There are countless ways to make a February vacation away from the Great North a pleasurable experience. Always on my entertainment list is a superb book. As of late, I have reveled in a terrific basketball read: Wish it Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics by Dan Shaughnessy.
Shaughnessy was the Boston Globe beat reporter on those wonderful Celtic teams from 1982-1986. He didn’t cover Bird’s first NBA title team in 1981, but he was on the scene for the 1984 and 1986 championship seasons. His book has Minnesota connections and is so compelling I was nostalgic reading it.
I traveled to Boston in the spring of 1986 on behalf of the Gund brothers’ organization that owned the NHL North Stars and operated the Met Center. I made the trip to meet with Celtic management regarding the team’s participation in a potential exhibition game at Met Center.
The Celtics provided tickets for my wife and me to watch an NBA finals game at legendary Boston Garden. The Garden, built in the late 1920’s, didn’t have air conditioning and the old building felt like a sauna for the Celtics, Houston Rockets and fans fortunate enough to be in attendance that night.
The Celtics were always alert for gamesmanship that might turn a game or series in their favor. During the 1984 championship series against the hated Lakers, the Celtics were accused of turning the Garden heating system on in the antiquated Los Angeles locker room during a warm spring in Boston. Part of the lore, too, was the showers ran cold water in the Laker locker room.
In the 1984 series, with the Lakers leading two games to one, former Gopher and Hibbing native Kevin McHale made a play that is talked about to this day. Bird had challenged his team’s heart and manhood after a Game Three loss and McHale showed he got the message in the next game by aggressively knocking Laker forward Kurt Rambis to the floor. The Lakers saw the confrontation as a dirty play then and now.
What followed in Game Four was more physical play and contentious jawing including a spat between Bird and the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Along the way, the Lakers lost their cool, with the Celtics winning in overtime.
The Celtics went on to win the championship four games to three. “You could feel the whole thing turn,” McHale said in Shaughnessy’s book.
McHale was a rookie on the 1981 championship team coached by Bill Fitch. I met Fitch when he coached the Gophers from 1968 to 1970. He was often a writer’s dream and a player’s nightmare. With the media, he could be a standup comic but he was beyond hard at times with his players, pushing them to extremes and even embarrassing them.
Fitch, who wisecracked that some days you wish your parents had never met, excelled with the Gophers leading them to consecutive fifth place Big Ten finishes after 10th place finishes the two previous years. He left Minnesota for the Cleveland Cavaliers, an NBA expansion team. He likened the assignment of coaching a first-year team to a religious experience, noting that a lot of prayer was involved “but most of the time the answer is no.”
Fitch was a success with the Cavs, coaching them for nine seasons before joining the Celtics for the 1979-80 season. His timing coincided with Bird’s rookie season and the Celtics became a powerhouse with the demanding coach in charge. But Fitch’s harsh style with players came at a price and by the spring of 1983 he had lost control of the team. “…Bill had jumped a lot of ass and there was a lot of angry feelings,” McHale said in Shaughnessy’s book. Fitch moved on to Houston where he coached the Rockets for several seasons including that NBA Finals in 1986.
K.C. Jones coached the 1984 and 1986 champions. The view from here is he was more of a caretaker than the coach. Shaughnessy describes how it was a player, not a coach, who made the key strategic move on using defensive stopper Dennis Johnson on Magic Johnson in the 1984 series. And when games were on the line for the Celtics, it was Bird calling his own play.
The Celtics were a group of high basketball IQ guys. The brain power reached its zenith with the 1985-1986 team that saw the arrival of Bill Walton. It’s a basketball lover’s dream to go back and watch the artistry of the 1986 Celtics including the cutting, passing and playmaking between Bird and Walton.
This was team basketball at its best. Players knew their roles and how to execute them. Textbook defensive positioning, rebounding, fast breaking, ball movement, and high percentage shot selection.
The 1986 Celtics had size, skill, experience and work ethic. All their core players had so many skills including Danny Ange, perhaps the team’s best athlete. He was a Parade Magazine high school All-American in three sports—basketball, baseball and football.
The great Celtics of the 1980’s had camaraderie too. They liked each other and there was constant pranking that went on among teammates. Example: Shaughnessy writes about key reserve Scott Wedman, who was ahead of his time with dedication to nutrition and massage. Wedman drank bottled water and McHale reportedly liked to empty the bottles and fill them with tap water.
The 1986 Celtics were not only the best of the franchise’s three 1980’s title clubs. Many NBA historians, including this one, view them as the greatest NBA team of all time. Hands down, they are the most gifted passing team ever to play the pro game. The ’86 team was 67-15 during the regular season and won the championship series 4-2. They were 50 and one at home during the season and playoffs.
Anyone who knew the game of professional basketball and watched that team will never forget their season for the ages. In 1986, the Celtics painted a Picasso.
Wish it lasted forever.