Boston Celtics: The 12 Darkest Moments in Franchise History
“Celtics” have been playing basketball for nearly 100 years, 65 in Boston under the banner of the NBA. From Lapchick, through Cousy and Bird, right up to Paul Pierce and his mates, Celtics tradition has been about winning championships, and to that end they enjoyed a good deal of success.
But the nature of competitive sports has duality:
For every upset winner, there’s a devastated loser.
For every hero, there’s a goat.
For every thrill of victory, there’s an agony of defeat.
And you can’t win ‘em all.
So Abacus presents the 12 darkest moments in Boston Celtics history.
12. Kendrick Perkins' Knee Injury (2010)
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A strapping, raw-boned, corn-fed country Hoss from South Texas. No, it's not “Who is Greg Kite”, Jeopardy whiz!
Kendrick Perkins was the staunch backbone who solidified the fire of Garnett, the flair of Pierce and the fundamentals of Allen. His steady, heady play was a key to the Celtics’ 2008 title.
In a data-driven world of measurable outcomes, it was easy to overlook Perkins’s contributions. Then he was felled by a balky knee in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals. A 3-2 series edge subsequently disintegrated into defeat, and championship banner No. 18 remains under wraps.
Abacus doesn’t need his counting machine to measure that.
11. Beloved Owner Walter Brown Dies (1964)
Thank you, Mr. Brown.
Lost amid the celebratory clutter that is and always has been the rafters of the Boston Garden hangs No. 1. Wrack your brains and wreck your googling fingers all you want, but you won’t find a player to account for it, for it honors Walter Brown, original owner of the Boston Celtics, one of the founders of the league … oh, and the man in whose honor the NBA’s championship trophy was originally dubbed.
Renowned for his genuine warmth and kindness, he needed the skill of P.T. Barnum and the luck of the Irish–a deal with Mephistopheles, as well, if you listen to the “haters”–to keep the team viable. Although he once famously said, “I’m the guy that didn’t want Bob Cousy,” he did procure the coach he craved–fella named Auerbach.
His death in the fall of 1964–he did get to enjoy winning the first seven of those championship banners–threw the team’s ownership into a decades-long tizzy that was the antithesis of the on-court excellence the team was able to sustain for another 30 years.
10. Boston Garden Fan Attacks Referee Richie Powers (1976)
A ref deserving of scorn, and a 1976 NBA champion.
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New York fans are arrogant, they boo Santa Claus in Philly, and just ask Ron Artest’s latest identity about an Auburn Hills audience.
A Boston Garden gathering had its own breach of etiquette though we–yes, Baby Abacus was present–were astute enough to do it during an innovatively memorable, triple-OT, 1976 NBA Finals game.
In Game 5 after John Havlicek’s apparently game-winning 18-foot bank shot in the closing seconds of OT No. 2, as the happy crowd rushed the court, some nut blindsided referee Richie Powers, landing a couple of wild punches before getting hauled away.
Time remained after all; Paul Westphal’s quick thinking and Garfield Heard’s ceiling-scraper bought Phoenix a third OT. But Powers didn’t hold a grudge and the C’s prevailed on their road to lucky title No. 13.
9. Rick Pitino's Return to Beantown (1997)
"It wasn't this tough in Lexington, Coach."
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Winter’s night in ’78 or ’79. About 200 people (players, coaches, media and mascots included) occupy the modest gym on Commonwealth Avenue, Abacus among them. A pre-Calhoun UConn squad features a bunch of curly-haired kids named Levine and Shaughnessy. The most eye-catching thing about the modestly-talented BU Terriers was their intense young coach, Rick Pitino.
That intensity spelled success in subsequent stints with Providence, the Knicks and Kentucky, but not so much in his three-plus seasons as coach and CEO of the Celtics.
Lottery misfortune (no Tim Duncan) which retarded the rebuilding process, public squabbles with Auerbach, a roster long on Wildcats but short on stability, and a playoff record of 0-0 induced Pitino’s resignation in early 2001.
Maybe Rick was suffering from burn-out after more than two decades of high-profile, high-stress work.
But, as we’ll see later, this is not the only proof that bluegrass and shamrocks do not co-mingle well.
8. Magic Johnson's Backbreaking Baby Hook (1987)
Magic or Mikan?
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7. Celtics "Settle" for an 8-Peat (1967)
Nobody Loves Goliath
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The longest run of consecutive championships in American pro sports ended not with a bang, but a whimper: A 140-116 drubbing in Game 5 of the 1967 Eastern Division Finals at the hands of the Philadelphia team selected as the best of the NBA’s first quarter-century.
Bill Russell, in his initial season as player-coach and therefore subject to more than his share of scrutiny (social as well as strategic), has a very simple message for his players in that losing locker room: Let’s go congratulate the winners, guys.
What, you never heard of a classy whimper?
And for the record, Coach Russell’s charges won the next season’s rematch in a classic series, the last playoff games for which Wilt Chamberlain would ever sport Philly gear.
6. Patrick Ewing's Boys Have a Garden Party (1990)
Nice hat, Spike
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The basketball pundits had already begun prognosticating the Celts’ inevitable Round 2 tussle with the defending champion Detroit Bad Boys, after another easy win, a 157-128 romp over Patrick Ewing’s hapless New York Knicks in 1990, Dennis Johnson’s final season.
Then the bottom fell out.
A Game 4, payback pasting was followed by the Original Big Three dropping the ultimate game of a playoff series on their beloved–and raggedy–parquet floor for the first time in franchise history.
An era had ended. Larry Bird struggled through two more injury-plagued seasons, Kevin McHale had three, and soon after that Robert Parish took his act on the road.
5. Y. (Oh, Why) John Brown
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Rich boys and their rich toys.
Want some chicken...buy KFC.
Need a bigger house...get elected governor.
Don’t like your ball club...swap it for another.
Especially when you can dump the Clippers-to-be for a perennial championship contender.
John Y. Brown so hoodwinked Celtics’ owner Irv Levin back in the summer of ’78.
Alas, in mere months, Y. John’s meddlesome ownership style had Red Auerbach at the “he Goes or I go” stage and ready to accept a job offer from the Knicks (a cabbie talked him out of it, according to one urban legend).
The straw that broke Red’s back was Brown’s impulsively trading a passel of high draft picks for Bob McAdoo in February of 1979.
Brown soon needed a bigger house, so he sold the team.
A silver lining in this dark cloud is that the player trade that accompanied the franchise exchange landed Tiny Archibald, Larry Bird’s first pro point guard and a criminally under-appreciated player and man.
4. Reggie Lewis: His Life Cut Short (1993)
For the Love of the Game
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Reggie Lewis seemed to live and breathe basketball. He loved to compete, and the game rewarded his commitment.
At Baltimore’s Dunbar High School, for Jim Calhoun at Northeastern, and as successor to Larry Bird as Captain of the Boston Celtics.
Sadly, Reggie’s love for the game would end his life prematurely. Medical evaluations following his inexplicable collapse during the team’s initial playoff game in 1993 revealed a heart problem. Specialists advised that he stop playing this game he so loved.
Lewis sought and found the second opinion he apparently wanted to hear and was back playing at the team’s facility on July 27, 1993 when he again lost consciousness and this time his life at age 27.
When his No. 35 was retired, he was watching from a whole different set of rafters.
3. Farewell, Red Auerbach (2006)
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In the end, Red Auerbach won again. Longevity had created a basketball world in which he’d become universally revered (which usually just means you’ve outlived all your enemies).
His record of success, as both coach and executive, is unparalleled and well-documented.
One night at the old Garden, he invited himself to participate in a celebrity free-throw contest, best of five or something. Red’s effort, old-fashioned two-hand set shot on full display, was perfect, so he was coaxed into shooting more. When he finally missed after about 10 in a row, he waved to the now-roaring crowd and ambled back up to Loge 1 for the second half.
Basketball was primarily a radio sport throughout the ‘60s. TV broadcasts, especially local, were infrequent enough to become events. After Auerbach retired from coaching in 1966, he and Tommy Heinsohn comprised the most entertaining announcing team of all time, berating the officials as much as they called the play. What Abacus wouldn’t give to relive just one of those playoff broadcasts from Philadelphia’s Convention Hall (are you listening, NBA-TV?).
Few people are truly unique...Red was one of them.
2. Bill Russell's Unexpected Retirement (1969)
Abacus still insists Russ was the best.
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As the aging and aching defending champs slogged their way to and successfully through the playoffs, everyone knew it was the last rodeo for Sam Jones.
But nobody was ready for the August 4, 1969 issue of Sports Illustrated, in which Bill Russell eloquently, graciously, but definitively, announced that he was walking away from the final year of his contract. He simply didn’t want to play anymore.
Journeyman Hank Finkel was acquired before the end of the month. A fine fellow, Finkel’s lack of athleticism induced new coach Tommy Heinsohn to use second-year jumping jack Rich Johnson for the center jump that opened each quarter of play back in those days.
Alas, Johnson’s game showed more development during the season than Finkel’s, and Boston hoop fans were deprived of playoff basketball for the first time in Red Auerbach’s association with the franchise.
1. "Lenny Bias Is Dead!"
Imagine the physicality of LeBron James, the fearlessness of Manu Ginobili, and the precision of Ray Allen all rolled into one 6’8” package.
That was Len Bias.
Red used the second pick in the 1986 draft, a selection he’d deftly acquired two seasons earlier for Gerald Henderson, to add Bias to a team fresh off a championship season. The team’s arsenal would include some new weaponry, and a gifted young player would be spared the burden of undue expectation, the best of both worlds.
Our euphoria was short-lived however, as news spread that Bias had been found dead in a dorm room at the University of Maryland, where he was attempting to finish his degree. Stunned shock was followed by disappointment at the whispers of cocaine and a celebration gone horribly wrong.
More than just the Celtics’ shot at another dynasty, a piece of our innocence died along with a 22-year-old young man on June 19, 1986.
Still, you kinda know that young Len would have gotten a hand on Magic's hook shot, don’t you?
Best of the Rest
Hey, where are my '82 Sixers, Abacus?
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Sorry, Doc. Close but no cigar.
The same goes for DeBusschere's Knicks.
The Sidney Wicks - Curtis Rowe Bicentennial Disaster got consideration, as did the long-standing squabbles with the landlord Bruins over use of the Garden.
And of course anything involving the afore-mentioned Mr. Kite.
That said, Abacus is sure he's overlooked something. Please cure him of this ignorance in the Comment Section.