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So the Red Sox were getting their flannels peeled off over at Fenway, the Bruins were going facedown in the Stanley Cup playoffs and a whole lot of marathoners were milling around town. Nothing unusual about any of that. But Boston was buzzing last week as it hasn't buzzed in many a springtime because those men in the funny green sneakers were back in the hunt for another NBA title.
Inside ancient Boston Garden, the energy emanating from the sold-out crowd last Friday was enough to set the 13 championship banners to fluttering, for the Celtics had brought off one of the wondrous turnarounds in the history of sport. By winning 61 regular-season games against 21 losses—the best record in a very good year for the NBA—the Celtics had equaled their entire victory total for the two previous miserable seasons combined.
Moreover, the team had already taken a giant step toward banner No. 14 by demolishing the Houston Rockets in the Eastern Conference semifinals in four straight games. The average winning margin of 18.5 points moved Houston Coach Del Harris to call Boston "the best team I've ever seen." Some observers of that series thought Houston might have been the worst, but no matter. Rick Barry of CBS, who moonlights as a Houston forward, said, "If you're going to lose, it's nice to lose to a great team, rather than a bunch of circus clowns."
The Celtics had heard all about how great they were, so last Friday Coach Bill Fitch had to keep reminding them that the 76ers, their opponent in the conference finals, weren't the circus clowns they once might have been, that the Sixers were just two games worse than Boston overall, and that the teams had split six regular-season games.
In the stands, the fans were ready to go. Remembered were the epic battles between a hero named Russell and a villain named Chamberlain. Anticipated was an epic battle between a hero named Bird and a villain named Erving.
In the Boston locker room, each contributor to this semi-miraculous season—every one of whom, except the big rookie, has had a steady diet of losing the last few years—prepared for the showdown in his own way. Guard Chris Ford and M. L. Carr, the sixth man, both veterans of a circus known as the Detroit Pistons, read their mail. Forward Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell worked 20 minutes on getting his shoelaces just right. Dave Cowens, twice a championship center, once an MVP, once a runaway Christmas tree farmer, last year the coach of the worst Celtic team in 29 years, serenaded—yes, serenaded, in a voice that could shatter tin—his neighbor Nate (Tiny) Archibald, who wasn't one of Coach Cowens' favorite guys but now is the guard who makes the Celtics go. Cowens sang, "Tiiiiiiny bubbles..." and laughed when Archibald looked at him as if he were crazy.
Other Celtics—like Pistol Pete Maravich, who took a pay cut of approximately $525,000, frizzed his hair and painted his sneakers green just to be a part of all this—watched a videotape of Boston's last regular-season game with Philadelphia. Fitch desperately wanted his team to be ready for anything the Sixers might pull. So there was the tape showing Erving scoring about 10 baskets that the 101st Airborne couldn't have stopped. Sudden sharp yells disrupted the calm: "Help! Help! Help!" They sounded more like yelps.
Anxious eyes focused on Larry Bird, slumped in a corner, looking, as he always does, emotionless.
"Larry, what's wrong?" asked Rick Robey, the backup center.
"Nothin'," said Bird in his Hoosier drawl. "I'm just practicin' up my defense for Dr. J."