Yet another world championship was in the bag and the Boston Celtics were running out the final few minutes of garbage time in Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals when Tommy Heinsohn, then CBS’ top NBA analyst despite the Celtic green tint of his bloodstream, turned his thoughts to the next major event on the league’s calendar.
"This draft," he announced, "is a very important draft for the Celtics."
He had no idea how right he was.
That overheated June afternoon marked the 16th time in 29 years that an NBA season had climaxed with a Boston championship. Since Red Auerbach’s arrival in 1950, the team’s longest drought between titles had been just five years, a near-seamless parade of glory that owed itself to the franchise patriarch’s knack for crafty trades and inventive draft maneuvers, not to mention a few timely doses of the luck of the Irish.
The draft that Heinsohn spoke of was to be the aging Auerbach’s latest – and perhaps final – personnel triumph, one that would extend Boston’s dominance well into the ‘90s. Instead, it turned into a human tragedy that fundamentally altered the direction of one of the most decorated franchises in professional sports. The ’86 apex would give way to decline, decline would give way to mediocrity, and mediocrity to misery. Only now, 22 long and mostly dark years after their last title, have the Celtics finally made it back to the top of the mountain.
And how: a 39-point slaughter of their old nemesis that stirred memories of Boston’s Memorial Day Massacre of L.A. back in 1985.
Fans across New England are rejoicing, and with good reason, but this time there’s a generational fault-line. The younger set of Celtic fans, those whose basketball memories don’t go back much farther than Lamar Odom’s pro career, are drunk off their first taste of hoops glory, beating their chests and promising a repeat in 2009. But the older generations, the fans who used to make the same bold proclamations back in the ’80s, ‘70’s and ‘60s, now know better, because the last time they felt this good, everything ended up going wrong.
The Celtic team that won the ’86 title was among the most dominant ever, assembled with typical Auerbach cunning. Invoking the old "junior eligible" rule, he drafted Larry Bird in 1978, a year before Bird actually left Indiana State. Then in 1980, after Bird’s rookie year, Auerbach engineered perhaps the most lopsided trade in the annals of sport, acquiring Robert Parish and the draft rights to Kevin McHale from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for – ahem – Joe Barry Carroll. "The Big Three" was thusly born, and in ’86 they were never better: a 67-15 regular season record, 15-3 in the playoffs, and a staggering 50-1 on the parquet in the old Boston Garden.
They were starting to get old – Parish was 33, Bird 29 and McHale 28 – but Auerbach, as always, had a plan. Three years earlier, he had set his sights on a 6-8 sophomore at the University of Maryland who was quick, agile, and the possessor of a killer mid-range jump-shot. His name was Len Bias and years later Mike Krzyzewski, the Hall of Fame Duke coach, would call him one of the two best players he’d ever seen in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The other was Michael Jordan.
And so a trade was arranged in the fall of 1984. The Celtics sent guard Gerald Henderson to Seattle for the Sonics’ first round pick in the ’86 draft. Then that old Celtic luck went to work. The Sonics, a playoff team the year before, slipped and fell into the NBA’s draft lottery in the next two seasons. In those pre-ping-pong ball days, every lottery team – whether they were 41-41 or 10-72 – had the same shot at the first pick, and in ’86 the 31-51 Sonics scored the second overall pick. It was immediately handed over to the Celtics, who as the league champion would otherwise have picked last, and when Philadelphia chose North Carolina’s Brad Daugherty with the first pick, the Celtics were free to grab Bias. Auerbach had his man. No champion ever seemed as blessed as the Boston Celtics.
And then: tragedy. Two days later, Bias was dead, felled by a heart attack triggered by a cocaine overdose. (Just days earlier, his college coach, Lefty Driesell, had famously declared that "Leonard’s only vice is ice cream.") And from there, it was all downhill for the Celtics.
The next year, they made it all the way back to the Finals, fighting through two brutal seven-game series before falling to the Lakers in six games. Injuries haunted the team all year, and with a depleted bench, the Big Three were forced to play through increasing pain for upwards of 40 minutes a night. Fans could only wonder how different it might have been with Bias in the rotation.
And it only got worse. By the ’88 season, Isaiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons finally caught the Celtics in the Eastern Conference, and the wear-and-tear only accelerated. Bone spurs in his heels kept Bird out for all but six games in the 1989 season, and the team barely creaked its way past .500, humiliatingly swept by the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs. Then McHale’s feet started to go.
The front office, still reeling from the void caused by Bias’ death, feel victim to frantic and desperate efforts to patch up the fading frontline. One futile trade sent Danny Ainge, a 15 point-per-game scorer, to the Sacramento Kings for big man Joe Kleine, who proved a thorough bust. Perhaps worse the 1993 draft, when – supposedly at Auerbach’s behest – the team used its first round pick on Acie Earl, a 6-10 center from the University of Iowa whose N.B.A. career would span four years and three teams.
Bird and McHale were healthy enough to produce a few solid teams in the early ‘90s, but the Celtics never made it past the second round before the 35-year-old Bird’s aching back forced him into retirement in ’92. McHale called it quits the next year, after a first round loss. And then: more tragedy. In the summer of 1993, the lone personnel bright spot of the post-Bias era, a homegrown sharpshooter named Reggie Lewis, dropped dead at the age of 27, another victim of a heart attack. Lewis and Bias could have been the bridge to the post-Big Three era. Instead, they were gone forever.
The mediocrity turned to misery. A ghastly stretch in the mid-90s – a 115-213 record between 1993 and 1997 – convinced the franchise to sell its soul to Rick Pitino, who blew into town in the spring of 1997 assuring the locals that "success is a choice." In reality, the Pitino plan was elementary: Win the N.B.A. draft lottery and use the first pick to take Tim Duncan from Wake Forest. His logic was sound – after a 15-67 season, no one had a better chance of snagging the top choice than Boston – but the Celtics were a charmed team no more. Instead, it was the San Antonio Spurs who walked away with Duncan, and Pitino’s blueprint was destroyed.
That brought us to last summer. The Spurs were celebrating yet another title, their fourth since hitting the Duncan jackpot. The Celtics, fresh off a 24-58 disaster that included a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak, had once again pinned their hopes on the draft lottery – and once again fallen miserably flat, securing only the fifth pick.
But this time – perhaps for the first time Seattle handed them the No. 2 pick all those years ago – the Celtics caught a break (actually, two breaks). First, a trade with the Sonics brought Ray Allen, an eight-time all-star shooting guard to Boston. And then, another trade – this one courtesy of the Minnesota Timberwolves and their team President, one Kevin McHale – turned Kevin Garnett, one of the best players in the game, into a Celtic. With Allen and Garnett joining Paul Pierce, the Celtics suddenly had three all-stars in their starting lineup. Just like that, a new Big Three was born and a championship team was created.
Back in the ‘80s, Celtics fans would say that championships we
re meant to be enjoyed in bunches. But those who have lived through the last 22 years are far humbler now. They know that Allen is pushing 33, Garnett is 32 and Pierce is almost 31. This Big Three has been far more durable than Bird, McHale and Parish, but they are all high-mileage players, and the roster behind them is pretty flimsy. Maybe they can keep it together for another title drive or two, or maybe Father Time will catch up to them first. But Celtics fans who remember the team’s last championship will surely appreciate these days while they last, because they know – now – that they don’t last forever.