Sitting in an empty dressing stall in Houston's Summit, Red Auerbach looked very Buddha-like—serene mien, round belly, little smile—except for the fat cigar sticking out of his mush. The Boston Celtics had just beaten the Houston Rockets 102-91 to win the NBA title, four games to two, and Red always lights up when the Celts win, be it an exhibition game or a world championship.
All around him was the stifling, soaking, sweaty chaos of a champion's dressing room. Yet Red was unruffled, puffing clouds of smoke while droplets of champagne ran down strands of his sparse, now-white hair. Had he been worried when the Celtics had nearly blown a 17-point fourth-period lead in Game 6 to a desperate and ferocious Rocket team that nearly forced a seventh game? "Nah," said Red. "I've always said, 'I don't get ulcers, I give 'em.' "
With a shrug Auerbach ran through each of the 14 championship teams the Celtics have produced under his direction, nine as general manager-coach, five as general manager only. "They were all great," he said. "But, you know, of the ones I didn't coach, this one might be the best because we did it with these kids." He waved his cigar in a semicircle before him, as though it were a magic wand. Maybe it was.
In a corner Larry Bird, the 24-year-old second-year forward, sat alone, quietly contemplating it all. His energy and emotions for the most part had already been spent. After almost matching Houston's awesome Moses Malone rebound for rebound—both had nearly 16 per game—and leading both teams in assists and steals, Bird had shaken a series-long shooting slump in the finale and scored 27 points, seven in the final four minutes when the Celtics needed them most. The shot that broke the Rockets' backs was an icy-cool three-pointer from the left corner, 24 feet out. Swish. The game was over, and Bird ran off in a flurry of high 10s—that's two palms slapping two palms—with his teammates. At the trophy presentation by Commissioner Larry O'Brien, Bird had playfully grabbed the cigar out of Auerbach's mouth and taken a wide-grinned puff himself.
May 24, 1981
In the middle of the room, 25-year-old Forward Cedric Maxwell, a quiet man who has labored in Bird's shadow the last two years and is the sole link to the old John Havlicek-Dave Cowens-JoJo White Celtics, planted a kiss on the championship trophy and proclaimed the moment "the greatest of my life." On the strength of his performance in the series—leading the Celtics in scoring in Games 3, 4 and 5 and averaging 17.6 points and 9.5 rebounds, 5.6 off the offensive boards—Maxwell was voted the Most Valuable Player.
Elsewhere, Robert Parish, the big center the other Celtics call Chief because he smiles about as often as a cigar store Indian, was smiling, chiefly because he had come back from the missing-in-action list to score 18 points in each of the last two games and put the heavy muscle to Malone, whose 20 and 23 were nowhere near enough for the guard-starved Rockets. Outside the locker room, Parish's mother, in from Shreveport, La., dashed around collecting autographs from everybody—and anybody. Kevin McHale, the bon vivant rookie, stood on a table and in reference to a preseason contract hassle screamed, "Thanks, Red, for not letting me play in Italy!" while chugging his first bottle of champagne and smoking his first filched-from-Auerbach cigar of the night on his way to half a dozen of each. "I never knew winning could be so tough on a man," he would say the morning after.
Then there were the two old men of the team, Tiny Archibald and Chris Ford, 11- and nine-year veterans, respectively, who had labored on bad teams for most of their careers. "This was my ultimate goal," said Archibald. Said Ford, "People have knocked me ever since I came into the league. White, slow, now I'm too old. I always knew that basketball was a team game. Now I'm part of a championship team and I'm a Celtic. That's being part of history."
Coach Bill Fitch felt the same way. He'd been the ogre who worked these players almost to exhaustion during the 99-game season. He'd sacrificed sleep to watch miles of videotape, he'd aged at least five years in one, and by the end of the series he couldn't sit in a chair comfortably because of a sore back. He'd broken a blackboard in anger, chewed out his players and pointed out their lapses in public. Many of them dislike his tactics, some dislike him personally. But they all came to respect him for bringing them through to the championship in his 11th year of coaching in the pros, his second in Boston.
"For two years we've been looking at those 13 banners hanging from the ceiling," said Fitch, who had never won an NBA title before. "Now we know what each team had to go through to get its banner. Hard work, and nothing but."
It's true, of course. There's no championship in sport that's more punishing in the winning than the NBA's. The Celtics had theirs wrapped up, or so they had through, after miraculously coming back from 1-3 to beat Philadelphia in a classic seven-game Eastern Conference final. But they underestimated Houston, and after four games the teams were tied at 2-2 and heading back to Boston for Game 5.
Then Malone, who heretofore had been known for speaking with his game rather than his mouth, made the big mistake. Before the game, he repeated what he'd already said several times—"Boston ain't that good"—but this time he added an extra barb: "I could get four guys off the street from back home in Petersburg [Va.] and beat them." Fitch couldn't have come up with a better motivational pitch for his team. The Boston Globe ran the quote in giant type, and Fitch personally pasted a copy in the locker of every Celtic.
Before Game 5 Maxwell sidled over to reserve Guard Gerald Henderson and told him, "I'm going to have a great game tonight. I know it. Larry [Bird] is having trouble with his shot. I'm going to do it on offense tonight."
Henderson didn't doubt Maxwell. In the Philadelphia series Maxwell had declared himself "the dog" after Boston lost the first game and vowed to "play great" the rest of the way. He did, shackling Julius Erving and earning great praise from Fitch and great hatred from the Philadelphia fans. In Game 6 of that series an event occurred that shocked Maxwell even more than his teammates. He went into the seats to attack a taunting fan in the Spectrum and was fined $2,500 by the NBA. "I still don't know why I did that," he says. "I may be the most reserved player in the league. My mother was terribly upset. But that incident really rallied the team. So it must have happened for a reason."
After the Celtics lost Game 2 to Houston, in which Maxwell had just six points and four rebounds, Fitch said, "I really chewed Max good. He didn't even want to practice the next day."
"I never want to practice," said Maxwell, who admitted to having no great love for his coach, after the title was won. "It wasn't Fitch's chewing me out that turned me around. It was myself. I had a big head after the Philly series, we all did, no matter what anybody says. We figured we had the championship won."
In Game 5 against Houston, Maxwell gave one of the best performances of his career. He scored 28 points, had 15 rebounds, seven of them offensive while going head to chest with Malone, and led a blistering exhibition of Celtic fast-break ball as Boston smothered the Rockets 109-80 before a delirious home crowd. "Moses and I had a dialogue going the whole game," said Maxwell. "He would say, 'You're not going to score anymore,' or other, more explicit words than that, and I kept saying I would, in other, more explicit words than that."
"Max gave himself away tonight," said Fitch. "He has had some good games and some stinkers, but this was a truly great one. He's not going to be able to make excuses anymore."
Many reporters went straight to Malone to ask him what guys from Petersburg he had in mind. "I still say it," said Malone. "They're just so-so. I'll tell you, the Celtics won't be drinking champagne after Game 6. They'll be drinking Gatorade, to get their strength back."
The Rockets went into Game 6 in Houston without their sixth man, Calvin Murphy, who had collided violently with Boston's Rick Robey in Game 5 and separated a shoulder. Murphy had only been averaging 9.8 points on 39.5% shooting in the series, but he may well have been the difference in Game 6, which featured Houston's remarkable fourth-quarter comeback.
Fitch turned white with disgust as he watched the Celtics, who had led 84-67, go almost five minutes without a basket while Houston scored 13 points. Three times the Rockets came within three and each time Bird thwarted their comeback. First he swished a 15-footer from the left corner. Next he threw a perfect lob pass over Malone that Maxwell converted into a layup. Then Bird hit the three-pointer. It was a simple statement: "Forget it, Houston. You've had your fun. It's all over."
A media panel voted Maxwell the MVP by a margin of 6-1. Bird got the dissenting vote. "I was surprised," said Fitch. "I assumed it would be Bird."
"Being named MVP was a great vindication for me, a great boost to my ego," said Maxwell. Before becoming second banana to Bird, Maxwell had the distinction of being the rookie who got to witness the Celtics' fall from glory. He arrived from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in 1977, the year Tom Heinsohn was fired as coach at midseason, and saw Satch Sanders get sacked 14 games into the following season, which led to the ascension of Dave Cowens to player-coach status. In those two seasons, the Celtics won 32 and 29 games, respectively, their worst performances since 1949. Said Maxwell, "The funny thing was that when I signed, my attorney told me not to worry about my contract, that being with the Celtics I would always make extra money in the playoffs. Well, the first two years we didn't even make the playoffs."
Then last year Bird arrived and so did Fitch, and Maxwell worried about the safety of his small-forward job. "I had averaged 19 points and led the NBA in field-goal percentage the year before, and here comes Larry," he says. "I said to myself, 'This white boy can't play.' So in training camp we went against each other hard, every day. He'd score on me, I'd make sure I scored back on him. It was real fierce. Pretty soon we got to respecting each other, and then we were playing with each other—him as the small forward and me as the big forward. It turned out great, because I'm quicker than most of the big guys who guard me and I still get to do all my scoring inside. And I realized that Larry could get me the ball when I was open like nobody I ever saw, and so could Tiny, and Cowens was a new man, and all of a sudden we win 60 games and make the playoffs." Maxwell's scoring fell to 17 points per game, but his shooting percentage rose to .609, again best in the NBA. This season he was the league's third-best shooter with a .588 percentage and scored 15.2 points a game.
Because he is soft-spoken and often overlooked, few realize that Maxwell holds two major degrees from UNCC, in geography and black studies. He calls himself a "middle-class black," holding two fingers like visual quotation marks on each side of his face when he says it. He was the first of three children born, in Kingston, N.C., to a career Marine and his wife, and spent three years of his childhood living in Hawaii. He owns an almost unfurnished condominium in the Jamaica Plains section of Boston, but the minute he can, he will return to his permanent home in Charlotte. "Boston's just the place where I work," he says. "I don't have any male friends there, and I almost never go out. Although it's O.K. if you're an athlete, it's not an especially nice place in which to be black."
There have been suggestions that Maxwell harbors a slight resentment toward Bird, who easily surpassed Bobby Orr and Carlton Fisk and is even now challenging the sainted Carl Yastrzemski in the hierarchy of the city's favorite sports heroes. But Maxwell understands. "I'm intelligent enough to know that this is what the public wants," he says. "Larry's a great player who's white. He's made us a great team and he's responsible for a lot of fans coming to our games. The Celtics are like the Dallas Cowboys of basketball. We are America's team. People all over the country want to come out and see the Green."
The fans of Boston and all of New England might take exception to that. As far as they are concerned, the Celtics belong to them alone. And they turned out, at least 2,500 strong, bedecked in green and many drowned in beer, to greet the team when it arrived at Logan Airport last Friday afternoon. Bostonians, beleaguered as they are with a severe municipal financial crisis and a corresponding collapse of civic morale, were clearly starved for a winner.
The fans jammed themselves right up to the plane's front door. All but lost in the crowd, though in position to be the first to shake the winners' hands, was Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who, not coincidentally, is running hard for reelection. Before the team arrived, Kennedy crowed, "Basketball was invented in Massachusetts. Now, in 1981, it appears we have a patent on it." But when the players began filing off the plane, the crowd closed in, and Kennedy was reduced to fighting his way through a phalanx of state troopers to press Celtic flesh. He got hold of Auerbach and Chris Ford and M.L. Carr but he couldn't get a grip on any of the real stars. Maxwell never noticed him, Parish didn't appear to know who he was, and Bird, who's very shy in crowds, ripped himself from Kennedy's grasp when the Senator reached out to him. In fairness to Bird, he was so heavily guarded by policemen that he never saw Kennedy.
The adoring crowd swept right along with the Celtics to their bus, and more fans lined the streets to yell and wave banners as the bus drove by. It was an extraordinary moment. The Celtics were champions once more, and Boston had something to cheer about.