WHAT GIFT DOES FITCH WANT? CONSISTENCY FROM THE BENCH
What does the coach of a 26 professional basketball team want for Christmas, or New Year's, or Rodney Dangerfield's birthday, for that matter?
Funny you should ask, because Bill Fitch has a list ready, a list that includes:
- The reduction of Celtic turnovers.
- Consistent, rather than spectacular, contributions from the key bench people.
- Improvement in what he calls the team's overall "recognition."
- The establishment of a more threatening outside game.
- The development of even more mental toughness to enable the club to circumvent an upcoming schedule the coach views as "challenging."
But first allow the mentor to accentuate the positive. After all, his woes are miniscule compared to those of, say, Dick Motta (4-33) or Scotty Robertson (10-26). It's not likely any Fitch complaints would elicit too much sympathy from coaches of true have-not teams, not when his two-year Boston regular-season record is 87-29. A 26-8 team must have some good points.
"Well," begins Fitch, "we have a multi-phased team. We've got a super player in Larry Bird. We've gotten super center play from Robert Parish. And we've gotten fine play out of Max (Cedric Maxwell), Chris (Ford) and Tiny (Archibald), the guys who have put us over the top both this year and last. Our bench has been very helpful. (Rick) Robey, (Kevin) McHale and (Gerald) Henderson have all made contributions.
"We've won when Larry has had bad nights, or when we just haven't played very well as a unit. Somebody has been able to pick us up, which is how we've avoided slumps. Because we respect one another and have learned not to panic in tough situations, we have met adversity very well."
The Celtics have either won, or have gone into the final two minutes with an excellent chance of winning, 32 out of 34 games thus far. They have not lost two in a row. They enter this afternoon's game in New York (Ch. 7, WBZ, 12:30 p.m.) with a record amazingly comparable to last year's (26-8 vs. 27-7), but with a different public perception.
Fitch firmly believes the team can be a lot better, and he proceeds to explain the areas where he would like to see the most improvement.
The first concern is the turnover count. While allowing for a relatively high turnover rate because the Celtics are a running team, Fitch thinks the team can be less sloppy. "This is a must," he says, "because we've proven that when we cut down on turnovers we can be an awesome team. We just make some bad passing decisions, and we can't afford to."
Next comes the bench, specifically, Messrs. Robey, McHale and Henderson. While each has had his moments of glory, none has played consistently good basketball this season. It would be absurd, for example, to suggest that they do for Boston what Bobby Jones, Steve Mix and Lionel Hollins do for Philadelphia.
"I'd like to be able to maintain our defense when we make substitutions," says Fitch. "That's No. 1. Individually, I'd like Robey to shoot better, Henderson to eliminate his mistakes and McHale to improve overall. When he does some of the things he does, people start bragging about what a great rookie he is, but if we're going to be anything in the playoffs he'll have to be a helluva lot better. A Bobby Jones or Mix will eat him up if he isn't."
Now what, precisely, is "recognition"? Explains Fitch, "It's a lot of things under one general heading. It's the recognition of situations, recognition of the score, recognition of the tempo, recognition of the personality of the game, recognition of the crowd and recognition of the clock. Take the clock, for example. Is it an ally or an enemy, for there are very few times, aside from the opening tap, when the clock is neutral. It's very dumb to think there's no difference between the end of the game and the first 10 minutes."
Fitch has had some concerns about his team's outside shooting, which all too often consists of whatever Bird comes up with on the particular occasion. He wants Archibald to take the shot when he has it, and he wants Maxwell to take some outside shots. He has a great bonus, of course, in Parish, a truly extraordinary shooter for a man 7 feet tall. "I don't ever want us to become a jump-shooting team," Fitch submits, "but we must keep people honest all the time."
Finally, there is the matter of his team's approach to the upcoming schedule. The Celtics have a very lopsided arrangement of games. They begin a six-game road trip today. They follow that with a January including nine Garden games. However, they are likely to be the host for CBS games on Jan. 18 and 25, and Fitch believes the home team loses a great deal of its edge in those games, because the visitors play much harder and better than they normally would. There is a Hartford game on Jan. 19, and we all know what Fitch thinks of those games.
However, the team had better do the job in January because beginning Jan. 29 in Chicago, the Celtics will play 14 of 18 games on the road, including a 13-day, seven-game road trip in February. The pressure to win those January home games will be enormous, what with the spectre of that miserable February looming overhead.
"If this team survives January and February," Fitch surmises, "we'll be a schedule-created monster. It's as big a challenge as you could have."
Whenever Fitch wants to feel sorry for himself in his role as pack leader to this band of large young men, he always remembers that he's coaching a team that always, always comes to play. "We play hard every night," he contends. "We may not always play well, but we play hard. We get Band-Aids on our knees because we go for loose balls. I've had other teams where a month would go by without the trainer ever opening a bottle of Mercurochrome so I appreciate this team."
And so, judging by the attendance figures, do the basketball fans of New England.