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Seems Like Old Times
JACK McCALLUM
June 30, 2008
Twenty-two years after their last NBA title the Celtics earned their 17th, as G.M. Danny Ainge reconnected the franchise (and this author) to a storied past of retired numbers, Hall of Famers and one-namers
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June 30, 2008

Seems Like Old Times

Twenty-two years after their last NBA title the Celtics earned their 17th, as G.M. Danny Ainge reconnected the franchise (and this author) to a storied past of retired numbers, Hall of Famers and one-namers

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When Rivers got the Boston job in April 2004, he embraced the burden of history, inviting every living former Celtic to attend practice. He also consulted with Auerbach, who gave him two pieces of advice: "Be the agitators; don't be the retaliators" and "Get the ball; don't give up the ball."

Frankly, that sounds like a bunch of useless pap—but there's been a lot of that over the years in Boston, where the older generation is always hoops-whispering to the younger. When Russell and Garnett got together in March to tape a conversation for ESPN, I thought, What do they have to talk about? Russell won 11 championships and Garnett hasn't even played a postseason game in a Celtics uniform. Still, Garnett was moved when Russell said he would share one of his 11 rings with Garnett if the team didn't bring home the title this season. Those old Celtics cast long shadows; accepting that is just part of the deal in Boston.

Rivers connected his players to the franchise's illustrious past while keeping them in the present. Something that backup big man P.J. Brown told me during the Finals stuck with me. Ainge signed Brown in late February—it was P.J.'s fifth stop in a 15-year career—to provide maturity and toughness. I asked if he had made an immediate assessment of Rivers when he came to the team.

"Most definitely," said Brown. "Doc had the team. You can always tell that right away. He just had the team."

After the Celtics failed to close out in Game 5 in L.A., losing 103--98, much of the criticism centered on Garnett for his lack of aggressiveness around the basket on offense, a rap he has dealt with for years. I thought it understandable but unfair. Garnett has never been an in-traffic scorer; he's a jump-shooter in a 7-foot package. He makes his bones with rebounding and never-take-a-play-off defense—which describes Russell. The Celtics of the 1950s and '60s never went into an important game expecting Russell to lead them in scoring. That was for Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones and John Havlicek. Russell's job was to be the spiritual leader, the rock, more immovable object than irresistible force. Same for Garnett.

So when KG got off early in Game 6, hitting a layup, an alley-oop dunk and three jumpers in the first quarter—his offensive effort matching his primal scream played on the scoreboard before every home game—Boston was off and running. After one quarter it was 24--20; after two it was 58--35 and so over. All of Russell's rings would remain with him. (Later, Garnett would tearfully tell the goateed éminence grise, "I got my own.") The TV cameras could afford to spend time panning for Celtics legends in the stands—Russell, Havlicek, Heinsohn, Cedric Maxwell and Jo Jo White among them. With Boston up 89--60 at the end of the third quarter, Ainge's BlackBerry blipped, and up flashed a text message: GREAT JOB, DANNY, I'M REALLY HAPPY FOR YOU. LARRY.

Although they occupy different galaxies in the basketball universe, Bird and Ainge were a lot alike two decades ago: monumental pains in the ass to friend and foe. As with Bird, feisty didn't begin to describe Ainge. He claims he never finished a game of backyard one-on-one with Dave, one of his two older brothers, because they would get into fistfights. "I remember a Little League game when a kid stole a base on us," says Ainge, who was playing shortstop, "so I told him there was a foul ball and he had to go back to first. He stepped off the bag, and I tagged him out. He started crying, and their coach called me a dirty player. It didn't bother me. We got the out."

During the time I covered Ainge in the '80s, I always saw him as a little brother to Bird and McHale. (He was two years younger than the former and 15 months younger than the latter.) In effect, he took on the same position he held in his own family under Doug (four years older) and Dave (three years older). McHale could goof off with the best of them—from time to time he would sneak a snack on the bench—but it was Ainge who acted as if he were 10, showing up at practice wearing goofy headbands and adhesive-taped names on his jersey. Lamar Mundane, a fictional playground legend who was the subject of a Reebok commercial at the time, was one of Ainge's favorites. Bird and McHale ragged him for his boyish enthusiasm and I-got-screwed whining during games. Only when Bill Walton came to the Celtics in 1985, giving Bird and McHale a new target, did Ainge slither off the hook.

Still, Ainge was the player most plugged into the complex Bird-McHale dynamic. "Larry would always come to me and say, 'Hey, go tell Kevin this,' and Kevin would come to me and say, 'Go tell Larry that.' They were such great players, but sometimes they didn't know how to talk to each other and how to yell at each other. But they knew how to yell at me."

With such a distinctive team imprinted on his memory, I wondered if Ainge tried to consciously model this club on his old one.

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