The Celtics had gotten to where they were by helping each other, by playing classic team basketball, but it was the brilliant play of Bird that helped most.
"He's just done everything the buildup said he'd do," says Fitch. Red Auerbach, the Celtics' president and general manager, concurs. Says Auerbach, "He's the best passing forward I've ever seen. Better than Bill Bradley, Rick Barry, John Havlicek, all of them. From an unbiased point of view I think he should be the MVP. Everybody says Abdul-Jabbar or Erving, but people don't realize that these guys are with organized teams that they've been with for years. Bird's playing with new people, not only new to him, but new to each other. And he has made the difference."
But so, too, has Cowens, who was unburdened from the coaching job he inherited in the shambles of last season. He worked himself into magnificent physical and mental shape for this year. So did Ford. The best thing anyone ever said about his game when he played in Detroit was that he was "smart" and "hardworking." And then there was Archibald. In 1972-73, at Kansas City, he led the league in scoring with 34 points per game and in assists with 11. He broke his left foot 34 games into the 1976-77 season, when he was with the Nets. A year later, traded to Buffalo, he tore an Achilles tendon in an exhibition game, and that cost him another season. He spent much of last year on the Boston bench, musing as players like JoJo White, Earl Tatum, Marvin Barnes, Curtis Rowe and Earl Williams were shipped out by Coach Cowens. In his lowest moments, Archibald sought solace from his old Kansas City coach, the man who taught him much of what he knows about playing guard—Bob Cousy. "Cooz would tell me, 'Don't get down, Tiny. These are the Celtics. Things will get better.' Well, the man was right."
The one missing ingredient this season was a shooting guard to come off the bench. So the call went out to Maravich, who had already settled his contract with the Utah Jazz, cleared league waivers and was a free agent. "I always wanted Pete," says Auerbach. "I wanted to see what he could do playing with a good team."
So did Maravich. He was packed and ready to sign with Philadelphia—the 76ers had a uniform all ready for him—when Auerbach called. It didn't take much to convince the Pistol, and on Jan. 22 he chose Boston. "It wasn't money," says Maravich. "People don't believe me, but I've always said I never played this game for money. The money was just always there." Now he signed for a mere $80,000.
Maravich hadn't come off the bench for Utah in 28 straight games. When he arrived in Boston, he says, "I was in no shape at all. I was trying to catch a 60-mile-per-hour locomotive and I was standing still. I didn't look at it like the press did—'Here's Maravich's last shot. Let's get Pete a championship before he goes out.' No thanks, I can live without that. I thought that just one time I wanted to experience the other side, the fun. I wanted to contribute, not be the main donor. When you've been on the negative side for a decade you want a different perspective.
"My game is still as good as ever. I'm in shape now, my knees are fine. Hell, I averaged 23 points a game in this league with a three-pound brace on my knee."
Maravich worked himself into shape, and averaged 17 points in 25 minutes over the last nine games of the season. In a key game at Washington on March 25 he scored 17 points in the fourth period, including a three-pointer to win it at the buzzer.
"A championship would culminate my whole basketball life," Pistol says. "It's the only reason I ever started playing in the first place, to get a ring. The other stuff—the trophies, plaques, scoring championship—you can throw it in the Mississippi River for all I care. It doesn't mean a thing to me. This team is what basketball is about."
But as important as Cowens, Archibald and Maravich have been, Bird has been more so. In Boston, they speak of the Russell era, the Cowens era. This is the dawning of the Bird era. Maravich, once dubbed "the guard of the '70s," hails Bird as "the forward of the '80s."