Maybe you’ve heard the familiar narrative about the tortured sports fanbase in Boston: Boston has had the longest-suffering and most tortured sports fans anywhere on the planet because the city’s beloved baseball team, the Red Sox, went 86 years without winning a title! If you’re inclined toward sports, however, you may have noticed a few things wrong there: First, that streak only infected the Red Sox. It didn’t take into account any of the other teams in Boston. Second, Boston had a host of other teams, and they had quite a bit of success in their sports. Third, there’s a difference between being bad and not winning a title. Fourth, there were two baseball teams that had title droughts even longer than Boston’s: The White Sox and Cubs, both of which are in Chicago. Even popular sports pundit Bill Simmons – who is a Boston native and shameless homer – rejects the Tortured Boston story. During that 86-year title drought, the Red Sox won a few Pennants and fielded some of the greatest players baseball has ever seen, including Ted Williams, who may have been baseball’s greatest hitter. The NHL’s Bruins were founded in 1924 and won five of their six Stanley Cups during that title drought. They also had several players who wouldn’t totally embarrass any fans who mentioned them in the same sentence as Wayne Gretzky, including Bobby Orr. The Patriots weren’t truly great until recently, but they still played in one AFL Championship and two Super Bowls, and were generally competitive enough to have a chance against almost anyone. (I wrote about the Patriots already and shot their whole loser narrative to hell.)
The most effective counterargument against the Loser Boston narrative, however, is the city’s NBA team. The Boston Celtics were created in 1946 as a charter member of the Basketball Association of America. They’ve won 17 titles since then, which accounts for some 24 percent of the titles awarded by the NBA. In terms of the percentage of titles won, that’s the highest in every sports league in North America, at least among the big four. (Major League Soccer might have something to say about it – especially the Los Angeles Galaxy and DC United.) They’re one of only two of the charter BAA teams to have never either moved or changed their name. (The other is the New York Knickerbockers.) The Celtics were formed in 1946, but no one paid much attention to them until 1950 because of the way their fortunes were always flagging. Owner Walter Brown was desperate to get his team into shape, and 1950 happened to be the year a certain Red Auerbach got pissed at his team, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, after their impatient owner made a trade he didn’t like. He left the Hawks in a huff and the Celtics snapped him right up. It is still probably the smartest thing any Boston Team has ever done.
It was also in 1950 that the Celtics became the first NBA team to draft a black player, Chuck Cooper, which is notable because the Celtics are usually associated so much as the designated white peoples’ team of the league. (Cooper never became much of a player, though. He only played for a few years, but he led a very accomplished post-sports life. He earned a Master’s in social work and became the first black head of the Pittsburgh Department of Parks and Recreation.) 1950 was also the year a player named Bob Cousy entered the Draft and got selected by the Blackhawks. 1950 was also the year the Blackhawks went bankrupt and the Celtics got Cousy in a dispersal draft. Auerbach didn’t like that, and Cousy had been criticized by several scouts. But Cousy became a huge part of Boston’s turnaround, and him and Auerbach eventually developed a friendship and mutual respect and trust that got the Celtics off the ground.
In the 1956 season, the Celtics made a huge trade. They had an All-Star, Ed Macauley, whom they decided to send to the Hawks along with their draft rights to another player, Cliff Hagan. In return, they got St. Louis’s first round Draft pick. After some quick negotiations with the Rochester Royals, the Celtics got to claim their prize: A University of San Francisco center named Bill Russell. Auerbach also managed to finagle another player, Tommy Heinsohn, out of the deal. Heinsohn became the 1957 Rookie of the Year, and him and Russell proved to be great compliments to Cousy. Russell was on the Olympic team and had to delay joining the Celtics until the middle of the 1957 season, but when he got there, it sparked the beginning of the mightiest dynasty in the history of North American professional sports.
11 titles was what those Celtics won. 13 years was all it took to win all 11 of them. From 1959 to 1967, they won eight of those titles straight. The two hiccup years were in 1958, when the St. Louis Hawks played against Boston in the Finals and avenged the loss they suffered against them from the previous year; and 1967, when the Philadelphia 76ers cut their trip to the playoffs short. There’s not a whole lot of detail to go into here, because the story repeats itself every year. That’s especially true starting in 1959, which is the year they acquired KC Jones and kicked off their eight-year dynastic run. There ARE a few noteworthy things that happened: In 1964, despite the team’s reputation as the white person’s team, the Celtics became the first NBA team with an all-black starting lineup. In 1966, Bill Russell became the first black coach in any major professional sport when Auerbach retired as the coach and put Russell in charge. During the dynasty, the Celtics took out the Minneapolis Lakers in the Finals six times, which began the greatest rivalry in the history of the NBA. And Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, and Satch Sanders all joined the Celtics at some point during the dynasty.
The Celtics finally had a losing season in 1970, but since Red Auerbach was still the general manager, that down period didn’t last very long. The likes of Dave Cowens, Paul Silas, and Jo Jo White made Boston the class of the NBA again soon. They were back in the conference finals by 1972, and they followed that up by winning 68 games in 1973. But those 68 wins turned them into the best team to ever win 68 games and fail to make the Finals when they were booted by the eventual Champion Knicks. That “elusive” 12th title came in 1974 against the Milwaukee Bucks. They claimed banner 13 against the Phoenix Suns in 1976, and the Finals featured one of the classic games of NBA history. That was the fifth game, in a series which was tied at that point. The Suns were trailing early, but came back to force overtime. That overtime failed to settle anything, so the game went into double overtime. At the end of that second overtime, Gar Heard of the Suns made a famous turnaround jump shot at the top of the key which forced, YES!!! TRIPLE OVERTIME! It was in that overtime that the Celtics finally closed the game out.
The Celtics were finally out of gas again after that 1976 Championship, but this, of course, is merely out of gas in the Celtics’ usage of the term. They made the playoffs the next year, and even when they started losing, they were winning at least 30 games a season. In the 1977 Draft, Auerbach ended up drafting Cedric Maxwell, who was an unusual gamble for him in that he wasn’t a sure thing who was immediately ready to lead the team. He was a developmental project who had a bad rookie season. His talent did eventually sprout, and he went on to have a respectable career, but that didn’t stop the Celtics from falling in the standings… And into prime Draft positions! John Havlicek retired in 1978 and was the team’s all-time leading scorer when he did, but Auerbach was at least somewhat prepared for that. He took another risk pick, this time on an Indiana State junior named Larry Bird. Bird was a risk because Auerbach took him knowing full well he was going to finish his senior year before signing. Auerbach took the risk because Bird’s status as a draftee meant the Celtics would get to hold on to his rights for the next year, and Auerbach believed Bird’s potential would be worth it. As usual, Auerbach was right.
Bird became the keystone of yet another Celtics dynasty. He debuted during the 1980 season, and so a year after going 29-53, the Celtics made one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NBA history. They won 61 games that year and fought their way through to the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Sixers finally put them down. The undeterred Auerbach then started making a series of trades and moves which ensured Celtic domination for the next ten years: After a ridiculously smart trade from the previous offseason left the Celtics with the first and 13th overall picks in the 1980 Draft, Auerbach saw another opportunity to make the Celtics better still. He sent both of those draft picks over to the Golden State Warriors in what became maybe the most lopsided trade in the history of the league. Those two picks for the Warriors’ first round pick – which was the third overall pick – and a center named Robert Parish. He used the draft pick on a University of Minnesota power forward named Kevin McHale.
Off and running once again, the Celtics won 62 games and returned to the Eastern Conference Finals. Matched yet again with the powerful Sixers, the Celtics allowed themselves to be dumped into a 3-1 hole before storming back, winning the series, and then clobbering the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals. The next couple of years were off years. But by “off years” there, I mean off years as in by Boston Celtics standards, not off years per se. They still made it back to the conference finals in both years. (I imagine losing in both of them pissed Larry Bird off big.) It wasn’t until 1984 that the Celtics went back to the Finals, and they ended up renewing their old blood feud with the Lakers. The 1984 Finals was a series for the ages, because the Celtics-Lakers feud wasn’t the only one being renewed; Larry Bird’s old college foe, Magic Johnson, was now the undisputed star of the Lakers. The Lakers won the first game, and in the second game, they were ahead 113-111 with 18 seconds to go when Gerald Henderson stole a pass from James Worthy and scored a layup that tied the game and sent it into overtime. The Celtics eventually prevailed 124-121, but they were tired for the next game. That showed when they were soundly beat 137-104, and an angry Bird called his team sissies afterward. That finally lit the fire. In game four, the Lakers blew a five-point lead with a minute to go and lost in overtime again after a sloppy mess of errors. Boston won game five, which was played in suffocating 97-degree heat in Boston Garden with no air conditioning. In game six, the Lakers won 119-108 after stepping up their physicality to answer Boston’s brutal tactics. In the finale, the Lakers rallied from 14 points down to close the gap to three with one minute left. Then Cedric Maxwell knocked the ball away from Magic Johnson, Dennis Johnson sank two free throws, and the Celtics walked off the hardwood with an incredible 111-102 victory and a Finals record of 8-0 against the Lakers.
By then, however, the basketball ethos had started to shift. The strong, physical fundamentals that had made the Celtics so dominant in the early NBA and created the greatest sports dynasty in North America were only starting to become a part of a larger entertainment medium. Yes, they were important, but the NBA – which had been the weird outcast kid of professional sports and on the verge of bankruptcy just at the end of the 70’s – was stepping up and becoming a part of mainstream sports. The league needed flash. It needed razzle dazzle athleticism to show to casual fans. It needed Showtime – the unofficial nickname of the team the Lakers were fielding. The Lakers of the 80’s played a lively, fast, and exceptionally skilled form of basketball. The Celtics had always been good, but the Lakers were starting to change the way the sport was being played. And so it was destiny that the two teams should meet yet again in the Finals the following year, in another riveting series. And this year, the changing of the guard finally happened, and the Lakers took their first-ever hard-earned Finals victory against Boston.
Auerbach didn’t like that very much. He traded Cedric Maxwell to the Portland Trail Blazers for their longtime star Bill Walton, and the angry Celtics responded to their loss with arguably the greatest season in the history of any NBA team. Larry Bird won his third straight MVP, Walton was the Sixth Man of the Year, With a 67-15 record, the Celtics paced the league, and their home record was a sick 40-1. McHale and Johnson were both on the league’s All-Defensive Team. In the playoffs, the Celtics stormed their way through to the Finals, losing just one game in their first three series. And with the Lakers being the top team in the Western Conference, another clash between the two NBA monsters was looking like a given… Before the Lakers went and choked in the Western Conference Finals against the Rockets. Although the Rockets gave the Celtics more of a fight in the Finals than they had gotten from any other team they faced in the playoffs that year – they managed to take TWO games! – it was still an anticlimactic romp that resulted in Boston taking their 16th banner.
This being the Celtics and Lakers, they were destined to meet again. But before that happened, the top pick of the 1986 Draft was a University of Maryland prospect named Len Bias. He was taken by the Celtics second overall (why he wasn’t first with his reputation is beyond me – don’t ask me what teams are thinking when it comes to draft strategy) and expected to turn into the NBA face that Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls were. Bias, however, had a problem the others didn’t. Think white powder. After being drafted by the Celtics, the jubilant Bias drove a newly-leased sports car back to his dorm and had dinner with some friends. At about 2 AM, he left campus and briefly went to a gathering, which he left somewhere between 2:30 and 3 AM. For the next few hours, Bias and some of his friends celebrated in a cocaine party. Around 6:30 AM, Bias had a seizure and collapsed, stopped breathing, and efforts to revive him failed. Around 9 AM, Bias was pronounced dead. And no, the Celtics didn’t get a mulligan. Their future superstar died of a cocaine overdose all of two days after being drafted.
Hard as it may seem to believe, Bias’s death wasn’t the thing that affected the Celtics the most. That actually happened a couple of years before: In 1984, Auerbach detached himself from all duties regarding the on-court Celtics. Although he continued to work for the team right up until his death in 2006, he wasn’t coaching or managing the Celtics anymore. As a result, the Celtics finally started doing something they had never done before: Declining. Yes, there was one more visit to the Finals: A 1987 meeting with the Lakers, but that also sort of served as the emphasis on where the league was going and how the Celtics were being left behind. The Celtics were tired, aging, and clearly on the wane by then. The Lakers were fielding maybe their best team of the decade – perhaps even their best team ever – and won it in six games. After being beaten into the hardwood by the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals the next year, it was official: The Celtic Mystique was a thing of the past.
Now, the Celtics didn’t really get BAD here, but they were clearly pretty weary of playing all those games every year. They continued to win. Hell, they even took another division title or two. But they weren’t dominating like they had during the 80’s. Bird had needed bone spurs surgically yanked out of both feet in 1988, and was out of the NBA by 1992 because his back couldn’t take the pounding anymore. McHale went a year later, and in 1994, the Celtics missed the playoffs for the first time since the year previous to Bird joining the team. Parish left to join the Charlotte Hornets in free agency, and Boston’s Big Three years were kaput. The Celtics of the 90’s didn’t do EVERYTHING wrong; hell, they drafted Antoine Walker in 1996, and he turned out to be pretty good. But that was only “pretty good,” and not “worthy of Bill Russell and Larry Bird good.” So the Celtics finally dropped to rock bottom in 1997, a year they won only 17 games. To sort out the mess, the Celtics looked to legendary University of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino.
Once they had Pitino, the Celtics made a few moved which got them two lottery picks plus a great chance at winning the first overall pick of the 1997 Draft, a fellow named Tim Duncan. When the lottery came… The San Antonio Spurs won the right to draft Duncan, which they promptly did. But the Celtics dismantled their great loser team, letting go of Rick Fox and David Wesley outright while trading another player to the Denver Nuggets for two second round draft picks. They used their two lottery picks on Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups, starting a whole new backcourt. Billups was gone by the trade deadline, and Mercer was out in his third year, but the Celtics started a turnaround. And the next year, with the 10th pick of the Draft, the Celtics selected their next great mainstay: Paul Pierce.
It seemed like the team would have been set back when Pitino resigned in 2001, but new coach Jim O’Brien got them rolling again. In 2002, the Celtics won 49 games and made the playoffs for the first time since Larry Bird’s final season. During the next few years, Pierce led the Celtics as they turned from a bad team into a punchy, hard unit that had a chance in every game. In 2006, they found another signature player in Rajon Rondo, but it was in 2008 when the team finally peaked again. What happened started in the 2007 offseason, when the Celtics picked fifth overall in the Draft. That meant they had no shot at either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, but they made up for that by sending two players and a draft pick over to the Seattle Supersonics for three-point specialist Ray Allen. That was the all-in sign, so when the Celtics made a trade for Kevin Garnett that July, Garnett had no problems reporting to Boston. That year, the team won its first eight games, started 26-3, and went 66-16. After running through the playoffs, fans ended up being treated to a renewal of the league’s greatest rivalry. Yep, the Celtics went to see the Lakers in the Finals yet again, and took the series in six. It took 22 years, but banner 17 was finally in Boston. A couple more dominant years followed, and the Celtics went to the Finals once more in 2010 to face the Lakers. The Lakers prevailed this time.
Since then, the Celtics have constantly seemed to be at the beginning of another death and rebirth cycle, but even if this one doesn’t go that well, what do their fans have to complain about? The Celtics are one of those teams that has gone well above and beyond the call of duty to their fans. Since their creation, they’ve only gone one decade so far without winning a title… Although the end of the current decade is getting closer, and it may well be two decades by then.
So, you think the New York Yankees have retired numbers? The Celtics have RETIRED NUMBERS! 21 of them to be precise, which is more than any other team in North American sports. Yes, the usual suspects are there: Russell, Bird, Havlicek, Cousy, McHale, and Parish. The list also includes Ed Macauley, Satch Sanders, Frank Ramsey, and a lot of others. But they should all tell you how many of basketball’s luminaries have played for the Celtics. Two of their players are guys you would want on your all-NBA legends team. I’m of course referring to Russell and Bird. Russell was basketball’s ultimate Captain, and was there for the first 11 of Boston’s 17 titles. The last two of those titles came with Russell coaching the team. To wit, Russell literally has more championship rings than fingers to put them on. Popular sports pundit Bill Simmons wrote an enormous book about basketball a few years ago simply called The Book of Basketball. Simmons has some serious flaws as a pundit, but he does know his basketball in and out, and he devoted a whole chapter of that book to arguing that Russell was actually a better player than his contemporary, Wilt Chamberlain, and it’s a convincing argument. For those concerned with numbers, Simmons defined what a clutch player should be, and showed that Russell was the one who was always putting up better numbers when it counted. He also made an argument worth pointing out that Chamberlain was traded twice in his career for deadweights while Russell only played for one team. Bird’s accolades don’t seem to be quite as impressive at first – he won three titles. But when he was with the Celtics, they never missed the playoffs, and the team he was on in 1986 is still widely considered the greatest team in NBA history.
The Celtics have a rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers which is a little unusual in that this is an interconference rivalry. The two teams have played against each other 12 times in the Finals, with the Celtics coming out on top nine of those times. But before you get hung up on how lopsided that number is, the Lakers were the winners of three of the last four. And the Lakers aren’t exactly lacking a championship pedigree of their own; they’ve won 16 titles. It was the Lakers and Celtics who repeatedly tangled in the days of Russell and Chamberlain, and when the NBA started getting on track as a major sports league in the 80’s, it was the Lakers and Celtics the league was basically revolving around. They are both credited with rescuing the NBA from bankruptcy. Both teams were littered with stars in the 80’s – the Celtics had Bird, McHale, and Parish, while the Lakers had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. The Celtics/Lakers rivalry, however, goes beyond just basketball and enters into deeper sociological territory with the types of people and places they represent being polar opposites: East against west, white against black, grit against flash, blue collar against white collar. The ultimate embodiment of the rivalry was the one-on-one between Bird and Johnson, even though the two of them rarely covered each other on the hardwood. Yes, the Celtics have their traditional rivals in the east – the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers – but it’s the fight with the Lakers that truly captured the imaginations of fans.
On that white against black thing, the Celtics have long had a perception as the white fan’s team which isn’t entirely fair to them. It’s so ingrained that in Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing, when one of the characters yells at a white man about oncoming gentrification, that white man is wearing Larry Bird’s jersey. Lee also once ran an essay on meanings attached to different sports apparel, which contained a picture of a black man in Celtics gear attached to the phrase, “This man is an Uncle Tom.” That perception, however, is rooted in abject ignorance. They were the first team to draft a black player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950. They were also the first team in the league to send an all-black starting five onto the hardwood. Later, Bill Russell was made the first black coach in all professional sports. The Celtics of the 60’s were the team that really got the uptempo version of basketball off the ground, and Red Auerbach didn’t simply throw them into the lineup. They were picked out for their abilities on defense, starting right with Russell. Since basketball is seen as such a flashy sport, the abilities the players on those teams displayed were the ones associated with hard work and determination – basically the ones we tend to automatically associate with white people who do well in the NBA. The perception of the Celtics as a white person’s team didn’t take hold until the 80’s, and that makes you wonder if it would have held up had Len Bias lived. Since it’s basically considered a given that Bias probably had as much if not more talent than anyone in the NBA when he was drafted and that the Celtics would probably be up to 19 or 20 banners had he played, you have to wonder what he would have done for the team’s racial perception during those years. Also, you should take into consideration that only five black coaches have won NBA titles, and three of them – Russell, KC Jones, and Doc Rivers – were all Celtics. And when Boston hoisted that 17th banner back in 2008, they were the only team in the NBA with an all-black starting five and a black coach at the time.
The Celtics have probably the most famous floor in the NBA. Their parquet floor is like the Green Monster at Fenway Park: It’s synonymous with the team. It has a unique, alternating pattern and is comprised of 247 pieces. That happened because the floor was first assembled by scrap wood just after World War II.
Yes, the Boston Celtics have had a reputation for being behind the times, but the reality is a lot different. They’re not as dominant as they used to be – it’s probably not a coincidence that they’ve only won two titles since Red Auerbach’s retirement as general manager, and one was on a team he put together himself – but a history like theirs is hard to resist. On a personal note, the Celtics are the only team from Boston I can stand – if my hometown of Buffalo, New York has an official NBA loyalty, it’s probably the Celtics, and I cheer for them most of the time I watch them myself. And I’m an ornery New York sports fan, which means I usually hate Boston sports. I don’t call them my team, but I like them a lot.
Have usually been well ahead of the curve; have won titles and fielded transcendent superstars in every decade except one; many commonplace strategies we see in basketball started with them; even their fucking FLOOR stands out
Spike Lee’s nonstop, ignorant yammering; fans will be called racists by pseudo-intellectuals who don’t know anything about basketball history; Red Auerbach was a more blatant cheater than Bill Belichick
Should you be a fan?
Absolutely. Even when the Boston Celtics suck, they’re usually doing SOMETHING worth your support. Just please don’t pull that shit where you root for the Celtics and have the Yankees as your baseball team, okay?