One of the great springtime festivals in the history of Boston sport as well as a personal favorite unfolded in the merry month of May of 1974 when both the Bruins and Celtics were marching toward championships in their respective disciplines, stride for stride on parallel tracks. Boston’s cup had runneth over with two illustrious teams from the same town, same building, going for all the marbles in the same sunny season. It was, to steal Barry Fitzgerald’s priceless exclamation in ‘The Quiet Man’ -- “Homeric”!
For it had never been done before nor has any other town’s set of hockey and basketball titans ever since come close to winning championships in the same season, mere days apart. Is there the remote chance that this is the year it could happen again, with Boston the town where it does? To say that’s far-fetched is hardly profound. Still, as May blossoms the B’s and C’s are both humming and, to varying degrees, both encourage reasonable optimism. So there is the chance.
But first, return with us to 1974. I was then in bondage to WBZ-TV, Westinghouse Broadcasting, lordly owners of then mighty Ch 4, where I shared sports reporting duties with the voluble Dick Stockton, then better known to us at least as “Stock-boy.” Dick would move on to a long run of national eminence as a play-by-play man for every game under the sun except hockey. “Stock-boy” was never a hockey guy. But I was, so he did the Celtics and I did the Bruins and there was competition between us to see who would ride the winning horse and everyone was happy, which is not always the case in the frenetic world of show business.
Anyway, the post-season was blazing in both leagues from the get-go. The Celtics chopped through the first two rounds besting Ernie DiGregorio’s scrappy Buffalo Braves then swamping the Knicks, in the last gasp of their admirable mini-dynasty featuring Messrs. Bradley, DeBusschere, Reed, Frazier & Monroe. Awaiting them in the finals were the Milwaukee Bucks with Oscar Robertson feeding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, still young and at his remarkable best. In a dazzling moment, Jabbar had tied the epic in Game Six at the old Garden with an impossible sky-hook from the corner as time ran out in double overtime.
So it would be winner take-all in Game Seven back in Milwaukee on Mother’s Day, May 12, and the Celtics in the Age of Auerbach didn’t lose Game Sevens. With a sagging defense designed by Coach Tommy Heinsohn aimed at denying Jabbar the ball, the Celts rolled, with Dave Cowens scoring 28. It was a title, however, essentially orchestrated by the incomparable John Havlicek. The Celtics had fulfilled their half of the bargain. “Stock-boy” returned with them, grinning from ear to ear.
Meanwhile, the Bruins were struggling and that had not been in the cards. For they were heavily favored to win their third Cup in five years, which would have qualified the Big Bad Bruins rampage -- featuring the sublime Bobby Orr and his chorus line of merry hooligans -- as a genuine hockey dynasty. Another Stanley Cup was universally considered certain with their opponents being the gritty Flyers and even though they were easily the best of the NHL upstarts, an expansion franchise had never won a playoff series against a vaunted Original Six team. That the Bruins could be the victims in the shattering of such huge precedent was unthinkable.
But then in Philly, on the Sunday the Celts were finishing off the Bucks, the Flyers rolled out Kate Smith, her jolly “God Bless America” act sending a shrieking packed house at the Spectrum into apoplexy. I’ve seen some wild sporting houses in my time, but never one more bonkers than that one. They romped and won again two nights later to take a 3-1 series lead. It was a ragtag collection of kids and cast-offs led by Bobby Clarke, a relentless guttersnipe burdened by diabetes but possessed of an iron will, and they were re-directing hockey history.
While lovable, the “Big Bads” were unmistakably a haughty bunch, bursting with over-confidence. You’ve never seen a more shocked team than the one that beat a battered retreat, back to the Garden. They rallied in Game Five, finally cracking the Flyers’ staunch defense, giving rise to the hope that if they could force a Game Seven they’d never lose on their sacred home-ice.
The bellicose Flyers would have none of it. On a brilliant Sunday afternoon, the 19th of May, deeply inspired by the warbling of Kate Smith and the goaltending of Bernie Parent, the Flyers closed it out in a 1-0 classic that ended with Bobby Orr seething in the penalty box after being flagged ridiculously for a marginal offense by Ref Art Skov in what remains the worst penalty call, all things considered, I’ve ever seen in the NHL. The wonder remains that Skov escaped the Spectrum without being wasted by an enraged Harry Sinden. Comrade “Stock-boy” had the last laugh.
It has now been 37 springs since those 8 days in May brought this town to the brink of something so rare. While the Celtics have had more than their share of renewals in the interval, the Bruins have never again come as close as they were that fine Sunday when Fred “The Fog” Shero’s Flyers dramatically intervened, bringing to an end the gloriously rowdy but too brief era of the of the Big Bad Bruins.
As they now slog their way through the second rounds of their interminable post-season gauntlets, the 2011 editions of the Bruins and Celtics remain longshots to go all the way, although few would be astounded if either or both made it to another round, or even two.
In hockey, a profound parity has narrowed the difference between the very good and the merely good to a thin margin that has mainly to do with injury, luck, and edge. There’s no truly great team. When it gets down to the final eight, the team that stays healthy and gets the bounces will survive to the end. And the one that has the sharpest edge will win it all. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, hockey is a mighty grueling game like no other. Degrees of desperation will decide who wins the Cup this year. How many are more desperate than the Bruins?
In basketball, where there is imbalance bordering on the absurd, there’s a cluster of teams that hint of potential greatness if you go by the largely irrelevant performances of the regular season. But a couple of them -- San Antonio and Orlando -- have already been bushwhacked, suggesting that maybe the NBA show this year won’t be as predictable as usual. Does that benefit the Celtics? Maybe more than it does most teams.
As this is written, the Celtics are down a game against the team 90 percent of the basketball universe dearly wishes to see punished for its vulgar pretensions and preposterous airs. The Celtics, bitterly envied and deeply resented over the decades, are not the most popular team in said universe, either. But many see in the Celts, with their classy resume, the team that’s ideally suited to put the uppity Miami Heat in their place.
It’s an odd business that has inspired basketball guru Bob Ryan to write (as only Bob can): “The Celtics have almost a moral obligation to uphold the honor of the sport by stopping this [Miami] team before it goes any further.” Holy Cow! That’s one helluva burden. Based on their checkered performance in Game One, you should worry about whether they are equal to it. But it’s over seven games that they separate the men from the boys.
As for the Bruins, it has long been vowed here that there will be no jumping aboard that bandwagon again until it gets well down the road. But after their gripping high wire act against the Canadiens and the frothing wins in the first two tilts with the Flyers, the temperature is rising, one admits.
More to the point: Parent is retired, Shero is dead, Bobby Clarke is buried in the front office, and 1974 is a long time ago.