12.04.2012

Walton to Red: I'll Do Whatever It Takes to Get On Your Team




This year's vintage was planted on the day last summer when Bill Walton, deciding that true happiness meant leaving lotus land, picked up a phone and called Red Auerbach. "I've got to get onto your team!" the tall redhead told the balding one. "I'll do whatever it takes."

That phrase alone -- "whatever it takes" -- should have told the cigar- smoking redhead that the tofu-eating redhead had the stuff to be a real Celtic. And when the patriarch of Boston Garden told Walton he'd see what he could do, the big guy with the brittle bones should have known that he'd be wearing green this year . . . and that, come June, he'd be taking a champagne shampoo in the champions' locker room.

Of course, the whole mystical-practical accretion of Celtic tradition began way back in another era, when Auerbach brought his Brooklyn street smarts to Boston. Rick Carlisle and Sam Vincent may not waste many hours reminiscing about Sam Jones and Bill Sharman; Larry Bird may not be looking at the green- and-white banners overhead as he cranks up a three-point shot; yet each of these champions was chosen by Arnold Auerbach, and chosen not merely for his athletic gifts, but for his Celtic qualities.

The fans dancing for joy on Causeway Street Sunday afternoon have learned to recognize the signs. Remembering the competitive intensity of Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, the aficionados can see Bird's perfectionist obsession as a familiar trait.

Bird, the series MVP, is unique. Those who are fated to play against him know that. Nonetheless, when Celtic enthusiasts see their superstar squirming on the parquet floor in pursuit of a loose ball, or when they watch him beat Akeem Olajuwon out of a jump ball, they realize they are watching the psychic reincarnation of Russell and Cowens and all the other genuine Celtics.

The cords in Cowens' neck twitched and protruded when he played defense. Dennis Johnson sets his freckled face in the predatory expression of a card sharp and envelops his man like a London fog. The tics are diverse, but the will to win is always the same.

Foreigners from Texas or California may scorn the mystique of Auerbach's institution as a romantic myth. The believers know that Celtic history is as tangible as an elbow in the ribs.

They know that K.C. Jones is an avatar of Auerbach, without the Brooklyn growl or the celebratory cigar. Jones has his own way of coaching and his own quiet demeanor. He talks less about himself than most modern coaches, but he also thinks faster under pressure. Proving that ego is unnecessary ballast in the man at the helm, he has beaten the egoists with a musketeer's motto: one for all and all for one.

When Bill Walton came here to play ball with Bird and his mates, he was seeking a troupe of athletes who would do whatever it takes to win. He came to the right place.

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