The start has been a hop, step and a jump of dramatic proportions. The team that was supposed to be too old, too old, a thousand times too old, had bounded to a 12-3 record as of Sunday, third-best behind Portland and Detroit in this young NBA season. The aging nucleus of Larry Bird (34 on Dec. 7), Kevin McHale (33 on Dec. 19) and Robert Parish (37) suddenly seems as if it has been taking swimming lessons on the set of the movie Cocoon. The kids—Shaw and Brown and newly re-signed Reggie Lewis and newly resurrected Kevin Gamble—seem as if they can be big-time NBA players. The laughs are back. The up-tempo, running style of Celtics basketball is back.
"We're only one player away from a championship," superstar Bird says with a broad smile. He pauses for effect. "Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan."
There are asterisks galore to go with the early success—games against poor teams, games against good teams when some of the good teams' major people have been hurt—but 12-3 is still 12-3, and there have been some nice road wins in Chicago and New York. A few months ago, this was a team without a coach, without Shaw, seemingly without a clue. The season was projected as a long, disheartening drone to be heard across the New England landscape. The headlines would come from the offices of lawyers and agents. The old names would gather moss and become subjects of sad, where-are-they-now feature stories about living on the wrong side of the standings, tall men clutching their mementos of past glory.
The final taste of the 1989-90 season was a five-game playoff loss to the youthful New York Knicks. After winning the first two games of the series, the Celtics seemed slower and flatter with each succeeding loss to the Knicks. The overwhelming analysis was that the team was dead, gone, written in the past tense. The champions of yore could not even dream of being champions once more.
"People forget that we weren't as bad as we ended," McHale says. "We did win 52 games. But it is true that we weren't ready to go for a championship. We weren't ready for the Pistons last year. We couldn't have handled them."
The coach, Jimmy Rodgers, was fired. Dave Gavitt, the head of the Big East conference, was hired as vice-president in charge of basketball operations. A sequence of un-Celtic-like events evolved. Ford, a longtime assistant, was named coach only after Duke's Mike Krzyzewski declined the job. Shaw, who had left to play in Italy for a season after his rookie year, suddenly balked at returning to Boston despite a new contract he had signed with the Celtics. Lewis said he would be leaving, too, at the end of the season because his contract was inadequate. What was happening here? Had somebody thrown away Auerbach's Guide to NBA Success and Skulduggery? Was the parquet floor going to be next, cut into so many tops for end tables? Were the flags on the ceiling of the Boston Garden going to be hung upside down? What?
"What did I know?" Gavitt says now. "This was all new to me. But handling these problems was why I was hired."
After he signed Ford, Gavitt's first decision had to do with whether or not there was still enough life in his three old-timers to build around them. He decided there was. If there wasn't, then why were other teams trying to trade for them? Isn't basketball still a big man's game? Weren't these three premier big men?
"The aircraft carrier is still the biggest ship in the fleet," he says. "Our decision was that our aircraft carriers were fine. We needed some escort ships."
One escort was Brown, a 6'1" guard from Jacksonville, taken with the 19th pick in the draft. Another was Shaw, the legal fight won in the courtroom and the diplomatic skirmish won in quiet conversation. Lewis had a change of heart and was quickly re-signed. A third escort. Gamble was a fourth, a freestyle shooter who would be helped immediately by a faster, more open game. Room was opened on the floor with the release of veteran guards Dennis Johnson and Jim Paxson. The runners now had a place to run. They also had a system.