With a new coach, new players to work into the rotation and a new offense designed to bring them up to the NBA's legal speed limit, the Boston Celtics are, for the first time in many years, a team in semitransition. So what could be more logical than to spend a week of valuable preseason time 3,600 miles from home, playing non-NBA teams under an alien set of rules?
"Well, there's nothing particularly normal about the NBA season, so maybe this is good preparation," said rookie coach Jimmy Rodgers, who had been an assistant in Boston for eight seasons before being named K.C. Jones's successor last spring. That was the stiff-upper-lip conclusion that many of the Celtics had seemed to adopt, at least publicly, by the time they swept to the championship of the second McDonald's Basketball Open, in Madrid last weekend. On the other hand, there was the more succinct conclusion reached by guard Dennis Johnson: "I just want to get out of here."
By the time Boston had beaten the national team of Yugoslavia 113-85 on Friday night and Real Madrid, the host team, 111-96 in the final on Sunday, the Celtics had discovered that there's not only immense basketball interest in Europe, but there are also several quality players. One is Real Madrid point guard Drazen Petrovic, an expatriate Yugoslav who should play in the U.S., if only so he could be dubbed Brazen Drazen. Petrovic excelled (34 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists) in Real Madrid's 108-96 win over Scavolini Pesaro, the Italian League champion, in Friday's Game 2, and then gave Boston some anxious moments in the final, with 22 points, six rebounds and six assists. In fact, the Celtics led by only 83-77 with 47 seconds left in the third period before its superior strength and depth and Larry Bird's outside shooting—he had 29 points, including four three-pointers—turned the proceedings into a rout.
It would be hard for the American fan to imagine what a grand spectacle this tournament was for the European fan. NBA commissioner David Stern had anticipated it, though, and almost from the moment last year's inaugural tournament in Milwaukee ended (the Bucks defeated Tracer Milan of Italy and the Soviet national team to win the championship), he started thinking Boston green-and-white. "More and more, the idea of sending the world's best-known basketball team as our representative seemed to make a lot of sense," said Stern.
But not necessarily to the players on the world's best-known basketball team. Boston general manager Jan Volk asked his charges to keep a lid on their negative feelings if they had any, which they did, and for the most part the Celts obliged him, but some discontent did seep out. On the first day of training camp, at Hellenic College in Brookline, Mass., forward Kevin McHale issued what he called "the first no comment of my life" when asked about the trip to Madrid. Bird and center Robert Parish also groused about it. The players were allowed to bring one guest—some brought wives or girlfriends, but Brian Shaw, Boston's No. 1 draft pick, made an early bid for Son of the Year honors when he elected to bring his mother, Barbara—but they got no extra money or bonuses. And it's a simple fact that many American professional athletes are not predisposed to travel seven hours by plane in pursuit of, say, cultural enrichment in a foreign land.
And, indeed, the Celtics saw some strange sights, like zone defenses, trapezoid-shaped foul lanes (the games were played under a combination of international and NBA rules) and the shuffling feet of the European player. "They allow some traveling in the NBA," said Bird, "but I mean, this is legitimate!"
The Celtics also saw castles and princes and provincial mayors, and just in case they missed the homeland, they got to see the Memphis State Pom Pom Girls, the Famous Chicken (El Polio Famoso, as he was known in Madrid) and, on one promotional outing, a certain golden-arched home away from home.
The big psychological obstacle for the Celtics, as it was for the Bucks last year, was the no-win container in which NBA teams come packaged for this event. Win big, and you're only doing what you're supposed to; win small, and you're off your game; lose, and you're an international incident. And don't think for one minute that European fans aren't discriminating.
"The Europeans want to see the Celtics, Lakers or somebody like that come over here and beat the local teams by 50 points," says Danny Peterson, an American who is an influential basketball commentator in Italy. "If the NBA sent a last-place team over here, the Europeans would send it back on the first plane."
Are you listening, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan? Since Stern is committed to the NBA's continued participation in this tournament, and since next year's will again be held overseas (Milan, Rome, Tel Aviv and Athens are all possibilities), it might be a good idea to get your travel documents in order.