Late in the afternoon on June 8, 1986, Danny Ainge gleefully bounced around the crowded, champagne-soaked, cigar-stenched Boston Celtics locker room, high-fiving each of the teammates with whom he had just crushed the Houston Rockets to win the NBA championship.
"Forty-five grand, baby," Ainge said. That was the playoff reward for the NBA champions. (NBA champions now earn more than $1.77 million each, or more than the entire playoff pool in 1986.) And the Celtics looked ready to do it over and over again.
Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were in their primes. Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Ainge were also good for several more years. Bill Walton had played in 100 games, and never looked better. The team had the second pick in the upcoming draft.
Had anyone that day offered that the Celtics would still be looking for their next championship two decades later, well, as Ainge said recently, "That would have been unbelievable. At that time, with the team we had, it seemed like it would go on forever."
But the long dry spell wasn't simply a case of bad luck.
As it turns out, some of it was payback.
After more than 25 years of cigar-tinged Celtic dominance, the league watched on as misfortune befell the Leprechauns from Beantown. Len Bias' death. Bill Walton's career ending surgeries. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale's greatness hobbled by a series of injuries. And then the death of Reggie Lewis, the second-best two-guard in the league behind Michael Jordan.
Two years after the Celtics started the season 29-5, Boston still had hopes of climbing to championship heights once again, with Lewis playing a leading role and Bird playing the role of Halicek circa 1974 and 1976.
After Reggie's death, any hopes of the Celtics recovering from his loss were snuffed out by the NBA board of governors.
Appearing before the board, Celtic executive Dave Gavitt asked the league for a special exemption that would allow Boston to use Reggie's salary for a free agent signing. There was no response—literally. None. No one said a word. Not one team was even willing to second Gavitt's motion, much less entertain further discussion on the topic.
After the meeting, Suns boss Jerry Colangelo pulled Gavitt aside.
"Don't take it personally, Dave. This isn't about you," Gavitt recalled being told by Colangelo. "This is about cigar smoke from all those years. This is about Red, not green."
I've never been a believer in an anti-Celtics conspiracy--until now.
I've always thought of the conspiracy theorists as unstable and in need of something else to occupy there time--until now.
Having read this, it does make you wonder about legitimacy of the Tim Duncan and Oden-Durant draft results.
Come to think of it, it makes me wonder whether penny-pinching, money-grubbing Don Gaston, Celtics owner during the Joe-Johnson cum Rodney-Rogers cum Vin-Baker fiasco, was paid off by someone in the league to deal the Celtics a blow at the very moment they had been however briefly resurrected.