When Celtics guard Danny Ainge dislocated the index finger on his shooting hand during a game in the late 1980s, team trainer Ed Lacerte popped the digit back into place and taped it up, and Ainge returned to play.
But that was just the beginning. Over the next month, Lacerte put Ainge through painful yet essential treatment sessions. And whenever Ainge protested, Lacerte referenced Larry Bird’s mangled fingers, the result of dislocations that had not received adequate care.
“All I had to do was look at Larry’s fingers, and then I knew I had to go in and endure the pain Eddie put on me to make the finger right,” said Ainge, who is now the Celtics’ president of basketball operations. “Now, you’d never know I had a dislocated finger.”
Ainge chuckled as he recounted this story. He considers Lacerte a friend, and he said it was incredibly difficult to part ways with him as part of a major restructuring of the franchise’s sports medicine and strength training departments this summer.
In addition to Lacerte, strength coach Bryan Doo, who just completed his 14th season with the Celtics, and massage therapist Vladimir Shulman, who was with the franchise for 35 years, will not return. Doo was offered another position within the organization, but declined.
The department will now be led by director of performance Art Horne and director of sport science Johann Bilsborough, Ainge said.
Horne spent the past two seasons as the Atlanta Hawks’ head trainer. Previously, he worked at Northeastern University from 2003-15, first as an athletic trainer and later as director of sports performance. Bilsborough was hired by the Celtics in 2015.
“We’re certainly not pointing the finger at [Lacerte, Doo, or Shulman] as bad,” Ainge said. “It’s just that when you’re making changes, it’s hard to bring in people into a new organization with ideas and control over departments. It’s just hard on everybody, and so we just decided to move in a different direction.”
According to a league source, there was some uneasiness about the hierarchy of the Celtics’ sports medicine and performance staff, and the Celtics believed a fresh start was the best option.
The departure of Lacerte resonated most strongly among Celtics fans. Over his 30 years he had cared for everyone from Bird to Paul Pierce to Isaiah Thomas. Lacerte was one of the franchise’s few familiar constants, jogging onto the court on so many winter nights to treat a sprained ankle or other malady.
When reached by telephone, Lacerte said he was touched by the outpouring of support from fans this month, but declined to comment about his exit.
“I will always be grateful for Eddie and the team success he helped us have,” Ainge said. “He’s a good person, he’s a hard worker, and he’s a very confident trainer. We’ll always be grateful for him.”
Ainge said that Shulman was his massage therapist during his rookie season in 1981 and that he later convinced the Celtics to hire him. Shulman had been with the team ever since.
Shulman has a thick Russian accent and knew little English when he started working for the team. Ainge said players used to joke with him that if anyone asked, he should just tell them he was “Joe Smith from Albuquerque.”
Ainge said he will always remember Doo’s infectious energy. He recalled Doo’s unique ways of getting players to warm up — such as throwing Frisbees into buckets — that livened up normally humdrum exercises.
“There were many, many days when he’d be working out a player or running wind sprints with an injured player who was trying to get back, and B. Doo was doing all the exercises with the player,” Ainge said. “I always appreciated that.”
Still, Ainge said, the Celtics could not allow their close personal ties with these staffers factor into their quest for progress and a more streamlined sports performance department. Ainge said he envisions Horne and Bilsborough overseeing a staff of about six. He said those hires will be made soon.
Horne was widely viewed as an industry pioneer at Northeastern when he worked to blend sports performance and sports medicine departments into one.
“I think that model worked really, really well for us,” Northeastern men’s basketball coach Bill Coen said Tuesday. “He understood what was going on for us at practice. If a guy was hurt, he was the same guy that handled his rehab plan along with his rehab treatment. Everything was coordinated at a very high level.
“I just felt like when it wasn’t under that type of model, the trainer would have to talk to the strength coach and keep him up to date on where the student-athlete was in terms of what his needs were. This was all one-stop shopping.”
Northeastern’s current director of sports performance, Dan Boothby, worked with Horne for about eight years and said that Horne remains “a rock star” at the university.
“Art can really do it all, and he covers a massive area of that care continuum,” Boothby said. “He has a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of resources in his network. He can get information and he can get answers, and he’s not going to stop working until he does.”