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It’s all about history with the Celtics, and the team’s old-timers feel connected to this group

The Celtics were a jubilant bunch after finishing off Miami Sunday to clinch a trip to the NBA Finals.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

They are a basketball team, an international brand, and a 75-year-old family of ballers.

The Boston Celtics are the most decorated and storied hoop squad in history. They are the New York Yankees of basketball, if you will. They have fans around the globe thanks to the hard work and successes of men named Auerbach, Russell, Cousy, and Jones who first won titles when Dwight Eisenhower was president.

In the spring of 2022, the torch has been passed to a new generation of Celtic stars — young men named Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Al Horford, who has played 15 NBA seasons without competing in a championship round. The new-millennium Celtics are coached by 44-year-old Ime Udoka, who played some of his college ball for the University of San Francisco, where Bill Russell and K.C. Jones learned to play defense and won a pair of NCAA championships more than 65 years ago.

The Celtics are back in the NBA Finals and will play Game 1 against the gold standard, the Golden State Warriors, Thursday at the Chase Center in Mission Bay. It’s a chance for the 24-year-old Tatum and 25-year-old Brown to assert themselves as top-tier NBA superstars against Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and the three-time-champion Warriors.


Celtic forefathers are thrilled with the success of their progeny.

“To have this happen at the age of 93 is really a special moment,” Hall of Famer Bob Cousy said from his Worcester home this week. “Watching an 18th flag go up in the rafters would certainly be significant. This is going to produce two weeks of very exciting television.”

It’s a dream matchup for ABC, featuring East Coast vs. West Coast and two of the NBA’s original franchises. The only other time these teams met in an NBA Finals was when Russell’s Celtics beat Wilt Chamberlain’s San Francisco Warriors in five games in 1964.


Eighty-three-year-old Tom “Satch” Sanders started every game of that series for the Celtics and has been watching the 2022 playoffs from his home in Charlton.

“There is no question about the connection we feel,” Sanders said this week. “Particularly when they have some success. Then you feel connected and you want to be connected.”

Sanders played 13 seasons for Boston, won eight championships, and later coached the team for general manager Red Auerbach. His No. 16 is in the Garden rafters, along with (among others) the numbers of Russell (6), Cousy (14), K.C. Jones (25), Larry Bird (33), and Cedric Maxwell (31).

Like millions of other fans, Sanders watched Sunday night’s postgame ceremony when Maxwell (1981 Finals MVP) presented the newly created Bob Cousy (conference championship) Trophy to Horford, and the equally new Larry Bird (conference finals MVP) Trophy to Tatum.

Perfect. Retired No. 31 passing baubles named after Nos. 14 and 33 to today’s Nos. 42 (Horford) and 0 (Tatum).

“What a meaningful moment,” said Cousy, who won six championships with the Celtics and was league MVP in 1957. “My old team is the first recipient of the Bob Cousy Trophy. To have set the table for this league and this sport and be part of that legacy is special.”

Bob Cousy likes the look of this Celtics' team.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

It’s always about history with the Celtics. The Celtics and Lakers are currently tied for most NBA championships (17 each) and this series gives Boston a chance to vault back on top. It’s the Celtics’ first trip to the Finals since losing a crushing Game 7 to the Lakers at the Staples Center in 2010.


Winners of 11 championships in 13 seasons with Russell, the Celtics have won but a single NBA crown (2008) since the Bird Celtics won their third and final flag in the near-perfect 1985-86 season (50-1 at home).

Danny Ainge, a starting guard on those ‘86 champs, assembled most of today’s roster with shrewd trading and drafting during his 18-year tenure as Auerbach’s ultimate successor. Coached by Brad Stevens, today’s Celtics made it to three conference finals in four seasons (2017-20), but seismic changes were needed after a mediocre (36-36) 2020-21 season ended with an ugly playoff loss to Kyrie Irving and the Nets. Ainge retired, Stevens moved upstairs to run basketball operations, and Udoka — a man with no NBA head coaching experience — was named the 18th coach of the Celtics.

Things started roughly for Udoka and he publicly called out his players a couple of times early in the season. In late January, the Celtics were under .500, ranked 11th in the conference, and on a path to miss the playoffs. Suddenly, they got healthy and adopted Udoka’s relentless defensive schemes. Since Jan. 23, they’ve been the best team in basketball, winning 40 of 53.

At the end of the regular season, the Celtics owned the best defensive metrics in the league, Tatum was named All-NBA starting five, and Smart was awarded Defensive Player of the Year.


“Marcus is the kind of guy you’d want to play with,” said Hall of Famer Sanders. “He reminds me of K.C., who had that kind of toughness. Of course, K.C. didn’t shoot that much. He made sure to get the ball to Sam Jones or John Havlicek.”

Tom "Satch" Sanders is a fan of Marcus Smart.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“If Marcus were playing for me, I don’t care what his ego is, I’d have him in the game,” said Cousy. “I would tell him not to shoot the 3-pointer, but I would have him on the floor, absolutely.”

The Celtics’ February-March surge carried over into the playoffs. They swept the dysfunctional Nets in April, won an elimination Game 6 on the road in Milwaukee before dethroning the defending champion Bucks in Game 7 of the conference semifinals, then won Game 7 of the conference finals in Miami Sunday. They are 7-2 on the road in the playoffs.

“This is indeed special, since it’s been some time since the last few championships for us,” said Sanders. “It was a long time between the 16th and 17th. But when you talk about the days of Russell and Cousy — as opposed to now — it’s much the same because the pressure was on for every game.

‘’I think we should win this series. We’ve got a better-balanced team.”

Sanders was drafted out of NYU by Auerbach 62 years ago … but when he talks about the new generation of Celtics, it’s still “we.”



Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.