The moment was spontaneous. Larry Bird was just standing there. K.C. Jones was just standing there.
The Celtics star suddenly grabbed the coach's right arm and held it high in the arena air, the traditional picture of a boxing referee declaring one fighter the winner.
"Were you surprised?" K.C. Jones was asked yesterday.
"Oh, yeah," the coach said. "I didn't know what he was doing. I tried to pull my arm down, but I guess I wasn't strong enough."
There was a smile about that because, no, K.C. Jones was not trying to pull his arm down. He liked what Larry Bird did. He liked it very much.
The moment took place at the same time a ceremony was being held at center court of the Omni prior to the introductions for the Celtics' 111-107 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night. Mike Fratello, the coach of the team that was on its way to falling behind, 3-0, in this best-of-seven NBA play-off series, was being handed a trophy as NBA Coach of the Year. K.C. Jones again was being handed nothing.
Until Bird intervened.
"Mike Fratello's a good coach and I suppose he deserves to be the Coach of the Year," the representative from French Lick, Ind., said. "K.C. deserves something, too. I wanted people to know that. I wanted to show them that Mike Fratello might be the NBA Coach of the Year, but that K.C. Jones is our Coach of the Year."
It is a curious situation in sports that the coach of the best team during a season seldom is named Coach of the Year. The honor always goes to a Mike Fratello character, someone whose team is an improved contender rather than a champion. The notion seems to be that the coach in that situation was the turnaround difference, the extra factor that changed both attitude and performance.
How hard can it be to coach the Boston Celtics? That had to be the thinking of the 60 voters (out of 78) who gave the award to Fratello. Who couldn't coach the Boston Celtics? What is there to do? Put the practice times on the blackboard. Make sure there are enough clean towels in the shower room. Give the ball to Bird and Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson and Kevin McHale and all those people and say, "Go get 'em." Sit back and enjoy the show. Best seat in the smoke-filled house.
Winning isn't everything. Not in this Coach of the Year business.
"I guess that's the way it's always going to be," K.C. Jones said. "All those years, they didn't give the thing to Red Auerbach until he was about 90 years old. Pat Riley's never won it and he's had his team in the finals -- what? -- five years in a row.
"People just think it's easy. You look at Pat Riley and he's dealing with some Empire State egos out there and he puts everything together and that team wins. Sure, he's responsible for a lot of that."
"Are you dealing with some Empire State egos on your team, too?" K.C. was asked.
"Only 12," he said with a laugh.
Forgotten somehow is the long haul the Celtics have covered. Forgotten is the fact that the people in every place these guys have visited have treated the appearance as a special, emotional occasion. The Celtics won 67 of 82 games this year and didn't steal one of them. They snuck up on no one. Every night was an NCAA final, Louisville against Duke, in the minds of the other team. There were no chances for one-night vacations. This was a team that had to play hard every night, had to be ready. This was a team that did that.
"It's our fault K.C. didn't get the award," Larry Bird said. "If we'd won 69 games, set the record, there wouldn't have been any contest. If we'd won two more games, they would have had to give K.C. the award."
Would that have done the job? Two more wins? A record for wins? Maybe so. Probably not. Not only is there the idea that coaching this team is easy, there is the added fact that K.C. Jones makes it look easy.
In a profession where the bulk of the people dress like floorwalkers and chatter like late-night car salesman, K.C. resembles some English professor who quietly teaches the classics. His voice is soft. His humor is wry. He has about as much self-promotion in him as a Trappist monk.
Listen to some of these coaches talk and you would think they were preparing doctoral research papers every night instead of game plans. Listen to K.C. Jones and he simply is fixing a squeaky floorboard in the hallway. Michael Jordan is scoring all of those points. We can fix that. Here. Dominique Wilkins? Why don't we try a little bit of McHale on Mr. Wilkins, just to see how he likes shooting over a 30-foot-tall man. Easy. Simple. Do it.
There are no emotional speeches. There is no backbiting. Anger surfaces here and there, when the team is playing badly, but there always is more praise and encouragement than anger. A lot more. Easy.
"I don't know what motivation is at this level," Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers said. "I don't think you really do motivate people. I think it's more a situation of respect. You survive on respect. You try to create a situation where the players respect each other and the coach and vice versa. You play an awful lot games and you're with each other for a long time. You have to have respect . . . and that's what this team has with K.C."
The Celtics practiced yesterday afternoon in an old gym at Morehouse College. The Hawks had practiced in the morning and the new Coach of the Year, Mike Fratello, still was sitting on the front steps while the Celtics worked inside. He was talking about the problems his team was having, facing elimination this afternoon at the Omni in the fourth game.
"You always have to adjust against the Celtics," Mike Fratello said. "If you do something in the first half, you have to change it in the second half because they will have an answer for it. We did that in the first game, changed at the half. Then in the second game, we changed even sooner, changing our defenses at the quarters. The last game, we were changing every time down the floor . . . and they still had the answers.
"They're just so smart, the Celtics. Just so smart."
Inside the gym, the smart team worked easily. The players mostly exercised simply to exercise, to keep loose. They played little shooting games and one- on-ones and two-on-twos and laughed a lot at each other. K.C. Jones stood by the side. Relaxed. Quiet. Easy.
Why worry about awards? His team now has beaten the Coach of the Year's team nine times in nine games this season