I wasn’t just making a trip to an athletic event. I was making a pilgrimage to an athletic shrine.
It was Saturday, Oct. 17, 1964, and this basketball-mad Boston College freshman from New Jersey, though no Celtics fan at the time, was very excited about visiting the hallowed Boston Garden for the first time.
The seven-time NBA champion Celtics were opening the season against the Detroit Pistons, and I just had to be there. Getting a ticket in those days was no trouble, and so for 25 cents on the T and three dollars for a ticket, I settled into my seat in Section 99, Row B, Seat 8, to watch the Celtics wipe out the visitors by a 112-81 score. I still have the ticket stub, and please don’t get me started on the subject of digital tickets.
I certainly never dreamed that in five years — to the day! — I’d be covering the Celtics opening night for the Globe. I could not possibly have imagined that I would wind up following the Celtics as a pure fan, beat writer, and columnist — and now as what I like to call a columnist emeritus — into a sixth decade.
I certainly never envisioned that I would get to write clinching stories for six NBA championship teams or that someday one of their key players would be a 7-foot-3-inch Latvian. Books with Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, and Larry Bird? Unimaginable.
It is now Year 60. There have been six distinct phases of my personal Celtics experience:
Phase 1: Just a fan
My basketball friends and I circled our calendars for games against the Lakers and 76ers, not to mention the NBA doubleheaders. We’d pay two bucks for the second balcony. On the night of Dec. 1, 1967, the 76ers were playing the expansion Seattle SuperSonics in the first game of a doubleheader. The Sixers won, 133-109, and Wilt Chamberlain had 52 points, which was not unusual. What was unusual was that Wilt had accumulated those 52 points while missing a still-record 22 free throws. Yup, he had 22 field goals and was 8 for 30 from the line.
But my highlight of those years took place in 1966. After the Celtics defeated the Lakers in LA to force a Game 7 in the Finals, the tickets went on sale for Game 7 at the Garden. It was four to a customer. We dispatched one of my dorm floor neighbors to spend the night in line at the Garden. He would get one of those four tickets. The other three tickets would go to us via a lottery. I won a ticket and thus was present for Red Auerbach’s last game. Of course, I have that ticket stub, as well.
Phase 2: The Havlicek-Cowens Era
I was handed the Celtics beat at age 23 in 1969, which was a story in itself. I covered them for a first stretch of seven years, during which time they won two championships and had another season in which they won a franchise-record 68 games.
Havlicek was the best all-around player in the league. From age 29 through 34, he averaged 43 minutes a game, twice leading the league in minutes played. He averaged 28 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists a game. He was first-team All-NBA four times and first-team All-Defense four times. And it is beyond dispute that nobody ran more.
There was never anyone quite like Dave Cowens, on or off the court. After he had just grabbed 28 rebounds against Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, I asked Bullets coach Gene Shue what would happen if Kareem or Bob Lanier played as hard as Cowens. “Can’t happen,” Shue said. “Hustle is part of ability.”
My favorite off-the-court Cowens moment came after he had won his first title by beating the Bucks in the 1974 Game 7. I asked him how it felt.
“The fun for me is in the doing,” he said. “This is just something for my portfolio of basketball experiences.”
I’ve been meaning to ask him what else has been in that portfolio for the past 49 years.
Paul Silas. In his four years as a Celtic, the team was 238-90 with two titles and a 68-win season. And guess how many of those 328 games Silas missed? That would be three. Load management that!
And know this: When the lead would dwindle from 10 to 2, Tom Heinsohn would call time out and run a 14 play for Don Nelson, not Havlicek or Jo Jo White. He would bury the 15-footer and so much for the bleeding. Nellie led the league with a .539 field goal percentage at age 34, and 90 percent of those baskets were foul line jumpers.
The Old Garden was still in its glory. PA man Weldon Haire had a classic Boston accent, and so a 76er basket might be scored by “Occhie Clock,” otherwise known as “Archie Clark.” Meanwhile, venerable PR man Howie McHugh was churning out press releases informing us that upcoming road games would be played on either “hostile hickory” or “enemy elm.”
Phase 3: The Big Three
I had returned to the beat in 1978 and was now 10 years along when Larry Bird entered my Celtics life. It was as if I had signed up for an art course but didn’t know who the teacher was. Then in walked Michelangelo. I had been 100 percent sure I would never cover a better player than John Havlicek, but I was wrong.
You all know the highlights of this era. Three games stand out for me. They are Game 7 of the 1981 Eastern Conference finals against the 76ers; the 1984 Game 5 “Heat Game” against the Lakers; and Game 6 against the Rockets in 1986.
The ‘81 game was as emotional as any Garden game I’ve ever seen. The Garden atmosphere the night of the Heat Game was surreal, and Larry came through with 34 points and 17 rebounds to go with 15-for-20 shooting. Game 6 against the Rockets in ‘86 showcased Larry at his absolute all-around best, and yes, that included defense.
Let’s get right to it. The 1985-86 Celtics were the best team in NBA history. Their best was the best, and I’m sure they would be able to play the Warriors’ modern 3-point-mania game far better than the Warriors could have played the Celtics’ game.
The trump card for the ‘85-86 team was Bill Walton. There have been great sixth men, but none who impacted the game the way Walton did. He joined with Larry, Kevin, and Robert to give Boston the best frontcourt ever.
Phase 4: The Dark Ages
Are you kidding? We had two tragic deaths to deal with. There was Len Bias, whom we hardly knew, and Reggie Lewis, whom we knew very, very well. There was a 15-67 season and there was the forgettable Rick Pitino era. I’m the guy to whom Rick said, “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t think I was getting [Tim] Duncan, or at least [Keith] Van Horn.” Good to know.
There was a run to the 2002 conference finals under Jim O’Brien, but real highlights after Larry retired in 1992 until 2007 were rather few and far between. The era was best exemplified by Antoine Walker, a trick-or-treat player whose technical whole was less than the sum of its parts and who remains the most polarizing player in Celtics history.
Phase 5: The Second Big Three
Paul Pierce was drifting into that Good-Player-On-A-Bad-Team category when Danny Ainge united him with hungry veterans Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007. The result was one of the most entertaining Celtics seasons ever, culminating in a 131-92 destruction of the hated Lakers in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals.
The frustrating thing is that there easily could have been two additional flags to raise had Garnett not been injured in 2009 and Kendrick Perkins not been injured in 2010. But just thinking abut the 2007-08 season makes me feel good.
Phase 6: The Third (Not Quite) Big Three
Well, Marcus Smart is gone now, and we have a very nice two-way guard in Jrue Holiday and the aforementioned 7-3 Latvian, Kristaps Porzingis. OK, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, you’ve been pounding on that door a few years now. It’s time to knock it down. Make me some new Celtics history.
Bob Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.