Part of the usual decor for basketball games in Boston Garden was missing on New Year's Eve. The Celtics' 11 world championship banners, reminders of Boston's dominance of the NBA during Bill Russell's 13-year career, were reefed to the bare girders in the arena ceiling. Their absence was brief, a concession to the ice show scheduled to go on shortly after the Celts' game with the Warriors; in spirit, however, those banners have been furled ever since Russell's retirement 18 months ago. And Celtic haters, their numbers large in both leagues among players and coaches whose careers were frustrated by the Boston hegemony, doubtlessly have savored every moment that the flags have hung merely as tokens of nostalgia.
But just as the disappearance of the banners was only an illusion, so the eclipse of the Celtics, that pleasant period avidly anticipated by their victims, has turned into a fleeting affair, almost a mirage.
There are new Celtics now. Although they are not yet good enough to rekindle the animosity directed at their predecessors, these Celts have already gained the respect of the rest of the league after only one season far down in the NBA standings. Led by John Havlicek, who is enjoying his best year with 29 points per game after suddenly becoming his team's old man, and by redheaded Center Dave Cowens, who is likely to become Rookie of the Year, Boston is back in the business of fighting for a place in the playoffs. The Celtics are not apt to win any banners this spring, even if they do edge Philadelphia for the second playoff position in the Atlantic Division, but it may not be too long before they add some new decorations to their ceiling.
Except for Havlicek, none of the present Celtics started on the last championship team; in fact, none of them were in the starting lineup even a year ago. Guard Jo Jo White was in the Marines then but has now been elected to the NBA East All-Star team in his first season as a starter. Don Chaney, who was graduated from Houston two years ago with a reputation for defensive skill, has developed strong moves to the basket, making him Boston's toughest driver on the fast break. Steve Kuberski, a 6'8" forward, was so impressive as a rookie last season that the Celtics gave up Bailey Howell in the expansion draft.
"Last year people really stuck it to us whenever they could," Coach Tom Heinsohn said last week, "but by last summer I knew we'd have a good team, probably next year. I figured we might jell about the middle of this year."
The Celtics jelled much earlier than that, winning 10 straight during December to push ahead of Philadelphia. The main reason was Cowens, the 6'9" 230-pounder who was the fourth player picked in the college draft last spring. Before the season began Heinsohn was not sure whether the big rookie would be a center or a forward, which matches the unpredictable quality of Cowens' own style.
To start with, he was a swimmer, not a basketball player, in high school at Newport, Ky. Competing in the 100-yard backstroke and the 200-yard freestyle, Cowens remembers finishing as high as second once for a team that never had won a meet. He decided to take up basketball in his junior year, since his chances for development in swimming seemed rather limited. "We had a coach who didn't know how to swim, so whenever he'd try to work us too hard we'd threaten to throw him in the pool," he said.
When he graduated from high school Cowens was not good enough to receive so much as a glance from Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. He went to Florida State, where he improved mightily, attracting crowds of pro scouts and almost no one else. In his junior and senior years at FSU the Seminoles played brilliantly, but the only notice they received came when the school was twice put on NCAA probation. The team was ineligible for tournaments, and Cowens got about as much general attention as he would have if he had remained a swimmer. Last summer he began learning how to play forward in playground leagues in Boston while doing research at Harvard on, among other things, the electric chair, to fulfill some of the requirements he must meet to receive his degree in criminology. Along the way, he passed up the opportunity to become basketball's counterpart to baseball's Hawk Harrelson or hockey's Derek Sanderson. Boston youngsters like their sports heroes to swing, preferably with a bachelor pad near Kenmore Square and frequent appearances in the company of the best-looking stewardesses, whose habitat is the hip watering holes of that area. Cowens, whose mouth naturally forms a sardonic smirk that is enhanced by his long, bright red hair, does his swinging low-visibility style, most often at the house he has rented 20 miles out in the suburbs or at bars that feature country-and-western music.
He started Boston's first two games at forward, then was moved to center. His best spot in the pros ultimately will be as a cornerman, but he has been the season's most effective rookie, even though he is playing out of position. Defensively, he has difficulty controlling 7-foot rivals, but otherwise his game is sound. He has averaged 17 points, and his rebounding has regenerated the Celtic fast break that fizzled badly last year.
Havlicek remarked on this recently. "I'm scoring more, partially because I'm playing more," he said. "But another reason is that our fast break is working. I'm getting the ball closer to the basket and getting better percentage shots. Dave's responsible. He's getting the ball and throwing it out quickly."
During Boston's win streak the fast break was working as well as any in the NBA, but the comfortable lead the team had built up over Philadelphia disappeared when it lost seven of the next 11 games, most of them during one of the longest road trips in Celtic history. Erratic rookies are perhaps harder for an ex-Celtic-player-turned-coach to understand than they would be for most other people, and Heinsohn, who describes himself as "a not very calm person," has had a sour disposition of late. But in a decidedly calm moment between games last week he explained what the Celtics must do if they are to make the playoffs this season, at least a year ahead of his schedule and long before many non-Celts had hoped they would.
"They aren't pros yet emotionally," said Heinsohn. "They get too high on their successes and too far down over losses. They need to get used to traveling, to playing one night, getting up very early the next morning, flying to another city and playing again that night. Rookies don't think; they're all enthusiasm. We've lost several games on dumbness even though we looked like we had control of the situation. Things like defense and what to do in a close game can be pounded into their heads during practice, but it's no good until they've encountered the same situation over and over in games."
Says Havlicek, "I was always considered the youthful Celtic, the eternal rookie. Now I'm the oldest man on the team. Playing with a young team is great sometimes, but sometimes it's the other way around. We can't turn it on and off when we need to like the old Celtics. We felt we were so good that it was a mistake when we lost."
Heinsohn, who is one of nine former Celts now coaching in college or the pros (excluding ex-Coach Russell, who could have a job simply by mentioning he would like one), is trying to teach his new players the old Boston system. The plays are almost all the same ones that Red Auerbach installed years ago, and the Celtic offense is still based on running at every opportunity. Two major differences are that the defense no longer tries to funnel opponents into the middle, even though Cowens is a good shot blocker, and all five players go for defensive rebounds instead of just one or two. Both adjustments have been made simply because Russell is no longer in there.
In Boston's two games last week the young Celtics showed the worst and the best of their efforts to adapt to the old style. They lost to San Francisco by 38 points and dropped out of second place as even Havlicek played poorly. Cowens was unable to control the Warriors' two tough rebounders, Nate Thurmond and Jerry Lucas, and sat out half the game.
On New Year's Day, after a heavy snowfall, Heinsohn gathered his players for a workout at a secluded gym in suburban Brookline. Once again they were told how to use their hands on defense to control an offensive player. Several, including Cowens, were warned—not for the first time this year—never to fall back on defense with their heads down.
The next night, in Philadelphia, the Celtics did not look as if they needed any lessons as they regained second place with a 125-120 victory. Chaney, the reputed nonshooter, scored 24 points, hitting 11 of 16 shots from the floor. Cowens played his best game as a pro, scoring 29 points and grabbing 19 rebounds, two of them Russell-like individual efforts in the fourth period that checked 76er rallies.
"We can't keep explaining that we've got a lot of rookies and we're going to make mistakes," said Dave. "We've got to learn to travel and to play together, especially at the end of close games when everyone tends to go one-on-one because he thinks he can do it all by himself." It sounded suspiciously like that old Celtic philosophy. With a little execution there would be some more banner days in Boston.