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Their Luck Has Run Out

The last of Celtics' 16 titles was 21 years ago; now they're the NBA's worst team and all the shamrocks in Ireland couldn't help them

February 23, 2007|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Celtics are coming! The Celtics are coming!

Right, as if anyone cares.

A generation has grown up since they were the NBA's smartest, most successful, most conniving, most feared and by far its most hated team. Whether they were the dirtiest is arguable, but playing them was like playing no one else.

A former Lakers official admits to having been in charge of calling Celtics players in the middle of the night at their hotel in Los Angeles during the 1984 Finals.

Of course, the former official insists they were only retaliating after the Celtics did it to them.

During their decade-long duel in the '80s, Coach Pat Riley once asked his Lakers who the real Celtics were. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar identified them as the fierce northern people who settled Ireland.

Said Riley, who is of Irish descent, "I had to explain they were also a cunning, secretive race."

What goes around comes around, even if it takes 50 years, which is how long it has been since the Celtics won the first of their 16 championships.

This spring will mark the 20th anniversary of their last Finals appearance. They've been in the playoffs 10 times since and beyond the first round in four.

Now rebuilding in earnest, they're more like a Cub Scouts pack than one of those old Celtics teams. With the NBA's new age rule, den leader, er, Coach Doc Rivers, said, "I'm the last coach who'll ever have four high school players."

Three of those players who did not attend college -- Gerald Green, Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins -- are in his eight-man rotation.

Unfortunately, they went seven weeks without Paul Pierce, which left them like Cub Scouts lost in the forest.

Pierce missed 24 games, of which they lost 22. By the time he got back, they were on a 16-game losing streak, en route to their club record of 18.

They might have gone for the NBA record of 24 if they hadn't won their last game at home, with Pierce scoring 32 points in a 117-97 rout of Milwaukee, before this five-game West Coast trip.

"I categorize my [telephone] calls in two ways," says Rivers. "One is from people like [Marquette Coach] Tom Crean, [Philadelphia vice president] Larry Brown. They call you and say, 'Your guys are playing hard, they're executing, you can see the improvement they're making.' And at the end of the conversation, I say, 'I understand that. And we're still losing.'

"And the other kind are when they say, 'How are you? How are you feeling?' And to those I say, 'I'm still living.' "

The Celtics have since started a new streak, losing here and in Phoenix, so more phone calls may be coming.

Red's not coming back, either

Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door.... And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old.

-- Celtics Coach Rick Pitino,

March 1, 2000

Red Auerbach died three days before this season, leading to "It's a good thing Red didn't live to see this" jokes about the losing streak, the new dance team and local fans chanting "MVP!" for the Lakers' Kobe Bryant.

However, Auerbach was a tough guy who maintained a dignified silence as their banners were moved to a new arena that was renamed twice, not counting the time they auctioned off naming rights weekly and a Yankees fan tried to call it the Derek Jeter Center.

Auerbach's accomplishments are even more breathtaking in retrospect, starting with the most fundamental of all: He taught the NBA to think.

He built three distinct powerhouses -- the Bill Russell teams that won 11 titles in the '50s and '60s, the John Havlicek-Dave Cowens teams that won two in the '70s, and the Larry Bird teams that won three in the '80s.

Making it still more remarkable, the Celtics weren't a rich team like the George Steinbrenner Yankees. Auerbach worked under 14 ownership groups, running a hand-to-mouth operation to survive while dominating the NBA.

"The ritual," says the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan, "was, owner buys team, owner kisses Red's ring, owner steps aside, Red runs team, owner accepts trophy."

Owners came and went so fast, they ran together: the brewery guy (Jack Waldron), the New York developer who tore down Ebbets Field to put up apartments (Marvin Kratter), the Rochester, N.Y., furniture maven (Harry Mangurian).

Some did stand out, such as Irv Levin, the California wheeler-dealer who stayed one season, exchanged franchises with Buffalo owner John Y. Brown, took what had been the Braves to San Diego and renamed them the Clippers.

Nevertheless, while Levin and Brown were about to play Monopoly with what he built, Auerbach was rebuilding it again, using the sixth pick in the 1978 draft on Bird, an Indiana State junior he'd have to wait a season for.

By Bird's retirement in 1992, Auerbach was 74 and his presence was increasingly ceremonial. Not coincidentally, the glory days were increasingly distant.

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