Da Pride Endures

October 18, 2015

Hank Finkel, the former basketball center, still believes in Celtic Pride. 

With the NBA season set to begin next week, I've been thinking about how the game has gone from setting plays, playing defense, and grabbing rebounds to a 48-minute race. Three-point shots, speed, and one-on-one drives now dominate each contest.

As sports evolve, change is inevitable, but I've wondered what an old-time Celtic — one who played on a team with future NBA coaches, general managers, and Hall of Famers — thought of the current game. I also wanted to know if Celtic pride, a mantra that sums up the intangibles that result from hard work, still existed. 

On a recent afternoon, I met Hank Finkel and his wife, Kathy, at Brothers Deli in Danvers, where they are regulars. The two look like other older couples in the deli, until the 7-foot former center stands up.

"I'll probably take this home and have it later," he said, putting his fork down while staring at the turkey dinner. His big hands — the same hands that pushed away NBA giants like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Willis Reed — rested a few inches away from the dish, dwarfing much of the table.

Finkel, now 73, has lived in the same house in Lynnfield for the last 42 years. He retired last December after running an office business for 32 years.

As for basketball, he's hardly nostalgic about his NBA tenure: He hasn't played the game in 38 years, and the hoop he put up for his grandchildren in front of his house was crushed by a plow 10 years ago. Meanwhile, he's had hip replacement surgery, and these days suffers from numbness in his left leg.

He still watches parts of some games but doesn't find them very enjoyable. "There's no defense. We used to talk all of the time and told people on defense where to move. On offense we had plays to run — very few teams now have plays to run," he told me.

Finkel's life has always been about working hard and taking advantage of opportunities. After his father died when he was in high school, he attended St. Peter's College before dropping out and working for a year as a sandblaster in a Jersey City shipyard.

He might have made a career out of it if not for a chance meeting with a college recruiter, who spotted him in front of a Dairy Queen. He went on to star at the University of Dayton, was drafted by the Lakers, played for San Diego, and was traded to the Celtics in 1969, where he stayed until 1975.

After a rough start when fans expected him to replace Bill Russell — "the fans were merciless that first year," he said — he became a folk hero in a city that has always loved the underdog. Gangly, sometimes awkward, and admittedly slow — "I could never jump or rebound" — he found a bit role among hoop royalty that included Hall of Famers John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Dave Cowens, coach Tom Heinsohn, and Finkel's basketball mentor, general manager Red Auerbach.

"What I did well was setting picks and blocking out. I figured it out because that's what I had to do to keep this job," said Finkel, who won a championship with the Celtics in 1974.

Although he hasn't been to a game in years, Finkel still considers himself a Celtic, and he says the lessons he learned in Boston helped him stay in business after he retired.

As for Celtic pride, Finkel says it's no myth and it continues to this day: "It had to do with business; it had to do with family. You give it 110 percent no matter what you do in life, especially bringing up children these days and your work ethic."

He said there is no succinct definition of Celtic pride because it encompasses so many attributes to deal with life. "It's an intangible; you can't define it," he said. "It's something that you want to do. It's the effort that you put forward."

Kathy said Celtic pride continued in the Finkel family long after he left the Celtics. "About 14 years ago, my doctors discovered breast cancer. Hank decided that he would handle my care and proceeded to take me to 42 different appointments. I counted them on a calendar because I was losing confidence to carry on. He just hung in there and said, 'What time? Where?' "

When Finkel stood he was, once again, the tallest person in the room. He clutched his leftovers and made his way to the exit. A man came over and shook his hand and Hank didn't have to say anything. The man had met a Celtic, and he felt the pride.

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