This year the Boston Celtics have had an impressive run in the playoffs. Because of the age of their fabled Big Three players, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the Celtics were not expected to go far in the playoffs. In the past several years, the Big Three has become the Big Four, with point guard Rajon Rondo emerging as one of the great point guards in Celtics history, having several clutch playoff performances in the past few years to lift the team on his shoulders. In the playoffs this year, the Celtics have gone all the way to the conference finals to take the Miami Heat to a seventh game. I’ve been a Celtics fan since the 1976 finals against the Phoenix Sun, when the Celtics had John Havliceck, Paul Silas, and Jo Jo White. My brothers and I are second generation Celtics fans, as my father was a fan way back in the 1960s, during those legendary Red Auerbach teams with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, and Tommy Heinsohn. Being Celtic fans has always been an important thing in my family, as each decade has produced a new generation of great Celtics teams that win championships.
My dad became a Celtics fan in the 1960s, when Red Auerbach had teams that relied on Bill Russells defense and rebounding, and ran teams to the ground led by Bob Cousy’s fast breaks. When he was in the navy, he’d watch games in Madison Square Garden in New York, and he was able to watch the two great centers of the time, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. My dad though both players were great, but he always rated Russell as being a better player than Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a greater offensive player than Russell and could score almost at will. But he was not as good a team player as Russell was. Russell talents were geared towards making his teammates better players, and he was a deeply intelligent team player. As an example, my dad pointed out the different ways that Russell and Chamberlain blocked shots. When Chamberlain blocked a shot, he would dramaticly swat the shot out of bounds. This would create a lot of oohs and ahhs in the crowd, but the other team would still have possession of the ball. When Russell blocked a shot, he always tried to direct the blocked shot towards a teammate so that it would start a fast break. Russell didn’t care what the fans thought. He only cared about helping his team and winning the game.
Red Auerbach was a shrewd coach who knew how to develop a team and knew how to motivate his players. He was a character as a coach, yelling at the referees and doing what he could to be the center of attention. He had a habit of pulling out a cigar and puffing on it if he thought his team was going to win, which infuriated opposing teams. During his dynasty years as a coach, when he won 8 championships in a row, he built his team around Bill Russell’s shotblocking, rebounding and defensive talents. Bill Russell’s talents and the Boston system accentuated his teammates strengths and hid their weaknesses, and it created Hall of Fame players like Frank Ramsey, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders, Tommy Heinsohn, John Havliceck and Bob Cousy. Russell’s rebounds and outlet passes to Bob Cousy led to the first great fast break team in the NBA, as Cousy was one of the great fast break point guards of all time.
As a coach, Auerbach only had 7 basic plays that everyone in the league knew about. These 7 plays though had multiple options and the Celtics were a great passing team. Red Auerbach’s strength as a coach was his shrewd assessment of how to treat each players. With some players, he yelled at them and constantly goaded them, knowing that they needed to be pushed to reach their full potential. He knew though, that if he yelled at more sensitive players they’d go into a shell, so with those players he would encourage them and build up their confidence. In the wonderful Terry Pluto book Tall Tales: The Glory Years Of The NBA, he quotes Bob Cousy as saying:
Like a lot of us, Arnold was a gutter rat out of the ghetto. His strength was motivation. During a game, he was demonstrative and emotional, up and down on the bench, yelling, wearing your ass out. I’m sure that modern coaches would laugh at him because he didn’t use a big playbook, the videos, and everything else that teams have today. But he understood people, and that is crucial at the pro level.
In Tale Tales, Tom Heinsohn said:
Red was the ultimate sports management person. He had a way of listening to players and being honest with them. It wasn’t uncommon during a time-out for him to ask, “Anybody got anything?”
If we had an idea, we knew he really wanted to hear it. Sometimes he took our advice, and sometimes he didn’t. But he really listened.
In the dressing room, I sat between Cousy and Russell. If a lesser man were the coach, this could have been a difficult situation. The fans and press loved Cousy. He was great, he was flashy, and he was white.
Meanwhile, we had a great player in Russell, who was black, and the people in Boston didn’t understand what the hell he was doing. They thought basketball was scoring and they didn’t appreciate that Russell was the greatest defensive player who ever lived. Red became Russell’s John the Baptist. He spread the word about Russell to anyone who would listen, because he knew that Cousy’s publicity would take care of itself. In that way, he balanced the egos, and Russell also understood and appreciated what Red was doing.
Auerbach was able to create a team where everyone contributed through their own individual talents. Russell, K.C. Jones, and Tom Sanders were great defensive players. Cousy was the great passer. Tommy Heinsohn and Sam Jones were great shooters. Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek came off the bench and became the first great sixth men. He blended each of their individual talents for the benefit of the whole team. Rudy LaRusso of the Los Angeles Laker faced the Celtics in several championship games and said of the 1960s Celtics teams in Terry Pluto’s book:
We never had a center to compare with Russell, but we went to seven games with Boston in 1962 and 1966. I remember a couple of talks Schaus gave us in the playoffs that were along the lines of, “We know what Jerry and Elgin are going to do. They’ll have big nights. We can count on them. But we need it from the rest of you guys…”
Then I’d look at Auerbach and he was using 8-9 players and he built up the confidence in all those guys. We had a star system; they had a great team.
A youtube video of Bill Russell
A youtube video of Bob Cousy
I became a Celtics fan in 1976, when I caught the Boston-Phoenix championship series on television. That team was coached by Tommy Heinsohn in a fast break play with John Havlicek and Jo Jo White shooting the ball and Paul Silas and Dave Cowens ferociously rebounding the ball. I caught the Havlicek-Silas-Cowens team towards the end of their championship run, as they lost to the Dr. J Sixers team the next year and they began to lose in the late 1970s. My passion for the Celtics really got going with the coming of Larry Bird in 1979. Bird was, and is, my favorite basketball player. Bird was one of the great all-around players of all time. A good shooter, a superb passer and rebounder, Bird had the ability that Bill Russell had of making his teammates better players. Larry wasn’t a good one-on-one defensive player, but he played good team defense, cheating along the passing lanes to steal passes and dribbles. And he was probably one of the best clutch shooters of his generation. The only players of his generation as good in the clutch were Magic and Jordan.
With all of Bird’s talents, he wouldn’t have won a championship if Red Auerbach had not engineered a trade with the Golden State Warriors to get Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Parish and McHale were great offensive and defensive players who helped Bird cover his one weakness: Bird’s weakness as a one-on-one defender. Parish and McHale provided the shotblocking and rebounding that anchored the Celtics defense of the 1980s championship teams. Peter May wrote in his book The Big Three about the basketball chemistry of Bird, Parish, and McHale:
On the court, they complemented each other at both ends. Bird and Parish worked an unstoppable pick-and-roll. Parish, who was rarely an option on offense and never complained about it, would set a pick while Bird figured out the rest. The pick-and-roll can work only if the man with the ball can shoot and pass, and Bird could do both. “No one could run a pick-and-roll like me and Robert,” Bird said…
Similarly, there was no way to defend McHale, who worked tirelessly on a litany of moves around the basket, a Luis Tiant in the post, always taking advantage of his unique frame, which seemed to be a combination of parts from a tall man’s store. he had the reach of someone three inches taller than he was, and at 6-11 he was already one of the bigger forwards in the league. He had the wingspan to stay off a player defensively and the ability to block a shot if challenged from anywhere. Offensively, he developed into an automatic basket by the mid-1980s if he had the ball in the post and wasn’t immediately double-teamed.
On defense, Bird would funnel his player into the middle, where Parish and McHale were waiting. Bird was never a solid individual defender, but he could play outstanding “help” defense, which more often than not violated the NBA’s rule on zone defenses. But he got away with it.
Surrounding the Big Three were some great players. The championship teams of the early 1980s had Tiny Archibald, Cedric Maxwell, Chris Ford, Rick Robey, M.L. Carr, and Gerald Henderson. My favorite Celtics team was the 1986 team with Bird, Parish, McHale, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge in the starting five, and Bill Walton, Scott Wedman and Jerry Sichting coming off the bench. My family would go to mass at 9 a.m. and rush home after the service to watch NBA basketball on channel 5 with Tommy Heinsohn and Dick Stockton. My entire family were Celtics fans and we watched a lot of great games.
I loved the great rivalries that the Celtics had with other teams. In the early 1980s, the Celtics had a great rivalry with the Dr. J Sixers teams with Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones. There were the great Celtics/Lakers rivalries with Magic, Kareem, Michael Cooper, and Byron Scott. My brothers and I hated the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons teams of Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Rick Mahorn and Bill Lambeir. I remember playing basketball in the playgrounds with my brothers and our friends and we had several arguments about who was the better team and who was the better players. Until the mid 1980s, most of my friends were Sixers fans because of Dr. J. When the Sixers began to decline, people switched to being Michael Jordan fans. We lived in the Bay Area, Golden State Warriors territory, so I don’t remember anyone being a Lakers fan.
I remember a lot of great games and great series. I watched the famous 1988 playoff game where Bird and Dominique Wilkins got into a shootout in the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the Boston/Atlanta series. In that game, I remember McHale having a great game and Randy Wittman didn’t miss a shot. I remember Bird’s performance in 1984 where he just took over the game in the championship series versus the Lakers in Boston Garden. In the last game of the 1986 series versus the Houston Rockets, Bird just took over the game and I remember him going to the three point line to shoot a three pointer to stab a dagger into the hearts of the Rockets. There was the Greg Kite game in game 3 of the 1987 Celtics/Lakers championship series, where benchwarmer Greg Kite got 9 rebounds, played good defense against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and blocked a Magic Johnson shot.
One of my favorite games is actually a game where the Celtics lost. It was probably the last of the great Celtics/Sixers games. It was in the mid1980s. Dr. J and Charles Barkley both started out well. Near halftime, Danny Ainge and Sedealle Threate got into a fight. Towards the end of the game, Bird missed two free throws that would’ve won the game. Dr. J scored the last 8 points in the game, capped by a three pointer from a jump ball that won the game.
A youtube video of game 7 of the Celtics/Piston series of 1987
A youtube video of the Bird/Dominique shootout in game 7 of the Celtics/Hawks playoff of 1988
A youtube video of the 1986 Boston Celtics
A youtube video of Robert Parish talking about the Big Three of the 1980s and the Big Three of the 2000s
In the 1990s, the Celtics fell on hard times when the Big Three retired. The team was devasted by two tragic deaths that could’ve kept the winning ways going in the 1990s: the death of Len Bias in 1986 and the death of Reggie Lewis in 1993. The 1990s were tough times to be Celtics fans. My brothers eventually drifted off to follow Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams, but I stuck with the Celtics. They had some good players, like Dino Radja and Dee Brown, but the team no longer played with a championship calibre. There was a brief revival in the early 2000s with Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, but the team couldn’t sustain its winning ways. The road to the championships were truly paved when Danny Ainge traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007. The core of the team of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo have led the Celtics to championship, two NBA Finals appearances, three Eastern Conference Finals appearances and five Atlantic Division titles. Kevin Garnett anchored the defense with his intensity, strong rebounding and fierce leadership skills. Ray Allen provided clutch shooting and provided a memorable game 2 in the 2010 championships where he hit 8 three-pointers. Paul Pierce provided grit when he came back from an injury in the first game of the 2008 championships against the Lakers and scored 15 points in the third quarter, providing the leadership that made him the Most Valuable Player in the championship series. Rajon Rondo has developed into one of the greatest point guards in Celtics history, providing speed, good passing abilities, and the ability to take over games in the playoffs with his drives, passes and rebounding. During the playoffs he has produced countless triple-doubles, and he showed his toughness last year in the playoffs when he came back from a dislocated elbow to lead the Celtics to a playoff win.
The wonderful thing about these Celtics is how they sublimate their talents to help their team win. They play basketball in the same ways that the 1960s Russell Celtics, the 1970s Cowens Celtics and the 1980s Bird Celtics played. And many thanks should go to the role players that have helped Rondo, Pierce, Allen, and Garnett in the past 5 years: Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace, Glenn “Big Baby” Davis, Brandon Bass and many others.
As I write this, the Celtics just lost to the Miami Heat in the 7th game of the conference finals. I feel sad, but I’m proud of the team. I’ve been very happy watching this Celtics edition over the past 5 years. I have to admit that I’m not as fervent a follower of the NBA as I was as a kid. I only really begin watching the team on television during the playoffs. But the family are once again Celtics followers. Now the the siblings have children, we have to get the nieces and nephew to become Boston Celtics fans too. I end this blog with an article by Ray Watanabe where he quotes Ray Allen:
As he sat at the podium in front of the assembled media, expertly dressed as always in a greenish-tan suit and paisley tie, Allen sounded like he was pondering the end of more than that. Asked what it was like playing with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the Celtics for the past five years, Allen departed from the clichéd line about not having time to look back on those things now. He sounded like he fully understood the magnitude of the moment. He even sounded a little ashamed.
“It’s always been somewhat- intimidating,” Allen said. “You walk into a building everyday and you see the banners and the retired jerseys and it just always makes you work a little bit harder. It’s been a privilege. When (John) Havlicek is in the building, when (Bob) Cousy is around, when Tommy (Heinsohn) is watching us every day and Bill Russell is at the games, those are like our big brothers.
“We know we have some big shoes to fill. There’s a lot that we need to do to compare to what they’ve done, and we’ve definitively fallen short. But we’ve gone out trying to play as hard as we can every night.”
A youtube video of Bill Russell interviewing Kevin Garnett
A youtube video of the Big Four in 2010/2011
A youtube video interview of the Big Three
A youtube video of Paul Pierce
A youtube video of Ray Allen shooting 8 three-pointers versus the Lakers in game 2 of the 2010 championships
A youtube video of Rajon Rondo’s 44 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds & 3 Steals game versus the Miami Heat in 2012