The worst part of the whole grisly nightmare for Red Auerbach was that people thought he had actually stopped smoking. Stopped smoking! As architect of the Boston Celtics' dynasty through all those years as the team's coach, and even in his role as the club's high-profile general manager, Auerbach had sealed each victory by lighting up one of his dreadful green cigars. He had helped hang 13 championship banners from the rafters of Boston Garden, and over the years had probably made more people ill than a flu epidemic. Then two seasons ago the Celtics began to lose, lose big, and suddenly the team began to make people sick. People kept asking Auerbach what had become of those cute little cigars he used to smoke.
By the end of last week Auerbach was once again turning his seatmates positively green. The Celtics were making the rest of the NBA queasy, too. With successive victories over New Jersey and Indiana at home—where the Celtics are unbeaten this year—and a 106-101 win in Atlanta, Boston appeared to be capable of turning stomachs all the way to the playoffs and beyond.
To appreciate where the Celtics stood at week's end—Boston had the best record in the NBA (15-4) and was a game and a half ahead of Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division—one had to remember where they had been the past two seasons. After finishing the 1977-78 season with a dismal 32-50 record, the team that had once won eight world championships in a row stumbled to a hideous 29-53 mark in 1978-79. In that one nightmare season the Celtics went through two coaches ( Satch Sanders and Dave Cowens), tried 21 different starting lineups and shuttled 18 different players in and out of town. They finished dead last in the Atlantic Division, 25 games behind first-place Washington. The only team in the entire league with a worse won-loss percentage was the New Orleans Jazz, a club now playing under an assumed name somewhere in the Wasatch Mountains.
The depth of Boston's decline cannot be overemphasized. It was as if by blowing first-round draft choices year after year on the fabled Clarence Glover, Steve Downing, Glenn McDonald, Tom Boswell and Norm Cook, someone in the Celtics' front office was trying to make up to the rest of the league for all the years of Boston's dominance. Even trades that had seemed promising—deals for name players like Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Billy Knight, Marvin Barnes and Bob McAdoo—had caused only problems. "My first season here we had seven guys who were All-Stars," says third-year Forward Cedric Maxwell, himself a budding star with a league-leading .667 field-goal shooting percentage. "We had more talent then than we do now—superstars at every position—but a lot of them were misfits. Just because you put five guys together on the floor doesn't mean they're going to play well together."
The Celtics certainly proved that. The height of their front-office folly came last winter when John Y. Brown, then the club's owner—he has since got himself elected governor of Kentucky on the skirttails of his bride, Phyllis George—swapped three first-round draft choices to New York for McAdoo. Auerbach was displeased but philosophical. "What are you gonna do?" he says now. "Criticize the owner? Besides, people wouldn't have believed me if I told them how dumb this guy was. He'll probably try to trade the Kentucky Derby for the Indianapolis 500."
Inept as they seemed through these dreadful times, the Celtics did manage to do one thing right. In the 1978 draft Auerbach selected Larry Bird, then a junior at Indiana State, gambling that he could sign Bird before the following year's college draft. Bird did, indeed, come to terms with Boston after leading Indiana State to the NCAA finals last spring.
There are many ways to gauge Bird's importance to the Celtics, but probably the simplest and most telling is to point out that he is the only new face in the starting lineup that finished the season for Boston last season, replacing McAdoo. Against Indiana last Friday he scored 30 points, his high as a pro, in a 118-103 victory over the Pacers. That brought the Celtics' record to a tidy 9-0 at home, and six of those games have been sellouts. In all of last season they filled the Garden only once—for the retirement of John Havlicek's number. Boston sold more than 6,000 season tickets this year, the most in the history of the franchise. Average attendance has jumped from 10,193 in 1978-79 to 13,849, 90% of capacity. The reason for the surge at the gate is unquestionably Bird.
"We're the hot ticket in town now, the one the wise guys have to have," says Assistant General Manager Jeff Cohen. "Bird has been a huge part of that because he's lived up to what was expected of him. This town has been let down so often by its teams that for him to be as good as everybody said he would be is a tremendous thing. Bird is the kind of player that fathers in Boston have been telling their sons about all these years when they talked about how the old Celtics played."
Bird played one of his least impressive games in last week's 111-103 win over New Jersey, and yet he finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds. When the Celtics trailed by 15 points in the third period it was he who rallied them. With 6:38 left in the third quarter, Bird had scored only four points. He drove the left baseline for a basket and then banged in a follow-up of his own missed shot, and that seemed to awaken the crowd. He followed with a pair of free throws, hit a nifty shot as he crossed the lane and launched a flying 24-footer just ahead of the buzzer for a three-pointer that put the Celtics up by a point going into the final period.
Bird has scored in double figures in all 19 of the games he has played as a pro, and he leads the Celtics in scoring (19.1 points a game), rebounding (10.1) and, less happily, turnovers. As with most great passers, however, Bird is not truly responsible for all the turnovers credited to him—many of his innovative passes are dropped or fumbled. Bird trails Guard Tiny Archibald by a wide margin in assists (as does almost everyone; Archibald leads the league with an average of nine a game), but the Bird may be the best passer in the NBA. "Tiny will create off a freelance move," says Boston Coach Bill Fitch, "but at this level a lot of players can do that. Larry can create off a set play, and in the context of that play he can invent something that's never been done."