The worst part of the whole grisly nightmare for Red Auerbach was that people thought he had actually stopped smoking. Stopped smoking! As architect of the Boston Celtics' dynasty through all those years as the team's coach, and even in his role as the club's high-profile general manager, Auerbach had sealed each victory by lighting up one of his dreadful green cigars. He had helped hang 13 championship banners from the rafters of Boston Garden, and over the years had probably made more people ill than a flu epidemic. Then two seasons ago the Celtics began to lose, lose big, and suddenly the team began to make people sick. People kept asking Auerbach what had become of those cute little cigars he used to smoke.
By the end of last week Auerbach was once again turning his seatmates positively green. The Celtics were making the rest of the NBA queasy, too. With successive victories over New Jersey and Indiana at home—where the Celtics are unbeaten this year—and a 106-101 win in Atlanta, Boston appeared to be capable of turning stomachs all the way to the playoffs and beyond.
To appreciate where the Celtics stood at week's end—Boston had the best record in the NBA (15-4) and was a game and a half ahead of Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division—one had to remember where they had been the past two seasons. After finishing the 1977-78 season with a dismal 32-50 record, the team that had once won eight world championships in a row stumbled to a hideous 29-53 mark in 1978-79. In that one nightmare season the Celtics went through two coaches (Satch Sanders and Dave Cowens), tried 21 different starting lineups and shuttled 18 different players in and out of town. They finished dead last in the Atlantic Division, 25 games behind first-place Washington. The only team in the entire league with a worse won-loss percentage was the New Orleans Jazz, a club now playing under an assumed name somewhere in the Wasatch Mountains.
The depth of Boston's decline cannot be overemphasized. It was as if by blowing first-round draft choices year after year on the fabled Clarence Glover, Steve Downing, Glenn McDonald, Tom Boswell and Norm Cook, someone in the Celtics' front office was trying to make up to the rest of the league for all the years of Boston's dominance. Even trades that had seemed promising—deals for name players like Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Billy Knight, Marvin Barnes and Bob McAdoo—had caused only problems. "My first season here we had seven guys who were All-Stars," says third-year Forward Cedric Maxwell, himself a budding star with a league-leading .667 field-goal shooting percentage. "We had more talent then than we do now—superstars at every position—but a lot of them were misfits. Just because you put five guys together on the floor doesn't mean they're going to play well together."
The Celtics certainly proved that. The height of their front-office folly came last winter when John Y. Brown, then the club's owner—he has since got himself elected governor of Kentucky on the skirttails of his bride, Phyllis George—swapped three first-round draft choices to New York for McAdoo. Auerbach was displeased but philosophical. "What are you gonna do?" he says now. "Criticize the owner? Besides, people wouldn't have believed me if I told them how dumb this guy was. He'll probably try to trade the Kentucky Derby for the Indianapolis 500."
Inept as they seemed through these dreadful times, the Celtics did manage to do one thing right. In the 1978 draft Auerbach selected Larry Bird, then a junior at Indiana State, gambling that he could sign Bird before the following year's college draft. Bird did, indeed, come to terms with Boston after leading Indiana State to the NCAA finals last spring.
There are many ways to gauge Bird's importance to the Celtics, but probably the simplest and most telling is to point out that he is the only new face in the starting lineup that finished the season for Boston last season, replacing McAdoo. Against Indiana last Friday he scored 30 points, his high as a pro, in a 118-103 victory over the Pacers. That brought the Celtics' record to a tidy 9-0 at home, and six of those games have been sellouts. In all of last season they filled the Garden only once—for the retirement of John Havlicek's number. Boston sold more than 6,000 season tickets this year, the most in the history of the franchise. Average attendance has jumped from 10,193 in 1978-79 to 13,849, 90% of capacity. The reason for the surge at the gate is unquestionably Bird.
"We're the hot ticket in town now, the one the wise guys have to have," says Assistant General Manager Jeff Cohen. "Bird has been a huge part of that because he's lived up to what was expected of him. This town has been let down so often by its teams that for him to be as good as everybody said he would be is a tremendous thing. Bird is the kind of player that fathers in Boston have been telling their sons about all these years when they talked about how the old Celtics played."
Bird played one of his least impressive games in last week's 111-103 win over New Jersey, and yet he finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds. When the Celtics trailed by 15 points in the third period it was he who rallied them. With 6:38 left in the third quarter, Bird had scored only four points. He drove the left baseline for a basket and then banged in a follow-up of his own missed shot, and that seemed to awaken the crowd. He followed with a pair of free throws, hit a nifty shot as he crossed the lane and launched a flying 24-footer just ahead of the buzzer for a three-pointer that put the Celtics up by a point going into the final period.
Bird has scored in double figures in all 19 of the games he has played as a pro, and he leads the Celtics in scoring (19.1 points a game), rebounding (10.1) and, less happily, turnovers. As with most great passers, however, Bird is not truly responsible for all the turnovers credited to him—many of his innovative passes are dropped or fumbled. Bird trails Guard Tiny Archibald by a wide margin in assists (as does almost everyone; Archibald leads the league with an average of nine a game), but the Bird may be the best passer in the NBA. "Tiny will create off a freelance move," says Boston Coach Bill Fitch, "but at this level a lot of players can do that. Larry can create off a set play, and in the context of that play he can invent something that's never been done."
Bird proved that beyond any doubt two weeks ago against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Holding the ball facing the basket at the left-wing position and guarded by Toby Knight, Bird saw a teammate break over a pick and toward the basket, but appeared to have no opening for a pass because Knight had defended the play well. Without moving his feet, Bird shoveled the ball behind his back with his right hand, and delivered a perfect bounce pass that Knight never saw. It was a dazzling play—so dazzling, in fact, that Bird's teammate, Jeff Judkins, missed the layup, and two New York newspaper columnists missed Judkins, reporting instead that it was Celtic Guard Gerald Henderson who had received the pass. One of the columnists even insisted that Henderson had made the layup. With Bird, what you see is what you get, but what you get isn't always what you think you see.
The addition of Bird has not only made Celtics games more exciting for the Boston faithful, but it has also had a tonic effect on Cowens' game at center. Recently Cowens was asked if it was fun to play for the Celtics again, fun in the way it had been in 1974 and again in '76 when he was a near-heroic figure on Boston championship teams. Cowens knows all about fun. Wasn't it he, after all, who, on the occasion of being introduced to Phyllis George when she was a CBS headliner, told the former Miss America she had some food caught in her teeth and asked her politely if she wouldn't like some dental floss to get it out? Wasn't this that Dave Cowens? Well, no, apparently not. Cowens considered the question for a long moment, then said, "Define fun." Hoo, boy.
Fun wasn't the only thing missing from Cowens' game last season. Gone, too, was The Look—the zombie-crazy aspect of a very disgruntled werewolf that comes over Cowens' face when his concentration on the game is complete. Cowens is now in his 10th season with the Celtics, and when he was good he was very good. But he no longer jumps as well, so without The Look he is really just another 6'8" white guy trying to play center.
When the Celtics leaped out to a 2-12 start last season and Satch Sanders had to be fired, Auerbach gave the job to Cowens, hoping it would stimulate him. The Look didn't return.
Cowens' play last year was a matter of considerable concern to Fitch when he arrived at the Celtics last June after nine seasons in Cleveland. "Dave has to have a high level of intensity to be a great player," Fitch says. "A center is like a bullfighter—if he loses that intensity he gets gored. Dave was getting gored, and it hurt to watch."
No one was more painfully aware of Cowens' shortcomings than Cowens himself. The Celtics' long winning tradition had been an emotional rudder for him during his first seven seasons in Boston, a kind of psychic automatic pilot. "Anytime you have a tradition like the Celtics have," he says, "you get so you do things without question, because that's the way they've always been done. It's like a religion. Last year we didn't do a lot of the things people associate with the Celtics' tradition, and that was because there were a lot of people here who weren't willing to pay the price. And what it boils down to is if you want to win you have to pay a price."
Not until training camp was Fitch convinced that Cowens was willing to pay his price. "I only had Dave's word that he was going to bend it to win," Fitch says. "He had to prove himself like everybody else."
Fitch didn't leave any fan clubs behind him in Cleveland, but after two sea-needed in Boston, and the Celtics seemed to welcome Fitch's tough discipline. "Getting Fitch was the smartest move I ever made," says Auerbach. "He's a disciple of mine, you know. He studied the way I coached and everything."
Fitch's job was made easier when the Celtics signed free-agent Forward M. L. Carr from Detroit and then unloaded McAdoo as compensation in the bargain. Only two NBA players had more playing time last season than Carr, and he led the league in steals, but it was as much for his disposition—which is resolutely cheerful—as his skills that Boston went after him.
When Fitch arrived in Boston he decided it was important to make Carr happy about becoming the Celtics' sixth man. If he mentioned the names of other great Celtics sixth men of the past—names like Frank Ramsey, Havlicek, and Paul Silas—it didn't have much of an effect on Carr. "I don't want to get caught up in that sixth-man syndrome," Carr says. "I have a role to play, and it doesn't matter if I'm the sixth or the seventh or the eighth man, I'll still play just as hard. This is the happiest I've ever been. I'm one of the most fortunate people in the world. I think I have the best job in the country, a better job than President Carter, and I'll probably keep mine longer."
That didn't look like a particularly good bet when Carr reported to early camp in September. Not wanting to risk an injury before he had signed a contract, Carr had taken the summer off and came to camp absurdly overweight. He wast't a particularly impressive sight in the Celtics' early preseason games. "I think if they hadn't known me," Carr says, "they would have wondered what kind of mistake they had made. We went down to New York for an exhibition game and I was wobbling up and down the floor so badly they were calling me Fat Boy, but I was just keeping my money tied around my waist because I didn't know what the economy was going to do." By the opening game of the regular season Carr had either slimmed down or made a big deposit in a savings & loan because he came out of the blocks like a rocket—a svelte rocket—and has given the Celtics 14.3 points a game and incalculable leadership.
The team has held nothing back, hoping to find out quickly if it is for real. "We had to start off well for our own sakes to get our confidence back," says Cowens.
It's unlikely that there was another player on the Celtics' roster whose confidence needed restoring more desperately than Archibald. He was one of the premier guards in the game when he ruptured an Achilles' tendon in 1977. Last season, his first in Boston, he was coming back from a layoff of a year and a half, and he was both rusty and not-so-tiny. And though he had dropped 10 to 15 pounds when he showed up for training camp this fall, it was clear that he had become a dour workman. "Tiny was sullen and withdrawn when he fell on hard times," says Fitch. "He used to be able to drive down the middle of the lane and not meet more than one defensive player, but the game has changed since he left. Now you see more zones and static defenses, which meant that he was going to have to be more effective from around the perimeter."
It also meant that if Boston was going to key its fast-break offense to its defense, Archibald was going to have to play defense rather than wait for the other team to shoot. He has done just that. This season the Celtics' passing offense has been so ruthlessly efficient at times that over a recent stretch of nine quarters, 92 of 113 Boston field goals came as a direct result of an assist. If that isn't some kind of an NBA record it probably ought to be.
To Auerbach it certainly seemed reason enough to light up another cigar. In Boston Garden people just breathed deeply and smiled.