September 14, 1980
What will Celtics do for encore?
You see the stickers, still on the bumpers of cars that pass you in an Expressway rush. No More Games. The words may be bleached and the edges of the paper may be torn and the message may have been knocked inward by a recent rear-end dent, but the memory does not change.
Yes, it happened that way.
Yes, it did.
You smile, even now. No More Games. Certainly. The down-in-the-standings basketball team returned with a lovely vengence. Wasn't it something? There is nothing finer than watching an underdog on a spree, a drill-press operator from Methuen, surrounded by his seven kids, watching the numbers turn out right and the fortune land in his pocket at last. The Celtics were all of that. Were they not?
They did all the things any grand underdog would do. They worked with a collegiate hustle, diving and rolling, unselfish every night. They repaid a long line of past insults. They won. And then they won some more. They were the biggest winners in the night-after-night grind, building the best regular- season record in the National Basketball Assn. Was this the bad team a lot of people said it was? Heck, no. The Celtics proved they weren't bad and you laughed. They were underdogs no more.
You only wonder what happens next.
This is the hard part, isn't it? The Celtics are supposed to be good.
It is funny how the situations change in sports. There is a difference between the no-name out to prove a point and the predicted winner doing the predicted things. The trip from obscurity can be taken only once. When a level is reached, anything less looks as if it were failure.
How many "dynasties of tomorrow" have you seen that have never made it? You look no further than the immediate surroundings. Weren't the Patriots supposed to be in Super Bowl after Super Bowl after their grand rise in 76? How many World Series games have been played in Boston since '75? The Bruins of Orr and Esposito would win Stanley Cup after Stanley Cup, except Esposito now is in New York and Orr is retired.
You would say the Celtics would just chug along in a steady progression from the No More Games of last year, but you know better. You know all sorts of things can happen. You see this team return to work and you can't predict. You wonder.
1. What happened at the end of last year? There was a sour quality to it all, wasn't there? The quick and machine-like elimination from the playoffs by the Philadelphia 76ers. The bickering about the playoff shares, especially for the trainer. The criticisms of coach Bill Fitch that suddenly surfaced. Just the way it all happened at the end, more than the result. The way the team played, all the weight suddenly shifted toward Larry Bird, the way the 76ers just rolled past and into the night.
2. What has happened since? Is Robert Parish ananswer? Where will all these big men play? Won't there be some pouting by the ones who don't? Where are the guards? Who are the guards? What about the contract problems? You would have thought that a calm summer would have followed a grand winter, but that hasn't been the case. What do these moves and this re-structuring of this team mean? Is it a better team? Or just a different team? The turmoil has been surprising.
3. What about age? You noticed that this wasn't a normal come-from-nowhere team even last year. These weren't just kids falling onto the floor. There was a different comeback quality to this team, a list of personal comebacks inside the general comeback. Dave Cowens. Tiny Archibald. Chris Ford. Pete Maravich. Those are four 32-year-old people in a game with the earliest burn-out rate of them all. You can say they'll all be as good as they were last year, or better, but you really don't know.
Of course you don't.
This is a new year and everything is new. The questions are phrased differently now and so are the answers. The situation is different. You are captured by the curse of high expectations. So are the Celtics.
You would like everything to be like last year - No More Games - but you know that is impossible. Teams won't look at the Celtics the same way they did last year. You won't look at the Celtics the same way you did last year. The Celtics won't even be able to look at themselves the way they did last year.
The innocence is gone. This is the hard part.
You wait to see how it unfolds.