With a new coach, new players to work into the rotation and a new offense designed to bring them up to the NBA's legal speed limit, the Boston Celtics are, for the first time in many years, a team in semitransition. So what could be more logical than to spend a week of valuable preseason time 3,600 miles from home, playing non-NBA teams under an alien set of rules?
"Well, there's nothing particularly normal about the NBA season, so maybe this is good preparation," said rookie coach Jimmy Rodgers, who had been an assistant in Boston for eight seasons before being named K.C. Jones's successor last spring. That was the stiff-upper-lip conclusion that many of the Celtics had seemed to adopt, at least publicly, by the time they swept to the championship of the second McDonald's Basketball Open, in Madrid last weekend. On the other hand, there was the more succinct conclusion reached by guard Dennis Johnson: "I just want to get out of here."
By the time Boston had beaten the national team of Yugoslavia 113-85 on Friday night and Real Madrid, the host team, 111-96 in the final on Sunday, the Celtics had discovered that there's not only immense basketball interest in Europe, but there are also several quality players. One is Real Madrid point guard Drazen Petrovic, an expatriate Yugoslav who should play in the U.S., if only so he could be dubbed Brazen Drazen. Petrovic excelled (34 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists) in Real Madrid's 108-96 win over Scavolini Pesaro, the Italian League champion, in Friday's Game 2, and then gave Boston some anxious moments in the final, with 22 points, six rebounds and six assists. In fact, the Celtics led by only 83-77 with 47 seconds left in the third period before its superior strength and depth and Larry Bird's outside shooting—he had 29 points, including four three-pointers—turned the proceedings into a rout.
It would be hard for the American fan to imagine what a grand spectacle this tournament was for the European fan. NBA commissioner David Stern had anticipated it, though, and almost from the moment last year's inaugural tournament in Milwaukee ended (the Bucks defeated Tracer Milan of Italy and the Soviet national team to win the championship), he started thinking Boston green-and-white. "More and more, the idea of sending the world's best-known basketball team as our representative seemed to make a lot of sense," said Stern.
October 31, 1988
But not necessarily to the players on the world's best-known basketball team. Boston general manager Jan Volk asked his charges to keep a lid on their negative feelings if they had any, which they did, and for the most part the Celts obliged him, but some discontent did seep out. On the first day of training camp, at Hellenic College in Brookline, Mass., forward Kevin McHale issued what he called "the first no comment of my life" when asked about the trip to Madrid. Bird and center Robert Parish also groused about it. The players were allowed to bring one guest—some brought wives or girlfriends, but Brian Shaw, Boston's No. 1 draft pick, made an early bid for Son of the Year honors when he elected to bring his mother, Barbara—but they got no extra money or bonuses. And it's a simple fact that many American professional athletes are not predisposed to travel seven hours by plane in pursuit of, say, cultural enrichment in a foreign land.
And, indeed, the Celtics saw some strange sights, like zone defenses, trapezoid-shaped foul lanes (the games were played under a combination of international and NBA rules) and the shuffling feet of the European player. "They allow some traveling in the NBA," said Bird, "but I mean, this is legitimate!"
The Celtics also saw castles and princes and provincial mayors, and just in case they missed the homeland, they got to see the Memphis State Pom Pom Girls, the Famous Chicken (El Polio Famoso, as he was known in Madrid) and, on one promotional outing, a certain golden-arched home away from home.
The big psychological obstacle for the Celtics, as it was for the Bucks last year, was the no-win container in which NBA teams come packaged for this event. Win big, and you're only doing what you're supposed to; win small, and you're off your game; lose, and you're an international incident. And don't think for one minute that European fans aren't discriminating.
"The Europeans want to see the Celtics, Lakers or somebody like that come over here and beat the local teams by 50 points," says Danny Peterson, an American who is an influential basketball commentator in Italy. "If the NBA sent a last-place team over here, the Europeans would send it back on the first plane."
Are you listening, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan? Since Stern is committed to the NBA's continued participation in this tournament, and since next year's will again be held overseas (Milan, Rome, Tel Aviv and Athens are all possibilities), it might be a good idea to get your travel documents in order.
The Celtics arrived in Madrid on Wednesday, Oct. 19, practiced at the Palacio de Desportes on Thursday morning and then were dutifully whisked off to the appearance at the golden arches.
Two hours later the Celtics and a small group of NBA executives were standing in the Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of the city for what some of the players called "the king thing." Actually, they were not going to meet King Juan Carlos but his son, and heir to the throne. Prince Felipe. McHale suspected that the prince would be utterly confused about the meeting—"I can see this guy saying to his assistants, 'Cel-who? Basket-what?' " McHale said—but the trim 20-year-old who emerged to shake hands seemed to be more excited than the Celtics. He was also a striking 6'6"—"small-forward-sized," as Stern put it.
"It is good to be in a room with men taller than me," said the Prince, in English. "In my country, almost everyone is lower." Figuratively, as well as literally, Your Royal Highness.
Stern presented the prince with an NBA jersey that had BORBON 33 on the back: That's the prince's family name and guess whose number, which the prince had requested be on the jersey. Bird gave Prince Felipe a Boston jersey that had BORBON 1 on the back. The Celtics were then bused 25 miles to a castle belonging to the provincial government for another ceremony, at which they wore the look of men being prepped for root canal.
From the coaches and players on the Scavolini team, who were also there, one got a sense of the esteem in which the Celtics and, by extension, other top NBA teams are held in Europe. Matteo Minelli, a feisty Scavolini guard, idolizes Boston's Danny Ainge, yet when he met Ainge he froze and couldn't shake his hand. Larry Drew, a point guard who played eight seasons in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers before signing with Scavolini last month, says he has been "besieged" by information-hungry teammates. "They want to know everything about the Celtics, on and off the court," said Drew. "They hold them on the highest pedestal there is." As does Scavolini coach Valerio Bianchini, who expressed his admiration eloquently: "The Boston Celtics did for basketball in the 1960s what the Beatles did for music. I first saw them by TV, and for coaches like me who were just getting started in basketball, they changed the way to imagine the game."
The Celtics, jet lag perhaps behind them, were in better humor on Friday afternoon as they gathered at El Ayuntamiento, Madrid's city hall, to meet mayor Juan Barranco. After Barranco explained that the building dated to the 16th century, Bird was moved to deadpan in his Hoosier twang, " 'Bout time you built a new one, isn't it?" The mayor cracked up.
The games finally began, to the immense relief of the Celtics, several hours later. Bird praised the Palacio de Desportes's shooting background, rims and lighting. Only Boston rookie Gerald Paddio, who was worried that the hard floor might force him to have "scopeagraphic surgery," expressed any displeasure with the arena. Paddio, who is a UNLV product, has already emerged as a player who does not necessarily have to be in a foreign country to be misunderstood.
The capacity crowds (10,130) were delightfully enthusiastic. Celtic Reggie Lewis got one of the biggest ovations on Friday evening for performing a pre-game, 360-degree mate de tornillo ("dunk of the screw"). There was something strange about the starting lineup announcements, too. Ah, that was it—the name of Danny Ainge did not elicit whistles, the European version of the boo. And to think that Ainge signed his autograph as El Terríble all week.
Yugoslavia's pair of 6'9" lefthanded forwards, Toni Kukoc—"the best amateur forward in the world," according to Soviet coach Aleksandr Gomelsky—and Zarko Paspalj, went around and through the confused Celtics for layups in the early stages of Game 1. But two of the best pro forwards in the world finally figured out the Yugoslavs' unorthodox moves in the second half, and the Celts cruised away from a 53-47 half-time lead to an easy victory over the Olympic silver medalists. Bird had 27 points, many on soft shots off the backboard, while McHale had 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Almost as interesting as the game was veteran Celtic radio announcer Johnny Most's battle with the Yugoslavs' names. His audience back in Boston heard the Yugoslavs referred to, for the most part, as "the lefthander, the young guy, the bearded guy, the old guy and the big guy." The big guy was center Stojan Vrankovic, who is listed as 7'1½" but looks at least 7'3", which is the primary reason the Celtics signed him to a contract on April 29. Alas, his name is also on a contract with Zadar, his club team in Yugoslavia. Volk was still confused about the situation when he left Madrid on Monday, and Vrankovic isn't likely to be seen in Celtic green this season, which will probably not disappoint Most.
The atmosphere at Sunday's final was even more enthusiastic than it had been on Friday, what with Petrovic, who doesn't feel like he's putting out unless he dribbles around his back and/or between his legs on every possession, going up against the Celtics. He finally faltered under the tenacious pressure of Shaw, as did his teammates behind the shooting of Bird and the rebounding (16) of Parish. But it was a good show, up to and including the part when Bird climbed the stairs to the second deck to accept the winning trophy from Borbon 33. A madrile‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o explained the ceremony thusly: "El Principe no baja. Larry Bird sube." ("The Prince does not comedown. Larry Bird goes up."