To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are mistakes, dumb mistakes, and boneheaded blunders. High among the miscues in the last of these dubious classifications is the incomparable foolishness of burying the Boston Celtics before they have been officially cooked.
Times change. The years roll by. Casts of characters come and go as the sporting generations pass on. But there remain those few and rare teams whom you should never deny that “willing suspension of disbelief,” which the estimable S.T. Coleridge – who was not a sportswriter but a poet -– smartly defined as a sensible reluctance to jump to certain conclusions too soon thereby making a dang fool of yourself. In other words, Mr. Coleridge was advising, as long as there’s a pulse, be deferential.
Obviously, it’s a courtesy you must still extend, like it or not, to the New York Yankees. While it’s becoming a stretch, the same goes for the Montreal Canadiens. Even more sanctified in this manner, soccer buffs will insist, are such as Manchester United or Team Brazil. Amateur sport abounds with even better examples. But chief among them all are the Boston Celtics.
With such characters, as Yogi Berra has quaintly reminded us, it is never over until it’s over. No doubt that has everything to do with genes, there being no better possible explanation.
Anyway, it is with all that in mind that grievous error is acknowledged in a column written in this space three months ago that bluntly, rudely, and unequivocally kissed off this year’s Celtics team. It was hardly bold. Solid logic, further fortified by the near universal consent of the sporting world, underscored the harsh judgment back then that now seems to have been rather rash.
Slogging into March the Celtics were plodding, uninspired, old, injured, and in the process of playing precisely .500 ball for roughly the last three quarters of the season, which, in the woefully imbalanced NBA, makes you thoroughly an also-ran. On through March and into April, when teams fine-tune for the playoffs, they were 10-11. It was hard to find a hoops savant aside from those amiable twin towers of the Globe’s sport section – Brothers Ryan and Shaughnessy – who gave them half a chance to survive the second round. Prospects were bleak.
Actually that column, etched, we must presume, by the regular boy’s devilish alter ego, was a two- fisted assault on both of our winter standard bearers. For even more lightly dismissed in that regrettable essay were the Bruins, who had also staggered through most of the regular season under-achieving quite monotonously.
Memorably, the Bruins did awaken in the playoffs and also came close to jamming the author’s impertinence down his editorial throat. But in the end, they not only faltered but did so ingloriously by flopping before the Flyers four straight. It should now be seen as ludicrous that only a few days ago so many worried that the same wretched fate might befall the Celtics. Seems the author was not the only chap guilty of having too little Faith!
The Flyers’ subsequent charge into the Stanley Cup Finals may make the Bruins collapse look less embarrassing than was first the case. But it doesn’t alter what amounts to the historical difference between the Bruins and the Celtics. The Bruins often come close, sometimes with valor, but when the Celtics come close, they close the deal, generally without mercy.
So here we are again, about to hear a song we’ve heard before and it is from an old familiar score. You can’t blame the rest of the nation for being a bit bemused by the prospect of the 12th Celtics-Lakers championship showdown at the NBA’s grandly appointed Armageddon. Few outside of Orange County pull for the Lakers whereas that vaguely overbearing sense of entitlement widely perceived to characterize the ever more hyper and howling New England sports fan understandably irks many who hunker down West of the Connecticut and East of the Rockies. Sorry, Old Sport.
But even for those who view the outcome as immaterial, there will be no denying the spectacle. No teams in all of sport have a better feel for championship turf or a better sense of the high drama of the thing. This is not only their 13th meeting in the finals, but when it is over the two of them will have between them a total of 33 championships in 50 appearances in the NBA’s championship round.
All of that in a period of just six decades. Talk of dominance. There is no comparable rivalry in all of sport. Without the Celtics and Lakers, you could argue there is no NBA. But then such arrogance derives from that very elitist mindset that offends so many. No matter, they will nonetheless revel in it.
The latter years of the relationship are what most folks like to groove on. All of the old antipathies were revived just two years ago when the Celtics handed the Lakers a surprising come-uppance with unexpected ease. The nucleus of that Celtics’ resurgence remains intact although it’s important to note that the mainstays are surely two years older. That seemed to be a factor all season but amazingly has not been a factor in the playoffs.
More celebrated – indeed, endlessly so – is the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson saga that culminated in those epic showdowns in the ‘80s, which a lot of basketball historians seem devoutly to believe represented the high water mark of the game and the league’s entire annals. I disagree but also admit I don’t have the cachet on the subject to make much of a case. Of all the major games, basketball is the least of mine.
No question Bird and Magic were special. Who would dispute that? And their fabulous acts were buttressed by a splendid array of high character actors in the Jabbars and McHales and D.J.s, Chiefs, Worthys, et al. The experts insist that by the mid-eighties the depth of the athleticism in the NBA had risen to a point where you could no longer argue the good old days were comparable. Maybe! But is it possible that athleticism isn’t everything?
I’ll stick with the Sixties as my favorite time not only for this game in general but also for the relationship of these two legendary teams in particular.
Between 1959, which was the Lakers last year in Minneapolis, and 1969 when the Celtics matchless dynastic run – unequalled in all of sport – came to an end, these two met in the Finals seven times and every such clash was not only Homeric but also supremely colorful.
The game back then simply had more personality. You think the match-up of Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce is dramatic? You should have caught an aging but unbowed Bill Russell going up against Wilt Chamberlain, still at the height of his Goliathian prowess. It was never more fun to watch than when Bob Cousy was quarterbacking Boston and Jerry West held the reins for L.A with Red Auerbach conducting the operatic production from the sidelines. Even the owners had panache. Why hello there, Jack Kent Cooke. And when they brought in the sluggers from the far end of the bench – like Gene Conley, Clyde Lovellette and Wayne ‘The Wall’ Embry – you knew there would be a whole lot of thumping going on. You want to talk about “athleticism”? Allow me to introduce Mr. Elgin Baylor of Los Angeles and Mr. John Havlicek of Boston.
Could it have been so grand, or is it that it was just so long ago? Still, as renewals go, this one is mighty hard to beat.