Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dark shadow on Boston Celtics lifts

There was no Seventh and Deciding Game tonight. The Celtics pulverized the Lakers Tuesday, 131-92, and won the NBA championship for the first time since 1986. During that 22-year drought, the Lakers won five championships. L.A. Coach Phil Jackson now remains tied with the late Celtics Coach Red Auerbach for most championships. Both have nine.

Both bad and good, Auerbach is a god around here. Like God, he had his good and bad days. The idea of tofu-munching Jackson surpassing cigar-smoking Red on the Celtics watch would have been hard for the city’s psyche.

One might ask: Did the Celtics pour it on? The Boston fan’s answer: No. The Celts themselves, their fans recall, had come back from a 24-point deficit [a record] just two games ago. If they were to ease up, well that would mean easing up. And opening the door.

Better to nail the door shut, especially since this door holds back not only L.A., but also some very shadowy figures, akin to curses, that followed the team.

During the 22 year lull – a generation; two years more than my son’s whole life! – two very strange deaths occurred that struck straight at Auerbach’’s best-laid plans to keep the team’s historic success going. The strange deaths of Reggie Lewis and Len Bias left us with the feel of a curse – not on par with the Red Sox’s long standing Curse of the Bambino, but a troubling curse nonetheless palpable to a local.

Certainly teams have gone longer without championships – the Bucks, the Warriors, the Bullets - err Wizards – and many others. But it was disappointing and strange for basically the all time great sport’s franchise.

When I got to Boston in 1974 the Celtics were akin to the Yankees. I hated them. Hated their bitter gangster-tied Coach Heinsohn and the red-headed white fouling glompf Dave Cowens. I cheered quietly to myself [being a stranger myself in town] in B.U.’s George Sherman’s Union as the Bucks of Larry Costello and Kareem Abdul Jabbar played them tough.

Jabbar’s arrival in Milwaukee in 1970 was the greatest thing to happen there. Especially after he won a championship with Oscar Robertson handling the ball. His leaving for L.A. after the Boston series was the opening I needed to become a Celt’s fan. Hey, that Cowens sure goes for those loose balls! When Auerbach maneuvered to obtain Larry Byrd, Robert Parish, Nate Archibald, Dennis Johnson and Kevin McHale – not too mention brief stints of Pete Marivich, Ernie DeGregerio, Marvin Barnes and Bill Walton. Well that was real fun. “Red was a master.” The 1980s finals against L.A - we lost most of - were superior sport. Titanic.

Still remember vividly flying in from NCC in Las Vegas, in the cab, 1987 (June 19, 21 years ago today). They are discussing Bias’ death from cocaine. I was flummoxed. The cab driver explained what happened. Black cloud descended. Bird was recovering more slowly from injuries. The Lakers beat us the year before.Aerbach had done something, but there was a post draft party of some kind, death came knocking, and it was for naught.

Reggie Lewis heart studies running up to his fatal heart attack happened within blocks of my home. My doctor neighbor, a guy that was totally insightful and honest, said Reggie no way could have gotten a better doctor. Jake and Cecelia went to his funeral at Symphony Hall – I covered MacWorld. It was tearful. Today, the Reggie Lewis Athletic Arena is in our neighborhood. All being my way of saying this was all close. And it hung over us as the once-vaunted [do you hear me Cosell?] team repeatedly failed to field a top notch competitor. Paul Pierce and everyone else who joined the team afterward walked in to this imbroglio.

A cool part of this whole thing is in Florida I got to see the old 80s games with the Lakers on ESPN Classic. I did not recall any of these guys missing a free throw or launching an errant pass. It happened! Memory simplifies, codifies, gets set on a fair approximation. Especially, Kareem was a real defensive player by then – he pretty much neutralized Robert Parrish who the fans called the Chief. Michael. Cooper could stop Bird for big parts of time. My general Dennis Johnson was getting old, and could miscue. But boy, everyone could dribble, and find the outlet man, and shot accurately. The Celts were so far ahead in Tuesday’s game..they were able come out at the 4 minute mark - Allen, Garnett, and Pierce at one time, to take bows. One of them said: “We come out of that shadow.” Marquette alum Doc Rivers, who was nice enough to say ‘hi’ when our eyes met in a subway tunnel a year ago [a real down time] is my coach of the year. Today: A parade.

A year ago people were praying for them to lose, so as to get the top draft pick in the nation. We turned out to lose that lottery. I called up talk radio host Eddie Andelman and said I was tired of the youth movement. The drive for athletes rather than basketball players. Remember how Red would bring these experienced players in, to make a good team? I asked, Eddie poo-pooed. Hey, Eddie! I was right!

This is a peak of some kind for a town and sports. I have no expectation of the Bruins regaining their 70s style. But to have the Red Sox, Patriots and now Celts win one or multiple championships in a five-year period is pretty extraordinary. Something they don’t know about in Kansas City, anyway. One of the good parts of being here.

* * *

Indelible Cityscape
Walking up the Mission Hill
Past the summer porches
During the 4th quarter
Each TV tuned to the Game 4
Cheers coming out loud
I know we are coming back
See Tall Preston and ask the score
The Celts just moved two points ahead.
-Jack Vaughan, Jun 2008

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