On May 1, 1981, the Celtics were facing elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in Philadelphia. Coach Bill Fitch wasn’t one for rah-rah motivation, but before this game against the 76ers, he did what he could.
“He gave one of the best non-speeches that I’ve ever heard,” Cedric Maxwell, a forward on that team, said by telephone Thursday. “He said, ‘Guys, you’ve got nothing to lose. Nobody believes you’re going to win this game.’ And it took all the pressure off us. We played like a championship team and became a championship team.
“Bill was a complicated, Vince Lombardi-type guy who didn’t give a damn about the opposition and always made us believe. He was Kevin Garnett before Kevin Garnett. Kevin always said it was us against them, and with Bill Fitch it was us against them. And it was us against 19,000 people who were in the Philadelphia Spectrum.”
The Celtics went on to win that game and the series, as well as the NBA title, cementing Fitch’s place in Celtics lore. Mr. Fitch, who went 242-86 over his four seasons in Boston and was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019, died Wednesday. He was 89.
“I think for the players on the ‘81 team, and for all of us that had been coached by Bill Fitch, there was a carryover from that whole group, and I think it carried over to our 1984 and 1986 championships [under K.C. Jones],” former Celtics guard and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said by telephone Thursday.
Ainge joined the Celtics as a rookie midway through the 1981-82 season after spending the start of that season playing baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays. He said Fitch was hard on him, but he began to realize it was just tough love. Ainge said that when he challenged Fitch in front of the team midway through the 1982-83 season, he gained the coach’s respect.
“And by the time the season was over, ironically, I might have been one of the guys that was most disappointed that he was going to leave, because I’d gotten along with him really well,” Ainge said. “I thought our relationship was in a really good place.”
Ainge and Maxwell described Mr. Fitch as an intense and even paranoid coach. When the Celtics held a practice or pregame shootaround on the road, Fitch would often send a staffer on a sweep of the building to make sure no one was spying. Once, he noticed a maintenance worker in the top level of the 76ers’ arena, and he told the team’s public relations director, Jeff Twiss, to go kick him out.
Whenever a cameraman was sent to the edges of the Celtics’ huddle to get footage during timeouts, he was usually shooed away by Mr. Fitch, too.
Mr. Fitch was one of the first basketball coaches to embrace the film room and his players gave him the nickname “Captain Video.” A camcorder would be placed on a chair to record most Celtics practices, and the team studied game film, too. Today, those sessions are neatly and conveniently spliced into noteworthy segments. But that wasn’t really an option then.
“So we’d literally sit there and re-watch an entire stinking game,” Ainge said.
Maxwell averaged 19 points per game in 1978-79, his second NBA season, and was eager to build on that mark the following season after Mr. Fitch was hired and Larry Bird was drafted.
“And my first practice Bill pulled me to the side and said, ‘You’re a pretty smart guy. Who do you think is going to have to guard the toughest guy every night?’ ” Maxwell said. “I’m looking at him like, ‘Really, what are you telling me this for?’ But he made me believe that I could defend and I didn’t come into this league thinking I could guard anybody or slow anybody down. I learned tendencies and technique and he always gave me a plan of attack. He made me better because of that.”
Maxwell, who went on to become the MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals, said Mr. Fitch and Bird were a good pairing because they believed in each other. And when Bird did something wrong, Mr. Fitch tended to find a way to place the blame on Maxwell or forward Kevin McHale.
“I’d be like, ‘I wasn’t even guarding that guy,’ ” Maxwell said with a chuckle. “So Larry kind of got a pass when it came to certain things with Bill, but Bill understood that was his alpha and he treated him like an alpha.”
A native of Davenport, Iowa, Mr. Fitch coached at his alma mater, Coe College, before collegiate stops at Minnesota, Bowling Green, and North Dakota.
He started his NBA coaching career with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970, with the young team winning only 15 games that first season. The team made the playoffs in 1976 and he was chosen coach of the year. After the Celtics, he coached the Houston Rockets for five seasons (1983-88), taking them to the Finals in 1986 with a team powered by Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.
Mr. Fitch joined the Nets in 1989 and took a young team that won just 17 games in his first season to 40 victories and a playoff berth in his third year.
He wrapped up his coaching odyssey with the woebegone Clippers, leading them to the playoffs in his third season before retiring in 1998. In all, he had a 944-1106 record.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.