A way off in future shock, or about the time basketball referees have perfected the 24-second picket line, somebody will uncover evidence of the demise of the Boston Celtics. How the rickety old Celtics came to the end of their championship banners and victory cigars. How John Havlicek finally turned 90 and Charlie Scott broke his neck and a shoulder as well as both legs. How Tom Heinsohn collapsed an entire row of benches during a fat attack and Dave Cowens bolted to sell cold cream to the Trobriand Islanders.
Of course, all of this may not happen until the next millennium. For today, tomorrow and maybe for as long as the 1977 NBA playoffs continue to make labor-relations news, it appears as if the same old Boston Celtics will be running past their injuries, gunning down their travails and outconfidencing everybody in sight.
"They come out, look at you and know they're going to win," says San Antonio Spur Coach Doug Moe of the men in green. "When a team knows it's going to win, it wins. The Celtics always have known."
They always have. And last week, after a season unequaled in turmoil and in desperate phone calls to the missing-persons bureau, there was Boston again in the thick of the playoffs. After flicking aside their first-round opponent, the Spurs, in straight sets, 104-94 and 113-109, the Celtics looked as good a bet as any to successfully defend a championship that in the past winter of their discontent seemed out of reach.
If Sunday's first game of their four-out-of-seven glamour series with Philadelphia was any indication, however, the NBA may have on its hands another Rocky Balboa- Apollo Creed number. For after a puzzling afternoon of doing things like falling behind by 13 points in the first half and by nine points in the fourth quarter, after watching helplessly as Julius Erving (36 points) put on one of his quintessential playoff shows, the Celtics clawed back, caught Philadelphia and nailed the 76ers 113-111 when Jo Jo White's jump shot from the left baseline dropped as the final buzzer sounded.
Even the winners were startled by this turn of events. Havlicek, who was appearing in his 166th playoff game (a world record) and should be used to such things, joined in the jumping and hugging at center court. Cowens and Scott faced each other and wiggled away in a primitive dance. The Celtics didn't seem to want to leave the floor.
"That was the Kentucky shindig," said Cowens, who had dominated the inside with 21 points and 15 rebounds.
"That was happiness," said Scott.
If it is true, as some say, that the current Boston team is a patchwork bunch that hardly personifies The Celtic Way, it must be pointed out that the team didn't play together as a healthy unit until two weeks ago. That was when Scott came off the injured list to rejoin Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, the former UCLA tandem with the fragile psyches, and reacquaint himself with Cowens, who had missed 30 games himself while on sabbatical to a farm, a harness track, a toy store and a state of total confusion.
Suddenly everything fell into place. Gone were the stresses that prompted Havlicek, a 15-year veteran, to say he "felt like a stranger." Forgotten was the team meeting when Scott supposedly pointed a finger at Wicks and said, "The trouble is him! He's not a Celtic." While near the mark, the charge could hardly have come from a less orthodox Celtic than Scott, the tempestuous heaver of rainbows. Even Cowens might have laughed. If, that is, the redhead had not already packed up his knapsack and headed off in a truck to nowhere.