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The Celtics' trek west after the all-star game last season was of long-standing tradition, dictated by scheduling conflicts in Boston Garden. Each February, the Celtics (and the Bruins) have to vacate the premises for a couple of weeks because management leases the building to one ice show or another: In February 1991 the show happened to be Disney on Ice. Over the years, the trip has been a downer if the Celtics are playing poorly, but at times it has had its salutary effects, too, if only because it gets the Celtics out of Boston in midwinter and into some warmer weather.
In seasons past, the Celtics, Larry Bird in particular, had played some of their best ball on that trip, and despite the questions about Bird's back injury—a congenital defect compounded by a herniated disk—there was a good feeling in the air when the Celtics departed on their annual journey last season. The players were traveling on their own plane; Dave Gavitt, the Celts' senior executive vice-president, had persuaded the Boston owners early in the winter that the additional cost (about $500,000 over an entire season) of chartering a private 727 from MGM Grand was outweighed by the benefits. There would be no more lost time in out-of-town airports, no more cholesterol-laden airport food, no more early-morning wake-up calls—the plane would leave directly after a game—and no more traffic jams en route to Logan Airport in Boston. The charter departed from the more conveniently located Hanscom Air Force Base in suburban Bedford. There were things to get used to, though. On Jan. 7, the night of a trip to New York for a game against the Knicks, forward Kevin Gamble and swingman Reggie Lewis had parked their cars in a secured lot at Hanscom, and it took them 90 minutes to find the right person to let them out when they returned at one o'clock the morning after the game.
Bird's injury probably made up Gavitt's mind to ask for the plane. There are few things worse than commercial air travel for a person with a bad back, but on the charter Bird had his own queen-sized bed, a medical area where he could get treatment, and the freedom to walk around and stretch without being bothered by fellow passengers. At least a half-dozen teams had begun chartering on a full- or part-time basis before the Celtics, but it was doubtful that Celtics president Red Auerbach would ever have given the O.K. when he was directly running the team. After all, he remembered Celtics road trips back in the late 1950s that consisted of jumping on an all-night train at Rochester, N.Y., getting dropped off near a cornfield at dawn and either hitchhiking or walking the 10 miles into Fort Wayne, Ind., to play the Pistons, who were then based there. And that's when his Celtics were world champs.
The plane and rookie guard Dee Brown's newfound stardom—two days earlier he had won the slam-dunk contest during the All-Star weekend in Charlotte—were the main topics of conversation when the Celtics landed in Seattle on Feb. 11 and immediately were bused to a workout. As Brown and Bird walked in, a local TV crew mobilized. "There he is!" shouted one of the crew members, and Bird winced. But no, they wanted to interview Brown.
"Better git ready, Rook," Bird said, laughing. "It's only jest beginnin'."
Forward Kevin McHale said the only one who didn't like the charter flight to Seattle was former Celtic Tommy Heinsohn, one of the team's broadcasters. "Five hours without a cigarette, and Tom is devastated," McHale said. "His eyes are rolling around in his head by the time we get off the plane. He wanted them to land in, like, Kansas, so he could get a butt." McHale shook his head. "After about the 10th meal on the flight, I turned to a couple guys and said, 'Man, this is really decadent, isn't it?' And they said, 'Why? What's wrong with it?' "
Out on the court, Bird was shooting without visible pain. He claimed to have watched only one quarter of the All-Star Game on TV before losing interest and falling asleep. However, he had seen the Chicago Bulls' Craig Hodges convert 19 straight shots from various spots behind the three-point line to win the Long Distance Shootout. Bird won that event in 1986, '87 and '88 and took pride in calling himself "the three-point king." Bird was asked if he had ever made 19 in a row from three-point range.
"Sheet, you kiddin'?" he said, genuinely offended. "Fifty or 60 maybe. Easy. Although most of 'em, usually, from the corner. What Hodges did under those circumstances was big-time, no doubt about it." He couldn't resist a subtle dig, though. "Kinda tough to shoot like that from the bench, isn't it?" Hodges at the time was getting very little playing time.
After practice, Bird went over to his physical therapist, Dan Dyrek, who had come along on the trip at the Celtics' expense primarily to work with Bird on a daily basis. Dyrek slipped a cumbersome-looking back brace around Bird's shoulders. It had come to this: Boston's hopes for the season were resting on a guy who, when not in uniform, wore a back brace.
When the Celtics walked into The Coliseum the following morning at 10, they found that the SuperSonics had just taken the court for their own shootaround and wouldn't be finished until after 11. Boston assistant coach Don Casey had already sent the bus driver to a 7-Eleven store to get coffee, so the Celtics could do nothing but stand around the hallway and bust Wayne Lebeaux, the equipment manager/traveling secretary who was responsible for their scheduling.