The whole thing has become a little bit blurry. There is the television show about the bar in Boston on Beacon Hill, the little place where everyone knows your name. There is the basketball team that plays its games in an old barn of an arena at the edge of the North End.
The television show keeps going...and the basketball team keeps going...and no one is exactly sure how it happens. There are times when the television show seems about ready to die...and there are other times when the basketball team seems ready to die...and suddenly changes are made. A new character here. A new character there. The television show suddenly seems new and different. The basketball team seems new and different.
"What do we do now?" the producers of the television show ask Red Auerbach, venerable president of the Boston Celtics, the basketball team. "First, we lose Coach, one of our solid citizens. Then we lose Diane Chambers, one of our stars."
"You surprise people," the venerable president replies. "You replace Coach with a younger guy. You make him some dufus and you call him Woody. You replace Diane, the perfect what-do-you-call-it, ingenue, with Rebecca, the perfect killer career-woman. You rebuild around what you already have. You knock 'em dead."
"What do we do to shake up our operation?" Auerbach, in turn, asks the producers. "Everyone says we've become old and slow."
"You bring in some youth, some young guys like Brian Shaw and Dee Brown," the producers say. "You give some freedom to the youth you already have. You bring in a new coach and a new general manager and a new philosophy to surround the marquee-value stars you already own."
The television show stays near the top. The basketball team climbs back near the top. How do you figure? The cheers keep rolling.
"I'm surprised," Chris Ford, the new Celtics coach, says. "Yeah, sure I'm surprised. I had no idea what was going to happen. You certainly hope that things will unfold the right way, but I didn't think we'd start the way we've started."
The start has been a hop, step and a jump of dramatic proportions. The team that was supposed to be too old, too old, a thousand times too old, had bounded to a 12-3 record as of Sunday, third-best behind Portland and Detroit in this young NBA season. The aging nucleus of Larry Bird (34 on Dec. 7), Kevin McHale (33 on Dec. 19) and Robert Parish (37) suddenly seems as if it has been taking swimming lessons on the set of the movie Cocoon. The kids—Shaw and Brown and newly re-signed Reggie Lewis and newly resurrected Kevin Gamble—seem as if they can be big-time NBA players. The laughs are back. The up-tempo, running style of Celtics basketball is back.
"We're only one player away from a championship," superstar Bird says with a broad smile. He pauses for effect. "Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan."
There are asterisks galore to go with the early success—games against poor teams, games against good teams when some of the good teams' major people have been hurt—but 12-3 is still 12-3, and there have been some nice road wins in Chicago and New York. A few months ago, this was a team without a coach, without Shaw, seemingly without a clue. The season was projected as a long, disheartening drone to be heard across the New England landscape. The headlines would come from the offices of lawyers and agents. The old names would gather moss and become subjects of sad, where-are-they-now feature stories about living on the wrong side of the standings, tall men clutching their mementos of past glory.
The final taste of the 1989-90 season was a five-game playoff loss to the youthful New York Knicks. After winning the first two games of the series, the Celtics seemed slower and flatter with each succeeding loss to the Knicks. The overwhelming analysis was that the team was dead, gone, written in the past tense. The champions of yore could not even dream of being champions once more.
"People forget that we weren't as bad as we ended," McHale says. "We did win 52 games. But it is true that we weren't ready to go for a championship. We weren't ready for the Pistons last year. We couldn't have handled them."
The coach, Jimmy Rodgers, was fired. Dave Gavitt, the head of the Big East conference, was hired as vice-president in charge of basketball operations. A sequence of un-Celtic-like events evolved. Ford, a longtime assistant, was named coach only after Duke's Mike Krzyzewski declined the job. Shaw, who had left to play in Italy for a season after his rookie year, suddenly balked at returning to Boston despite a new contract he had signed with the Celtics. Lewis said he would be leaving, too, at the end of the season because his contract was inadequate. What was happening here? Had somebody thrown away Auerbach's Guide to NBA Success and Skulduggery? Was the parquet floor going to be next, cut into so many tops for end tables? Were the flags on the ceiling of the Boston Garden going to be hung upside down? What?
"What did I know?" Gavitt says now. "This was all new to me. But handling these problems was why I was hired."
After he signed Ford, Gavitt's first decision had to do with whether or not there was still enough life in his three old-timers to build around them. He decided there was. If there wasn't, then why were other teams trying to trade for them? Isn't basketball still a big man's game? Weren't these three premier big men?
"The aircraft carrier is still the biggest ship in the fleet," he says. "Our decision was that our aircraft carriers were fine. We needed some escort ships."
One escort was Brown, a 6'1" guard from Jacksonville, taken with the 19th pick in the draft. Another was Shaw, the legal fight won in the courtroom and the diplomatic skirmish won in quiet conversation. Lewis had a change of heart and was quickly re-signed. A third escort. Gamble was a fourth, a freestyle shooter who would be helped immediately by a faster, more open game. Room was opened on the floor with the release of veteran guards Dennis Johnson and Jim Paxson. The runners now had a place to run. They also had a system.
The only place Ford ever had been a head coach was at Lynnfield (Mass.) Middle School, coaching his oldest son's junior high team. The team had won some Christmas tournaments. The team had run. The Celtics' operation had switched to a slow-down, post-up game because of the personnel. The new personnel could bring back the old theories of speed and pressure defense. Celtics theories. Lynn-field Middle School theories.
"It's funny," Ford says. "My son has moved along to high school. But my daughter, she's in middle school now. I was going to coach the girls' team. My wife is going to do it now. I might help once in a while."
The mix of backcourt youth and front-court experience showed possibilities from the beginning. Bird seemed particularly helped by the changes. Ford moved him from the quick forward to the power forward in the basic offense. Bird announced he was going to become a rebounder, first of all, a passer second, and a shooter last. He's now leading the team in scoring (20.3 points per game) and he's tied with Parish in rebounding (9.7 per game). He is the fourth man down the floor on the fast break instead of the third, almost a second point guard. McHale (19.7 ppg) and Parish (13.9) are keeping the pace.
"Everyone kept talking about speed, speed, but it isn't so much about speed as it is motion," Gavitt says. "We have people moving. A year ago, we had people standing around. Now we have people moving. We might be doing the same things, but they look different because we have motion. On defense is where we're really helped. We can slow other people down with a press, make them walk the ball up. They don't have as much time to work their offense. Our frontcourt guys can be set up better to defend."
"That's the luxury the young guys give you, that one step more on defense that maybe changes the angle just enough so you can block a guy's shot instead of watch him score a basket," McHale says. "What we have going for us is a nice little blend. I think you need a blend. Robert, Larry and I can still play. If you go into some other coach's locker room before a game, I'll bet he mentions all three of us in the first few paragraphs of his talk before the game. Youth is fine, but you also need experience in this league. You want to see youth? Go to Charlotte."
The final escort for the aircraft carriers, the 6'5" Gamble, is a third-year pro only two seasons removed from the Continental Basketball Association. After trying veteran Ed Pinckney and 1989 No. 1 draft choice Michael Smith as starters at quick forward—McHale now comes off the bench in various capacities—Ford gave Gamble a shot. This was in the seventh game of the season. The Celtics were 8-0 with him in the lineup until they lost 116-110 to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night at the Spectrum. Gamble is averaging 12.1 points per game, but has an average of 13.8 since he became a starter.
"We're still evolving," Ford says. "Everybody will make changes before the end of the season. Everybody makes changes every night. How good we'll be, I don't know. I just like what I've seen so far. I like the effort."
Strangely enough, the loss in Philadelphia seemed as encouraging as any of the wins. The game was one of those headline nights, the first matchup of the season between the Atlantic Division rivals. It was won basically by Sixer forward Charles Barkley, who had 13 rebounds, eight assists and 37 points on 16-for-23 shooting. The Celtics hung close. They were behind by 10 points at the half, then scored the first 10 points of the third period to tie the game. It was 96-96 with 6:32 left before Barkley sprinted once more. The Celtics were good again on the road. How much better will they be later, when they work out all the wrinkles of this new operation?
"One thing I know is this team has a different attitude than it did before I went to Italy," Shaw says. "Everybody is different, a lot more loose. A lot of that I give to Chris. He's a stern guy, but at the same time he's fun-loving. He yells and screams, but he makes us understand it's a game more than a job. It can be fun."
"A key is that we have guys here with the right attitude," Bird says. "Last year, we had some problems. Guys wanted more playing time. Guys were smirking, here and there. There's none of that this year. Guys want to play."
There are no grand predictions so far, only the early, positive results. Will the results continue? Will Bird—who scored his 20,000th point last week in a 123-95 win over Washington to make him one of only five NBA players with 20,000 points and 5,000 assists—be able to stay in one piece? Will the young guards continue to improve? Will Parish and McHale stay healthy? Will help arrive from what has been a short bench? Will the season be too long? What?
Will Rebecca fall, at last, a final time for Sam? Will Cliff survive the Christmas postal rush? Will Norm, for once, go home? Will Carla take a self-improvement course? Frasier? Lilith? All that is certain is that there once again is a strong urge to tune in tomorrow to see.