Cornbread has his Day
December 14, 2003
After all these years, after the two rings and the one Finals MVP, after the contentious parting and the subsequent return, after broadcasting more games as a Celtic color analyst than he played as a Celtic, Cedric Maxwell, the lat-est to have his number retired by the organization, has one last confession to make: He never wanted to be here.
Cedric Maxwell was - gulp - a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers. Cedric Maxwell - gasp - reveled when the 1967 Sixers dethroned the eight-time defending world champions. Cedric Maxwell - horrors - prayed that the Celtics would pass him by in the 1977 NBA draft so he could go, two picks later, to the more agreeable and amen able city of Atlanta.
"When I found out I was going to be drafted by Boston, I couldn't believe it," said Maxwell, whose No. 31 will be raised to the rafters tomorrow night, joining 21 others similarly recognized by the Celtics. "I'm a Southern boy (from Kinston, N.C.). To come north and make my home here, I wasn't ready for that. Before the Celtics picked, Atlanta had already said they were going to take me. So I'm thinking, if you miss out Red, don't worry about it."
Red Auerbach drafted Maxwell in 1977. Eight years later, he traded Maxwell to the Clippers, infuriated by what he saw as Maxwell's sluggish rehabilitation from knee surgery and then a refusal to come to rookie camp to test the knee in the summer of 1985. At that time, when Maxwell left the Celtics in a deal for Bill Walton, the notion that there might be anything close to what will happen tomorrow night was as far-fetched as it was ludicrous.
"I was upset at him, so I traded him," said Auerbach, who was so mad at Maxwell he removed Maxwell's name from a section of a book he wrote about unselfish, team players. "And I never liked to trade someone when I was angry, but he didn't rehab properly and he was ill-advised. I mean, under those kind of circumstances, how can you even think about retiring the guy's number? But you know what? Time is a great healer. And he paid his penance."
Asked if he thought it was Auerbach's intransigence over the years that stood in the way of No. 31 being retired, Maxwell smiled, and said, "And you think it was something else?
"Or maybe it was because I was MVP in the (1981) playoffs? Or led them in field goal percentage? Obviously, it had to be that. Nobody's dumb. Nobody's going to be like an ostrich and put their head in the ground and act like there wasn't a reason why. Usually, the only time they retire your jersey after 20 years is because you're dead or something crazy has happened."
It has been almost 20 years since Maxwell last donned the green and white. He preceded the Big Three, putting up excellent numbers for a bad team until the arrival of Larry Bird in 1979 and Kevin McHale and Robert Parish a year later. After retiring from the NBA in 1988, he eventually made up with Auerbach, going so far as to visit the Celtics patriarch in Washington. Auerbach told Maxwell, "Sometimes you make mistakes; I'm here to forgive you." Replied Maxwell, who still didn't think he had done anything wrong, "All right."
Now, Maxwell says, "The father should not have to apologize to the son. And Red is the father." Maxwell was welcomed back to the organization as the radio analyst in 1995.
But the No. 31 is going up there not so much because Maxwell mended his fences, or makes cogent observations on the air, but because of what he did as a player. He isn't a Hall of Famer. He never played in an All-Star Game. But he epitomized the selfless Celtics of the 1980s.
"Does his number belong up there? Let's put it this way," said Celtics basketball boss Danny Ainge. "There are some up there who are better. And there are some up there not as good. And when he was at his best, Max was pretty good."
There was the glittering performance in the 1981 Finals against Houston, when Maxwell corralled MVP honors as the Celtics won their 14th title in six games. True to Max's persona, the MVP, for the first time that season, was awarded a watch instead of a car. Told that the watch cost $7,500, Maxwell asked if he could have the cash in-stead.
There was the "climb onto my back, boys" cry before Game 7 of the 1984 Fi nals, when Maxwell torched James Worthy and the Celtics won their 15th title. There were the innumerable nights he spent guarding the toughest scorer on the other team, from Julius Erving to Adrian Dantley to Marques Johnson to Bernard King, players whom Bird was unable to guard. There was his league-leading field goal percentage and his uncanny ability to get to the line.
"Max made it work," said former teammate M.L. Carr. "But he was always overlooked because of the talent lev-el you had with Larry and Kevin and Chief (Parish). Those guys were so good, it was easy to forget how good Max was. And he was very, very good."
Carr said that Maxwell's number should be raised to the accompaniment of a Rodney Dangerfield spiel. Indeed, Maxwell to this day calls his time in Boston "The Big Three And A Half." Before the Big Three arrived, he put up numbers (19 points, nearly 10 rebounds a game) that in these days would almost qualify for Springfield. And when Bird, McHale, and Parish arrived, he willingly (and intelligently) deferred to them.
"I know it's the Three Musketeers. But there really were four," he said. "I always felt like that fourth Musketeer. Everybody counted three of them, but there were really four. Or like George Harrison of the Beatles. We knew Rin-go and Paul and John. I've always felt that way about my career. The Big Three? Did I really play here, or did I im-agine it?
"In some of the biggest games in this organization's history, among the Big Three, I played as well, if not better, than maybe some of those guys in particular games," he went on. "I'm not saying I was better, or they did not de-serve the honors they got. But to be a footnote to the greatest front line in basketball? Along with Bill Walton, who played one year here? To me, that's like, wow! How much can you get slapped around?"
His teammates will rush to his defense with one, three-word qualifier - when he played. They say Maxwell was not always there when the lights were the dimmest and the opponent the weakest. His most ardent detractors feel he stopped playing after the 1984 Finals - and maybe a year or two before 1984. Auerbach still insists Maxwell "took a year off (1984-85)." Carr recalled one pregame Maxwell moment in Cleveland, when, as Carr recalled, "Max said, `Well boys, you're on your own tonight. I'm not getting injured in a JV game.' But when it was the Pistons or the Six-ers or the Lakers, he'd be ready. That used to drive Larry crazy."
It certainly did. You got what you got from Maxwell.
"When he played, he was great," Bird said. "But I also remember when he signed his last contract, he clapped his hands together, and said, `My career is over.' But he was a lot of fun to have around. And when he did play, you couldn't get anyone better."
Bird continued, "I remember I did this radio interview with Max a few years ago and he was asking me about all these young players who didn't work hard. I said, `Shut up, Max, you're the one who started it all.' But I am happy for him. When I first came to the Celtics, I couldn't believe how good he was. He really competed against me and I liked that in him. We were a pretty good match. And the fact that he guarded all the tough guys really helped my career."
To those on the outside, Maxwell looked every bit the team player and consummate pro. Hubie Brown, who coached against Maxwell when Brown was in New York and Atlanta, said, "He fit perfectly within the group. He could score, he could defend, he could rebound, and he complemented the group. I thought he had outstanding seasons there, was there at the right time and he fit like a glove."
That is how Maxwell wants to be remembered - as a gifted player who subordinated his game for the betterment of the team. For fitting in. For fitting like a glove. He wonders if people sometimes miss that, because he considers it the defining essence of his 607 games as a Celtic.
"If I look back on what I've done as a basketball player, the NIT MVP, an All-American, coming to the Celtics and doing what I did here, I've had a great career that a lot of people could be proud of," he said. "But what I'm really proud of is that I wasn't a selfish player. I was able to sacrifice. I sacrificed my personal numbers for the team. Before Larry was here, I was almost a 20-10 guy. My numbers went down because I looked at it as an op-portunity to win. But even though I sometimes was the fourth or fifth option, I always felt like I had the ability to step up. And when the lights were the brightest, I played an important role in winning games."
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