Sacrifice is a Celtic tradition. The Celts of old, that is, the ones who ran amok in Europe for some 800 years, were a barbaric bunch who celebrated victories by nailing the heads of their fallen foes to walls as offerings to the gods. The contemporary Celtics, the NBA champs from Boston, are just as fierce, though not quite as nasty.
Consider their ritualistic defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers in last season's finals—the same Lakers who, by smiting Boston 137-104 in Game 3, had inflicted the most humiliating defeat on the Celtics since the Romans won the Battle of Pergamum in 2180 B.C. (Before Cousy, that is).
During that devastation in the hostile L.A. Forum, the Celtics looked as mobile as those blocks of bluestone the British call Stonehenge. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers' Muslim center, hadn't witnessed so much fast-breaking since the end of Ramadan. In the end, tribalism triumphed over artistic individualism.
Among the ancient Celts, sacrifices were presided over by a tree-worshiping lot called Druids. "Nearly all the [Celts] are of a lofty stature...terrible from the sternness of their eyes," reported Roman sportswriter Ammianus Marcellinus in the fourth century. The contemporary Celtics are no less arboreal: The starting frontcourt averages 6'9½".
"What that means," says Cedric Maxwell, "is that when you get your foot on somebody's leg, you gotta stomp on it."
Much of the stomping occurs at the Boston Garden, on a floor of parquet oak as sacred to the Celtics as oak forests were to the Druids. There the Celtics are practically invincible. "Playing at home always helps," says arch-Druid Maxwell. "You're staying in the same home, and sleeping in the same bed, with your wife and your girl friend."
And what are Celtic characteristics? "You can always be outrun and outshot and outrebounded," says Maxwell. "But to be outhustled and not have the heart is not a genuine Celtic characteristic."
Those original Celts were proud, rough people who fought with grace and a kind of merciless determination. That pretty well describes the nervy inside game of Maxwell, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.
Before waging war, the Celts washed their hair in a lime solution, pulling it back as it dried in stiff spikes. Tacitus, a Roman historian, once observed Druids before an important battle "lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth horrible imprecations." For the present-day Celtics, that priestly function is performed by M.L. Carr, who rides the bench exhorting the rest of his teammates into a frenzy.
The first Celts swarmed wildly into the fray, naked except for neck torques. The modern Celtics, wearing singlets and shorts, prefer to win with intimidating defense. McHale's impassioned, onrushing appearance strikes terror into the opposition. "The mother's 6'11", and I'm just talking about his reach," gasps former Milwaukee center Bob Lanier.
The Celtics' forebears were marauding cattle thieves. Nowadays, that fluid Druid Dennis Johnson pulls off his own kind of larceny. In Game 7, he picked Magic Johnson's pocket in the last 99 seconds. He's the kind of player who proves his value to a team by sacrificing offensive capacity for defensive tenacity.
The ancient Druids also found portents in the flight of a single bird. These days the Celtics' future is easy to read by watching the flight of that most singular Bird, Larry. Bird, of course, is the archetypal Celt: golden-haired, unrefined and slightly awkward. He's as out of place at an L.A. disco as a Druid at a Roman banquet. But on the court, he always finds the open man, despite double, triple and sometimes quadruple teaming.
You don't last eight centuries or win 15 NBA titles without leadership, and the No. 1 Druid, K.C. Jones, was drawn from Celtic nobility. He played through Celtic dynasties that ranged from Bill Russell to John Havlicek. According to Irish folklore, "Three things that are best for a prince during his reign are truth, mercy and silence." These are qualities that Jones has in abundance. Like that great chieftain Vercingetorix, Jones knows how to make his minions rise above petty differences and work for the good of the Celtic cause. And he, too, watches the skies for omens. In the '84 finals, he saw L.A.'s stars in collision.
With the weight of 3,000 years of tradition upon them, no wonder the Lakers collapsed like a decadent empire.