December 28, 1979
SPORTS IN THE '70S YEARS OF GROWTH
The '70s were a period of unparalleled growth for basketball, and, of course, its local emissaries, the Boston Celtics. When the decade dawned, the Celtics were a failing team run by a penurious enterprise known as "Trans- National Communications." Their fan base was shockingly small. Their only television outlet was the then-infant Channel 27 in Worcester. Bill Russell and Sam Jones were gone; John Havlicek and Don Nelson were being asked to keep the franchise afloat. Compared to the omnipotent Bruins, the Celtics were beggars at the banquet.
Ten years later the Celtics are at the zenith of their popularity. Two more championship flags have been added. The team's single-season attendance record, already broken four times during the decade, will almost undoubtedly fall again. When the Celtics appear on Channel 4, people watch. Sellout games are now the norm. A generation of younger people who never saw Cousy, Heinsohn and Ramsey, to whom, in fact, these names have as much relevance as Washington, Jefferson and Adams, now queues up at the ticket window to witness Messrs. Bird, Maxwell and Carr: their players. Ownership, for 15 years a liability, is now apparently an asset, since Harry Mangurian appears to be the best Celtics' owner since the sainted Walter Brown.
What caused this transformation? There are no lack of theories. The advent of an electrifying (and white) superstar in Dave Cowens? Vastly increased media attention (Aha, but are we not now involved in a chicken-egg controversy? Did the coverage reflect the increasing interest, or did the interest stem from the coverage)? This much we know: the mere act of winning was important, but it wasn't everything. The Old Celtics won even more frequently. Whatever theory one adopts, the most intriguing aspect of the Celtics' popularity growth was that their quantum leap (from 7504 a game in '69-70 to 10,852 in '72-73) coincided with the full ripening of Bruins Mania. Basketball, in other words, made it on its own, and not because something else - hockey, in this case - faltered.
Two clear highlights of the decade were the entire 1972-73 season, in which a team with a 6-foot-8 center won 68 games, and the 1974 playoffs, when the Celtics defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in seven memorable games to capture their first non-Russell championship. Of equal splendor was a long-term achievement which continues to go unrecognized. From Feb. 21, 1972 ( a 132-113 loss in Los Angeles) until Nov. 14, 1975 (a 119-109 loss to Philadelphia), a period encompassing 271 games, the Celtics managed to avoid losing three games in a row. No greater testimony to the competitive spirit of the team and its coach, Tom Heinsohn, can be submitted.
The fans had much to cheer about. From 1971-72 to 1975-76, the team won 72 percent (294-116) of its regular-season games, plus championships in 1974 (Milwaukee in seven games) and 1976 (Phoenix in six). The ceaseless front- office machinations (there would be an astounding seven ownership situations in the 10 years) finally caught up with them in 1976, when Irv Levin's meddling plunged the team into chaos. The next three seasons were turbulent ones, but somehow the fans did not lose faith completely. Accordingly, when Mangurian signed Larry Bird and M. L. Carr in the summer of '79, and Red Auerbach brought Bill Fitch in to coach, the faithful were ready to give over their hearts once again.
It is probable they just could not forget. They had seen John Havlicek score 54 points in a playoff game, throw in those nine unforgettable points in the second Milwaukee OT and come up with 29 in his finale; they had seen Jo Jo White's magnificent 33-point performance in the famed Phoenix triple OT; and they had seen Dave Cowens battle Goliath every night. Ah, Big Red, as Johnny Most long ago dubbed him. The play which encapsulizes him was in the double overtime with Milwaukee in '74. He switches onto Oscar Robertson in the final minute of play. He knocks the ball away and then he bellyflops on top of it at midcourt to create a 24-second violation. It was a play no other center who has ever drawn a breath could, or would, make. This is the '70s legacy of the Boston Celtics.
The "Old Celtics" laid the foundation of local basketball interest. The "New Celtics" of the '70s provided the framework. And now the "Modern Celtics" of Bill Fitch and Larry Bird are actively building the roof of Boston's Great Hoop Mansion. For basketball fans, these are truly the best of times.