When the Celtics won their 13th championship 10 years ago, the relative size of the team wasn't much different than it was when they won championship No. 1, 19 years previously.
The '57 starting front line of Bill Russell (6 feet 9 inches), Tom Heinsohn (6-7) and Jungle Jim Loscutoff (6-5) was essentially the same size as the '76 starting front line of Dave Cowens (6-8 1/2), Paul Silas (6-7) and John Havlicek (6-5).
Be assured that those days are gone, and gone forever.
The name of the game now is Size -- overpowering, frightening, monstrous, almost incomprehensible size. Boston starts a front line of 7-foot Robert Parish, 6-11 Kevin McHale and 6-9 Larry Bird. The first man off the bench is 7-1 (sorry, Bill, but truth will out) Bill Walton. The Rockets start 6-10 Akeem Olajuwon, 7-4 Ralph Sampson and 6-7 Rodney McCray. They bring 6-10 Jim Petersen off the bench.
But size alone is relatively unimportant if unaccompanied by athleticism. Randy Breuer, after all, is 7-3, and he scored no (as in zero) baskets in Games 3 and 4 of the recently completed Milwaukee series. The Boston and Houston front lines are replete with awesomely talented ath-a-letes, as both Frank Broyles and Hubie Brown would say. It's not enough to state, for example, that McHale is 6-11 and Olajuwon is 6-10. With his long arms, jumping ability and timing, McHale is 6-11 going on 7-4. With his extraordinary jumping ability, strength and unprecedented quickness, Olajuwon is 6-10 going on 7-10.
What's interesting about this series is that Boston's usual frontcourt size and athletic edge over its opponent is, on paper, nullified by Houston's own collection of giant, first-rate athletes. The Celtics can't just show up and win these games by the simple expedient of Being Tall.
"It's going to be a real challenge playing against these guys," says McHale.
In just two seasons as a frontcourt duo, Sampson and Olajuwon have learned how to complement each other. They are finding ways to make foes miserable in geometric, rather than arithmetic, proportions. "Sometimes when two guys like that have the same basic abilities and play the same basic position, they have trouble playing together," says Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers. "But these two have figured out how to get out of each other's way when one wants to occupy a certain spot on the floor. They have a much better reading of offensive situations than they did a year ago.
"Defensively," continues Rodgers, "each one feels that much more confident, knowing that the other 7-footer is there to back him up. That was a major factor in the LA series. They were able to defense Kareem effectively."
While Olajuwon was the ongoing story in the Laker series, it was Sampson who saved the Rockets in the late stages of Game 5. He scored 10 of the final 13 Houston points, made Magic Johnson miss a key drive and scored the game- winning basket. There has been only one man anywhere near as tall as he who is even remotely as graceful, and that one man is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If Sampson displays the aggressiveness and heart against Boston he did in the key moments of the final Laker game, he will be a major Celtic headache.
"Ralph is playing great basketball," says Walton. "He's sort of become a leader on that team. He's got great skills and a great all-around game."
As for Olajuwon, the world now knows that it is not necessary to be American to be a dominant center. "There is no doubt about it," says McHale. "Akeem is the quickest center in the league. When you're on defense, he gets you lunging, and that's exactly what an offensive player wants you to do. And he's got all those New Era moves, not just those John Wooden, 1945 specials, like Bill Walton."
He was, of course, smiling as he said that. Bill-busting is the Celtics' favorite indoor sport.
Anyway, the Celtics are gearing up for a very high-level confrontation with Fitch's Flying Frontcourt.
"I'll tell you one thing," says McHale, who has never, ever, said just one thing. "There'll be a lot of dunks in this series. Maybe not for us, but there'll be a lot of dunks."
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