When the fans at Madison Square Garden begin chanting the name of an opposing player in an admiring fashion, it’s time to acknowledge the popularity and draw of one Tacko Fall.
With the Celtics being short of big men because of injuries to Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis, the 7-foot-5-inch Fall was activated for the Celtics’ 118-95 victory over the Knicks on Saturday night.
As the Celtics began pulling away late in the third quarter and, again, when they extended their lead to 25, the call came for Tacko, who entered with 3:38 remaining to a rousing ovation from the fans, who were re-engaged after the home team fell apart.
It was obvious months ago that Fall would be a fan favorite, ever since he was hearing, “We want Tacko!” chants in the Las Vegas summer league, where he was thrilling crowds with his standstill dunks. But the Fall phenomenon has grown so much that the Celtics signed him to a two-way contract and jettisoned Max Strus.
They view Fall as more than a ticket-seller for G League Maine and as a way to spark interest and to sell jerseys. The Celtics have worked with Fall on his overall game, trying to turn him into something more than a novelty.
Assistant coach Jay Larranaga has Fall working on his 3-point shot, face-up game, and post moves. The Celtics want Fall to do more than just stand in the paint. Fall is part of the Celtics’ big man crew that goes hard in one-on-one drills, with Fall trading bumps and elbows with Kanter, Theis, Robert Williams, and Vincent Poirier.
“Going up against those guys every day, there’s nothing I haven’t seen,” said Fall. “Jay and I pretty much work every day, work on hook shots, work on jump shots. He even works on my threes, which is crazy. At first I was like, “Threes?” but now I’m starting to embrace it.”
Fall possesses natural basketball skills even though he took up the sport in his teens. At Central Florida, he played about 60 percent of the game, used mostly as a defender and safety net when he was free around the basket.
Fall didn’t display many perimeter or even post skills because the Knights had other scoring options. It seems the Celtics are determined to get the best out of Fall, to at least ensure he has a chance to stay in the NBA.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be with an organization that really cares about their players,” Fall said. “[Larranaga’s] philosophy is the more uncomfortable you are doing something, the easier other things may become, so it’s not necessarily that I’m going to be doing the between-the-legs step-back, but all that to work on my balance, work on my footwork, work on just handling the ball will help other aspects of my game.”
It’s a process, but no one would have envisioned months ago that Fall would not only make the Celtics’ roster but play in the team’s third game and actually be a viable center option. In July, after Fall went undrafted, his signing was a total experiment. Why not take a chance on a 7-5 player? But the organization had no idea Fall would draw so much attention and fan interest.
The scene at MSG on Saturday night was surreal. The Knicks fans blended in “We want Tacko!” chants with “We want Frank [Ntilikina]!” and booing underperforming point guard Dennis Smith Jr. Celtics guard Marcus Smart encouraged the crowd to lobby harder for Fall to enter the game.
After Fall scored his first basket, the fans, especially those behind the Celtics’ bench, went into a frenzy and then he followed with another dunk. The Knicks broadcasting team of Mike Breen and Walt Frazier began commenting on how ex-Celtic Marcus Morris said when he signed with New York that he didn’t want to see opposing teams having fun at the Knicks’ expense at Madison Square Garden.
Well, Saturday night was a prime example of that. The Celtics thoroughly enjoyed Fall’s New York debut and perhaps his presence has helped the team become closer and more unified after last season’s debacle.
On Sunday, the team was scheduled to attend a screening of “The Terminator: Dark Fate” at a theater in Chestnut Hill.
“Just because last year for us — really big was the chemistry,” Smart said. “Some days we had it and some days we didn’t. This year I just wanted to make sure the chemistry is there, the bond is there, everybody is comfortable off the court with everybody and the best way is to get around each other as much as possible.”
Fall expected to be part of the crew attending the movie. He’s become one of the guys, a team favorite because of his affable personality and work ethic. So far, the Tacko Fall Experience has been a major success for both him and the Celtics.
“I don’t know if anybody not drafted in the top two or three has ever felt the kind of stuff he feels when he touches the ball,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I’ve talked about it in Boston a lot. I just want people to appreciate how good of a kid he is and how he’s working to make the NBA.
“Everybody is yelling because of his size. Right? Every time he walks in the room I say, ‘Man, he’s tall’ under my breath. But at the same time I hope people appreciate him for who he is and how hard he’s worked.”