6.18.2013

Grampa Celtic Talks Bruins v. Celtics




1983

Now that the leaves have turned and a scraper will soon become a vital daily accessory to those of us who drive automobiles, the question arises: Is this a basketball town or a hockey town?

The obvious answer is that Boston is basically a baseball town. OK, but that only accounts for seven months of the year. We're talking indoors here. Different emotions. Different reasons for getting involved. We're talking about the reality of climate. Basketball and hockey are more, well, passionate games than baseball. Each nicely complements the more genteel pace of the Summer Game.

Fifteen years ago there would have been no debate: hockey dominated. In October of 1968, Ye Olde Celtics were preparing for their Last Stand. The Russell teams had won 10 NBA championships in 12 years. But theirs was only a cult following. Their infrequent Boston Garden sellouts occurred a) when the 76ers were in town or b) during the playoffs. They would collect title No. 11. And they would average 8948 per game during the regular season.

In October of 1968, meanwhile, the Bruins were not as great a team, but rather an up-and-coming club assembling the pieces of a champion. Phil Esposito had arrived from Chicago via one of the great trades in hockey history. More important, Bobby Orr was in full bloom.

Bereft of championships, they were nevertheless the certifiable local rage. Building on three generations of hockey interest, the Bruins were packing the Garden nightly. Outside of Route 128, the name "Bruins" meant a college basketball dynasty located in Westwood, Calif. Inside that ring, however, the word "Bruins" was a magical word associated with hockey.

We all know what happened. The Bruins won Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972. All over Greater Boston hockey rinks sprang up. Ice time was a manic quest among the small fry. Hockey interest was at an all-time high.

Yet the Celtics were making their own gains, Bobby Orr or no Bobby Orr. Attendance began to rise with the advent of Dave Cowens. By 1975 the Celtics' rise to renewed NBA prominence was paralleled by a dip in Bruins' fortunes. By 1978 the Celtics had a much larger base of interest than in years previous. The Bruins appeared unable to offset the loss of Orr as a gate magnet. What had been unthinkable in 1972 had actually happened. Basketball had caught up.

And then came Larry Bird.

Now all bets were off. Bird did for the Celtics what Orr had done for the Bruins back in 1966. He represented nirvana to the aficionados while creating a sense of wonder in the more casual followers.

The Celtics became the instant sellout; the Bruins became the struggling franchise. This turn of events was a horrifying event for the hockey people. They, after all, were the landlords. It was one thing for the tenants to provide them with extra income via rentals, fees and concessions, but it was quite another for them to capture the minds and hearts of the sporting public at the Bruins' expense.

Now meet Lord Acton. This British nobleman immortalized himself long ago by making the following observation: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

It is a thought each of our local winter professional sports teams should keep in mind - always. Nothing is forever. The Bruins could not possibly have believed in 1972 that a situation would ever crop up whereby they would be the No. 2 winter sports team in Boston. But it happened.

Likewise, the Celtics would be foolish to think that their current situation is guaranteed to last forever. True, the new owners took the wise step of insuring Bird's presence for the rest of his career, but what if he should get injured? I assure them that without Bird their sellout frenzy would cease to exist, even if they could find a way to win 55, or even 60 games.

In case the basketball team hasn't noticed, there is another big surge in hockey interest taking place. The Bruins, not the Celtics, have earned a public perception as the team most likely to give people their nightly money's worth. Their season-ticket sales zoomed in the offseason.

It's obvious that Boston can support both franchises handsomely. But it's also obvious that neither the Celtics nor the Bruins should ever take their fans for granted. The public has a cute little way of expressing itself.

It stops coming through the turnstiles.

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