game 7 to win the title in 1984. In 1986, Bird and the Celtics dominated the league with what many believe was the greatest team in history. of the NBA. When they unfurled Banner #16, it looked like the next one was bound to come, and soon.
But Bird suffered a debilitating back injury that ended his career. And in the early 1990s, things got dark. They tragically lost a budding young star named Len Bias to a cocaine overdose the night he was drafted by the Celtics in 1986. Incredibly, they also lost Reggie Lewis, who died of cardiac arrest at 27. years in 1993. The franchise would retreat into a low that tarnished Celtics Pride. It would be 22 years before the Celtics won the #17 championship in 2008.
I had stopped writing for the team long before that title season, but remained a die-hard fan, suffering from the long drought and reveling in the new big three: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Alas, this team only managed one championship while the hated Lakers continued to add banners and eventually caught up to the Celtics in the title standings.
All of which explains why this current Celtics team, now firmly entrenched in the NBA Finals, has been an eye opener for this old fan. It has been 14 years since the last banner was raised. Since 2008 I have been enrolled in Medicare and need captioning to know what someone is saying when I watch TV. I kissed pickleball, for screaming out loud.
I look at Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with the same expectations I had for Bird, Havlicek and Garnett. Take me to the promised land, I silently urge this talented young team. Not so silently, I scold the referees and startle the dog.
As I write this, it is unclear who will win this title. But if the world of basketball is to be overhauled, there will be ducks on Boylston Street when the summer solstice arrives.
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