October 10, 1980
"I am the Veteran Celtic Watcher."
"You don't look so old to me."
"Maybe not, but I've been around. I'm the guy Jim (Bad News) Barnes called to announce that Clive Rush was giving him a tryout at tight end. I knew Dave Cowens when he was so ignorant of the NBA he thought Westley Unseld was skinny. I saw Rex Morgan start a game. I saw Clarence Glover throw the greatest Celtic pass of the decade. I saw Benny (Glide) Clyde foul out in 16 minutes. I . . ."
"Calm down already. I believe you. So tell me about this year's team."
"They won't win 61, not unless somebody expands the schedule to about 95 games. Which is not to say you won't like 'em almost as much as you did last year."
"How come? What's the matter with them?"
"It's not just what's the matter with them; it's the competition. You look at Philly, the Knicks, the Nets and the Bullets and you know the division will be tougher overall than it was last year. Then you have to deal with Milwaukee six times instead of two. So how the hell can the Celtics win 61 games?"
"Let's forget about the other teams for a minute. How good are the Celtics?"
"They should score, but without Cowens the defense can be a problem. They're not loaded with guys heading for the All-Defensive team. Don't laugh. Their best potential defensive player might be Bird."
"Was Cowens that good anymore?"
"Listen. He shoulda been first team All-Defense last year. Bird could get up on people the way he likes because he knew if he got beaten Dave would be there. Other guys knew it, too. And Dave could do the job on certain individuals, people like Malone, Cartwright and even Kareem himself (Remember Paul Westhead saying that Cowens did the best defensive job he had seen on Kareem all year?), that nobody else could? He'll be missed, all right. But let me tell you something else."
"They won't be so bad off as soon as they discover that Kevin McHale is their best center, both offensively and defensively. He was to the position born, as it were, although he will also be able to make himself into a forward."
"But in the meantime . . ."
"In the meantime he might be the fourth center off the bench, behind Parish, Robey and Fernsten. But that situation won't last forever."
"So what about the backcourt?"
"Tiny and Ford started for a 61-win team, so we must presume they weren't stiffs. And Gerry Henderson gives the team a dimension it hasn't had in maybe 15 years."
"Say the shot clock is running down. You can give Gerry the ball and say, Go to work.' He can go one-and-one and get a good shot. Only Westy since the Young Sam could do that, and then they wouldn't let him do it. This kid is now an easy scorer. You're sitting there and you say, Wow, he's got a sneaky l0.' Then it's Hmm, he's got an easy 14.' Finally, it's, How the hell did he get 24, when I thought he had 15?"'
"Where does that leave M.L. Carr?"
"At guard, where he still isn't comfortable, and where he loses much of what makes him, well, M.L. Carr."
"How would you sum up the guard situation?
"It's a backcourt that proved itself over the Big 82 against almost everybody, even though it is physically overmatched by many tandems. Somehow it works. But it could use one solid, pure-bred, all-around guard. Consider this: Tiny is a defensive problem, and he still must prove he can make the big play in the pressure situation against the top teams. Ford can't get his own shot off. Henderson, though skillful, needs to improve his court thinking. Carr just isn't a guard. What I'm saying is that Otis Birdsong's twin brother wouldn't be turned away from the door."
"How about the frontcourt?"
"No secret. It's tall, versatile and the only one in captivity that has Larry Bird. It's too bad that he must guard the quick guys, but c'est la guerre. They have to guard him, too."
"And the coach?"
"He sure is. He's still the same sarcastic workaholic he's always been. The players all know that he prepares them well and most of them are bright enough to realize that when he rides them it's on a professional, not a personal, basis. He is what Red Sox fans want. And he used to scout for the Braves. You don't suppose. . ."
"Don't get carried away. What else have you got to say about this year's team?"
"Just that more than any Celtic team since the late '60s it won't matter who starts, but who finishes; that the key element right now, aside from getting Tiny in shape, is for this group to acquire its new unit personality; that they'd better get in the habit of getting back on defense, especially if they're playing Milwaukee or New York; and that it would be wise for the guards to remember that in any tough situation The Answer is wearing No. 33. Which reminds me."
"They haven't gone through the formality of naming him captain, but make no mistake. This is now Larry Bird's team, and he has a way of living up to his responsibilities. Just don't expect 61 Ws; that's all."