The NBA playoffs arrive with goodies for every basketball fan — something old, something new, something borrowed and, best of all, something green.
It's good to have the Boston Celtics back. Not to pull for them, but just to see them around, mattering, bringing that flame back to life. Perhaps the Celtics wobbled a bit with their return to prominence, needing seven games to beat the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round, but they limped through it and one has to figure they're ready to be serious.
Every sports league will tell you that every franchise matters, but some franchises matter for no other reason than that they used to matter. Sports fans have a way of being history buffs, and they like to see those living monuments to the past, even if that monument is just a jersey.
They used to say, for example, that it wasn't an official World Series unless the New York Yankees were playing. They used to say that about 50 years ago, when the Yankees won the American League pennant 22 times in 29 years from 1936 through 1964.
Everybody either pulled for the Yankees or pulled against them. When the Yankees were missing, a lot of people just didn't have a dog in the fight, so it wasn't an official World Series.
To this day, the Series feels more real when the Yankees are in it.
The Celtics never quite became the Yankees — no one has — but within the NBA they are the historical dynasty. You can vote for the Los Angeles Lakers, but the Lakers have won five NBA titles since the Celtics last won one in 1986 and the Celtics still have more titles, 16 to 14. Both franchises basically took the 1990s off, winning zero titles between them.
It remains that the history of the NBA championship basically is the history of the Celtics and Lakers. Starting when the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League merged to form the NBA in 1949, the Lakers won five out of six titles from 1949 through 1954, then the Celtics won 11 out of 13 titles from 1957 through 1969 (beating the Lakers on five of those occasions).
The league passed the title around a bit in the 1970s, though the Lakers won in 1972 and the Celtics in 1974 and 1976. Then, of course, came that pivotal night of March 26, 1979, when Magic Johnson's Michigan State team beat Larry Bird's previously undefeated Indiana State for the NCAA championship.
That game, which set basketball on its course for the next 20 years, remains the highest-rated college basketball contest in the history of television. Everyone knew what was happening.
You had two mid-sized talents, one black and one white, who excelled in every element of offense, especially the passing game. Johnson was certain to leave Michigan State after his sophomore year, and the Lakers held the overall No. 1 pick for trading Gail Goodrich to the New Orleans Jazz. The Celtics took Bird No. 6 overall a year earlier, figuring they could sign him right at the end of his senior season.
The Bird vs. Magic rivalry merely began that night and continued through the 1980s as Celtics vs. Lakers. The Lakers won five titles in the 1980s, beating the Celtics twice, while the Celtics won three titles, beating the Lakers once. At least one of those teams appeared in the Finals every year, and both appeared three times in four years, 1984-87.
Both teams fell on hard times when Johnson retired because of HIV in 1991 and Bird retired with a bad back in 1992. The Lakers returned to prominence with three straight titles (2000-02) behind Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Meanwhile, the Celtics descended sadly into the NBA basement as the most luckless franchise imaginable.
Boston took Len Bias out of Maryland with the No. 2 overall pick in 1986, and he died two days later from a cocaine overdose. In 1993, their 26-year-old star, Reggie Lewis, died of a heart attack.
In 1997, after the Celtics lost a franchise record 67 games, they lured Rick Pitino from Kentucky to run their operation. Seeing that the Celtics had the most balls in the draft lottery, Pitino took the job believing he could nab Tim Duncan from Wake Forest with the top overall pick. But the San Antonio Spurs won the lottery in a long shot and took Duncan, who now is gunning for his fifth title in 10 years. The Celtics continued to die.
In 2003, the Celtics held three first-round picks and their haul consisted of Joe Johnson, Joe Forte and Kedrick Brown. Before the end of one season, they traded Johnson, the best of that lot, to Phoenix and came out of it with all of Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers.
Just last year, after a 2-22 start following the death of Red Auerbach, the Celtics finished 24-58, their second worst record ever. Worse, the Celtics again lost in the draft lottery, sticking them with the No. 5 pick.
Considering how the Celtics responded, one is reminded that a Cincinnati sports franchise owner recently said he's "tired of losing." Tired of losing, the Celtics went after the league's top outside shooter, then copped one of the best all-around talents of all time.
On draft day, General Manager Danny Ainge roped in Ray Allen and the 35th overall pick from Seattle, dealing the No. 5 pick with Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. Bringing in Allen, one of the most accurate three-point shooters in history, already made the Celtics better.
It also made Kevin Garnett take the Celtics seriously as a team to whom he would accept a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Celtics heard Garnett and put together seven players to take him off the Timberwolves' hands.
Just like that, after 20 years of nothing, the Celtics built the team to beat in the NBA East. Now they have Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce all averaging right around 18 points per game. Rajon Rondo, formerly of Kentucky, averages 10-plus with 5.1 assists per game. Kendrick Perkins plays half the game and averages 1.46 blocks.
The Celtics are back with a 66-16 regular season, best in the East. Better, they finished 25-5 against the West. And a good many fans would love to see the Celts take their playoff run all the way to the west. Just because.
Contact Bill Peterson: [email protected]