Where once there was mystique, there is now, it seems, only mistake. Over the past few months the haughty Boston Celtics have been jilted by a college coach from Duke, a 24-year-old point guard from California and a 23-year-old Dino from Split, Yugoslavia. As administrative mess-ups go, that is touching all the bases.
Never mind the Celtics' failure to win an NBA title since 1986, or their elimination by New York in the first round of last season's playoffs after having won the first two games in the best-of-five series. Here's what has happened recently.
During the first two weeks of June, the Celtics engaged in what proved to be a fruitless courtship of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, while the man they should have picked, veteran Celtics assistant Chris Ford, was forced to stand around and stare at the Boston Garden parquet. Ford finally was given the job on June 12, at which time president Red Auerbach and newly hired senior executive vice-president Dave Gavitt announced that Ford had been their first choice. Right.
The Celtics spent most of June and July in court battles with recalcitrant point guard Brian Shaw, who would still, it seems, rather play in Italy than in Boston.
And last week the Celtics lost another potential contributor, Dino Radja of Yugoslavia, to the same Italian team, II Messaggero, to which Shaw had bolted last season.
While the Ford-Krzyzewski situation was a public relations disaster for which the Celtics have no one to blame but themselves, it is no surprise that the other Boston entanglements involve foreign teams. The Celtics were one of the first NBA teams to sail into uncharted international waters, and as Atlanta Hawk president Stan Kasten says, " 'International' and 'problems' are synonyms."
Still, both Radja, a starter for the Yugoslavian national team, and Shaw might now be making plans for the opening of the Celtics' training camp on Oct. 5 had not Boston blundered at least once in each situation.
First, Radja seemed to be signed, sealed and delivered to the Celtics as recently as two weeks ago. Opinions vary on how much of a force the 6'10" forward-center could be in the NBA, but there is no doubt that the Celtics wanted him as a backup big man this season. But suddenly, in swept an Italian tornado, proffering a contract that only a multinational conglomerate (II Messaggero is owned by the wealthy Gruppo Ferruzzi) could afford, and the big Yugo drove out of Boston's plans. Radja's Messaggero deal is reported to be worth between $15 million and $18 million for five years, a staggering sum that would make him the highest-salaried athlete in Europe, soccer players included. The Celtics, who also received an undisclosed amount of cash from the Italians, do retain Radja's NBA rights.
A combined NBA-Celtics flub is as responsible for Radja's departure as is Messaggero's largesse, however. The misadventure began last year when the Celtics signed Radja to a one-year contract worth about $450,000. The Celtics knew that Radja was already under contract through the '91-92 season to his club team, Jugoplastika, but claimed the contract was invalid. The U.S. District Court in Boston, where Jugoplastika sought an injunction, did not concur and found the hometown team guilty of "contract poaching." Jugoplastika agreed to let Radja go after just one season, however, and the Celtics purchased his rights for '90-91 and '91-92.
Some months later Radja's American agent, Marc Fleisher of IMG, objected that this second contract violated a provision of the agreement between the league and the NBA players that says, among other things, that one-year contracts cannot be extended. A special master (an officer of the court agreed upon by both sides) heard the case in New York City three weeks ago. The Celtics argued that they were aware of the provision but were advised by NBA-attorneys that they did not apply in this instance. The special master said, in effect, Too bad, and ruled for Radja.
As for Shaw, the Celtics' fatal mistake was underestimating his threat to go to Italy in the first place. Shaw had received $75,000, the NBA minimum at the time, for his rookie season of '88-89, but the Celtics did not act decisively enough to sign him for future seasons, even though they were sure he was their point guard of the future (he averaged 8.6 points and 5.8 assists as a rookie). At that time—last summer—the idea that a young player would opt for linguine over chowder was unthinkable to the Boston brass. Spurn the Boston Celtics? Shaw did.
Though he was successful in Italy, he was not altogether happy there. Celtics part-owner Alan Cohen and the team's general manager, Jan Volk, kept in touch with him, and last Jan. 23, Shaw, in the presence of Volk, signed a five-year, $6.65 million deal that included a $450,000 signing bonus.
But on June 6, the Celtics received a letter from Shaw's new agent, Jerome Stanley, notifying them that Shaw was contesting the contract.
"Brian did not want to do the deal," Stanley told SI last week. "He was manipulated." Stanley claims that Shaw was without representation at the time he signed the Celtics pact and was "bullied" into signing.
Volk denies that Shaw was pressured, and he points to the fact that the Celts have won every legal challenge that Shaw has brought. At this point even Stanley and Laura L. Carroll, Shaw's Boston-based attorney, concede that their legal arsenal has been depleted and that, barring a trade, Shaw must play for the Celtics in '90-91 or not play at all.
In any case, the chain of recent events has tarnished the image of those once imperious kings of the NBA. The roster is aging, and management does not seem able to make the moves that would turn it into a contender once again.
"We've received countless letters about the Celtics," says Dario Colombo, editor of Giganti del Basket, the top-selling basketball magazine in Europe. "Five years ago they were a legend. Now? I don't want to use the word 'joke,' but people over here are wondering what has happened to this once great team."
People over here are wondering the same thing.