The time is three o'clock in the afternoon. The blinds are pulled back from the small single window in the office of Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden . The city stares him in the face.
"It's quite a view," Sinden says. "Just standing here through the years, I think I've seen about every human activity there is to see."
The new Boston skyline stands behind the old Custom House Tower, which stands behind Quincy Market Place, which stands behind the Government Center parking garage, which stands behind Canal Street and Sullivan's Tap and the No. 4 Lounge and the corner of Causeway Street and the elevated train to Lechmere and the elevated Southeast Expressway and the noise and confusion. Sunlight is filtered through iron girders. Heavy trucks battle with foreign cars. Pedestrians escape again with their lives.
"See that wall?" Sinden says, pointing to the concrete side of the North Station subway entrance. "That's where the rummies stand. Just stand there. I'll see the old rummies giving lessons sometimes to the young rummies on how to stand. You can see that's what they're doing. Giving lessons on how to stand."
Trains. Cars. People. That group of buildings over there? They belong to mob boss Gennaro Angiulo, who was ordered to dispose of them following his recent conviction on racketeering and other charges.
"I saw a woman take off her clothes in front of that parking lot over there," Sinden says. "She must have been 75 years old. Took off every piece of clothing. By the time she was finished there was a crowd, and the cops took her away."
Parking: $3.00 All Day, $8.00 On Nights Of Events. Peanuts: 25� per bag. Haircut? Shoeshine? Apples, oranges, photos while-U-wait? Cocktails? Official Celtics jerseys? Aluminum hockey sticks? Lessons in Tae-Kwon-Do? Trains to the North Shore, to clean air, pleasant farms and suburbs? The Charles River ? The site of the Brinks robbery? Walk two blocks and all of this could be yours.
"Could you imagine this place anywhere else in the world?" Sinden asks. "This is Boston . This is the city. Could you imagine this place in... Houston ? Could you? Houston ?"
Welcome to the Boston Garden.
The arena sits on the top of a train station in the middle of some other decade. The '30s, perhaps. Maybe the '40s. No later than the '50s. Time stands still, typed into place by the fingers of Damon Runyon . Tommy Dorsey's orchestra plays forever, war bonds are sold, Cousy passes and Russell rebounds, Bobby Orr shoots a slapper from the point.
"This is it?" the visitor from Iowa City or from Laramie asks as the subway trolleys rattle overhead and the commuters hurry past. "This is the place I've seen on a thousand Sunday afternoons on television? Live? From the Boston Garden ? This is it?"
This is it.
The poems are written about the baseball park on the other side of the city. John Updike hurries to his den to record thoughts about the grass and the sky and the feeling of baseball rebirth at Fenway. But the Garden? The crew from the television show Spenser: For Hire arrives at this place—to film a shoot-out.
The building is a 58-year-old art deco ark in a neighborhood where Jimmy Cagney very easily could have tipped his hat to George Raft . North Station, on the first floor, is still a working train station. The runs to Montreal and Portland, Maine might have disappeared, but the commuter trains to the suburbs run back and forth. On the second floor, the arena, the Garden—the Gah-den—still is a working big-city arena. Working? The arena is arguably the most famous in America .
"For most of my life, New York—Madison Square Garden—was the center of basketball," Tom Heinsohn , former Boston Celtics forward and coach, and present CBS commentator, says. "I don't think that's true any more. This is the center of basketball. Ask people around the country. The parquet floor. The banners. This is it."
"I think it's the second-or third-best-known athletic building in the world," Garden president Paul Mooney says. "It's no worse than second in North America , behind Madison Square Garden . This is the only building that has an active member of the NBA and the NHL still playing in the place where they started. From the time the leagues began."
Built in 1928 for $10 million by Tex Rickard and a New York group as part of a plan to build six Madison Square Garden replicas around the country—the project traveled no further, in the end, than Boston—the building is a quirky double-balconied survivor. Elsewhere, in city after city, the old has been replaced by the color-coded, air-conditioned new, by arenas that resemble giant saucers, the seats rolling backward forever, a sea of theater-style comfort. Cramped, intimate, for a long while downright dirty, the Garden has weathered countless redevelopment storms, the constant tramp of sellout crowds, five Stanley Cups, 15 NBA world championships and all manner of good and bad intentions.
None of this was planned. Never has there been a great outpouring of civic love, never demands that not one yellow brick be moved, that the building be included on the Freedom Trail along with the Old North Church and Paul Revere 's house and Bunker Hill , never pleas that it be regarded as some sort of shrine to the past. Days somehow simply have been added together, one day after another, time moving forward while the building stayed mostly the same. Yesterday—and countless yesterdays before that—somehow stayed alive in the Garden. And somehow the building still is here.
"There are people who work here who have been associated with this place from the beginning," Mooney says. "I see them every day. Working. Eddie Lee was involved with the construction of the place. Kingsley Brown. Winnie Walsh, our night switchboard operator, was here from the beginning. You're always conscious of the past. Every day."
Aimee Semple McPherson once saved sinners here. Billy Graham did the job for those sinners' children. Jimmy Swaggart took care of their grandchildren. Calvin Coolidge spoke here and so did Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill . John F. Kennedy held his raucous rally on election eve in 1960 here. " Elvis ," an announcer said on another memorable occasion, "has left the building." Elvis left by the same exit as Judy Garland , Rudy Vallee, Perry Como , James Brown , the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen . Joe Louis fought here. Sugar Ray Robinson . Rocky Marciano . Marvelous Marvin Hagler .
"This is it?" the visitor from Petaluma , Calif. or De Land, Fla. asks as he walks up the ramps and stairways, following so many twists and turns he loses all sense of direction. "Where is the picture I've seen on television? Where is the parquet floor? Where are the flags from the rafters? Where?"
A final door is opened. The inside of the building has been cleaned and painted in recent years, sky boxes added, everything covered with a citrus color scheme of orange and yellow. The configuration has not changed. The seats still seem to hang from the walls, everyone pushed together on the sides of a tall, giant box. The familiar patterned wood floor is in the middle of the scene, the leprechaun smiling from the Boston Celtics logo in the center circle. The flags hang from above, all of those championship years, all of those retired numbers of retired players, standing at green-and-white attention.
"What do you use to clean those things?" someone asked the late Walter Randall, the Celtics ' equipment man, one day as he stuffed a couple of world championships into a large washing machine.
"Tide," Randall replied.
This is it.
"I was 18 years old, just up from Kitchener , Ontario ," Milt Schmidt says. "I was coming to practice and I was starting to walk up the ramp. Dit Clapper spotted me. He was a veteran. My idol. ' Schmidt ,' he says. 'Yessir,' I said, because that was a time when you always called a veteran 'Sir.' 'Don't walk the ramp,' Dit Clapper says. 'Here. Use the elevator with me.' He shows me an elevator I never knew existed. I ride up with him. Dit Clapper, my idol, and me."
Schmidt is now 68 years old. He has been a Hall of Fame player, coach, assistant general manager and general manager with the Bruins. He now manages the Garden Club, a private restaurant in the building. He is here every day.
"I just rode up here in that elevator," Schmidt says, amazed at the sudden thought. "Just now. Fifty years later I just rode up in the same elevator."
The past can be recalled with the push of a button, the blink of an eye, a click of the mind. That is the daily tale in the Garden. The past is a functional past, not a collection of do-not-touch exhibits guarded by a nervous curator. See that wooden folding chair over there? That could have been the chair Sam Jones held over his head, trying to whack Wilt Chamberlain . Chamberlain wanted to shake hands. Jones wanted to lay some lumber on the big man. See this stuffed chair, in the middle of this office? A baby giraffe was born on this very spot. That's the story. The giraffes used to be right here during the circus before this office was an office.
"This is my home, really," says Celtics coach K.C. Jones . "I just go to Wellesley every now and then to sleep. I've been here since I was 24 years old. Came in with the College All-Stars to play the Harlem Globetrotters . That's when I first got my reputation. I missed some shots, and everyone said, ' K.C. Jones . That guy can't shoot.' "
Walk through the building with a pocketful of dimes and you can put them down, one at a time, at the exact spots where remembered events occurred. Here is where the fan ran out of the stands and tried to strangle referee Richie Powers in the middle of the triple-overtime game against the Phoenix Suns in 1976. Here is where Bobby Orr took the final Stanley Cup shot against Glenn Hall in 1970. Here is where he landed, after flying through the air, tripped by St. Louis Blues defenseman Noel Picard. Here is the place bad-guy wrestler Blackjack Mulligan was stabbed in the middle of the ring by a fan. There is the door the fan exited, nobody touching him, nobody catching him, because the police thought he was part of the act.
What little bit of imagination does it take to see King Clancy of the Maple Leafs skating along in warmups as a voice from the second balcony shouts, "We've got a town around here named after you, Clancy .... Marblehead !" Another voice, farther down, shouts, "We love ya, Cooz," as the Celtics guard breaks down during the ceremonies before his final game in 1963. Orland Kurtenbach, not scoring, not playing well early in the hockey season, has been quoted in the morning newspaper as saying, "For some reason, I don't really start to play well until Christmas." Here is everyone in the second balcony, on both sides of the building, breaking into Jingle Bells the moment he skates onto the ice that night.
The Gallery Gods. That was what those people were called. They lived in that second balcony that has been replaced by the luxury boxes. They bought the tickets to the cheapest seats but never really sat down. They hung over the action, yelling their praise or their complaints. See? Here is where a fish landed on the ice one night. Not a fish, really. An octopus. The Gallery Gods: There is where the referee always carried the hats and tennis balls and rubber chickens after he picked them off the ice. The Gallery Gods.
See? This is where Red Auerbach , the former Celtics coach, now the team's president, always lit his cigar. That is where he sits now at center court with whoever is the present owner of the team. Walter Brown , the late and longtime Celtics owner, always sat on the other side. Inconspicuous. Used to walk this corridor when things were going bad. Right here.
"I was in the old Celtics locker room not too long ago, doing a television piece," Heinsohn says. "God, was it small. These guys today don't know what luxury they have. Where they dress now is the Taj Mahal compared to where we dressed."
How small? The room still is there to see, down the hall from the present locker room. Cousy dressed in this spot, Russell over there, Heinsohn there. Each player had two hooks. One shower head served all. Half the time the drain clogged and water covered the floor. There was one open toilet in the room.
"You'd go to give your pregame talks sometimes and...jeez," Auerbach says, "you'd just have to stop."
"We had three things in our trainer's room," Schmidt says. "A tube of Ben-Gay . A pile of hot towels. Three was supposed to be some sort of heat lamp, but it was really a regular light bulb with a piece of red paper in front of it. There was one trainer's table, and Eddie Shore always was on it. The rest of us had to use two big crates, pulled together."
See? The Bruins' dressing room was at the other end of the building. The visiting team locker room was next door. The two teams had to leave the ice and walk through the lobby to reach the locker rooms. Were there ever differences of opinion, fights on the way? Were there ever. Fans could join the action as easily as players.
"I can see it all," Schmidt says, sitting in a loge seat on a quiet weekday afternoon. "A man asked me recently if I ever dream. I'm dreaming right now. I look out there and I see things happening. Games. Particular plays. I'm in that corner, knocked on my butt by Ott Heller, God bless his soul, he's gone now. He knocked me down not once, but twice, and I somehow still have the puck. I get up and score. I don't know now how I did that.
"Elmer Lach. I get knocked down and my skate catches him right across the side of the face. I can see the blood. See it. Teeder Kennedy. My neck is sore, and I get into a fight with him by that bench, and he starts twisting my neck. Do you know how, when you're hurt, the adrenaline gets going? You get stronger? I throw him to the ice, and he separates his shoulder and has a concussion, and his eyes are spinning in his head. I can see that, as if it just happened."
Is that Neil Colville of the Rangers , free and alone against Frankie Brimsek in the seventh game of the Cup playoffs in '39, somehow losing the puck? Is that Frank Selvy of the Lakers, free for the easy five-foot jumper in Game 7 against the Celtics in 1962, a championship in the making? What's that? A miss?
Who's pulling that championship flag to the sky, the basic Boston fall sacrament? Is that Heinsohn, John Havlicek , Jo Jo White ? Larry Bird ? Who's behind that goaltender's mask? The young kid, Bill Ranford ? Gerry Cheevers ? Brimsek? Tiny Thompson? Wait a minute. Brimsek and Thompson wouldn't be wearing masks.
See? Today is yesterday. Yesterday is today. The same. Almost the same.
"How were you able to smoke those cigars at the end of the games when you were coaching?" Auerbach is asked. "There's no smoking allowed in the Garden."
"It was the damndest coincidence," he says. "You always could smoke in here before. The year I retired as a coach, they decided there was no smoking. How do you like that?"
The centerpiece is the basketball floor. The antique furniture in the middle of the room. For hockey the distinguishing characteristic of the Garden is that it has the smallest ice surface in the NHL , seven feet missing in the center, a couple more on the sides, ideal for the rough-house style the Bruins traditionally play. For basketball it's the floor. The parquet floor.
Isn't it the most famous floor in the country? Name another famous floor. Would half the males in America even know the word parquet if it weren't for the floor? The floor begins here and extends in the imagination to most of the basketball driveways in the country.
The floor is 40 years old.
"When do they put down the real floor?" a Detroit Pistons rookie asked on his first visit to the Garden this year, during an afternoon workout. "Isn't this the practice floor? When do they put down the real floor?"
The real floor—the rookie was looking at the real floor—is chipped, scarred and smudged here and there with odd dashes of paint. Again, no museum curator stands guard. The 264 pieces to the puzzle, each five feet by five feet, are lifted on or off little jitney trucks by four-man crews an average of 120 times per season. Lifted, slammed, lifted again, slammed again.
"The floor was built in 1946," Anthony DiNatale, once of Brook-line, Mass., now of Orlando, Fla. , says. "My father's company built it. The Celtics had been using another floor—called the Cousy floor—which they had to bring back and forth to the Boston Arena, where they played a lot of their games. This floor was built for the Garden."
Hardwood was in short supply in 1946. Much of it had been used to build barracks during World War II and now it was being used to build houses for servicemen returning home to start families and new lives. The wood for the floor is from a forest in Tennessee . Oak. These were scraps that had been left behind in the building boom, but they were special scraps.
"This was oak cut across the grain, hard and durable," DiNatale says. "My dad had been saving this specially for the Garden floor. These boards are heavier and thicker than the boards normally used. An inch and a quarter thick. That's why the floor is still the heaviest per panel in the country. No other floor has ever been made this way."
The idea to make the floor in a parquet, checkerboard fashion was someone's unrecorded whim. The standard basketball floor panel is four feet by eight feet, which would make a bizarre parquet pattern.
"To make a floor like this today would cost two or three times as much as a normal basketball floor," DiNatale says. "That's one reason why you don't see parquet floors around the country."
The floor was built to be placed on an uneven cement floor. The trains at one time came directly into North Station. Hockey players can remember standing for the national anthem and feeling the floor vibrate as trains arrived. The vibrations caused cracks in the cement under the ice. The cracks resulted in an ice surface that would be an inch thick in some spots, a quarter of an inch thick in others. Turn one way and glide. Turn another way and your skate would find cement.
The vibrations and cracks and uneven ice were corrected long ago, but the basketball floor remains as an uneven reminder. Bounce the ball in one spot, and it springs back to your hand, an imaginary yo-yo. Bounce the ball in another spot and it sort of flops against the wood and you have to bend to pick it up before someone else does. The floor is a map of dead spots and live spots. Home-court advantage? You bet.
"I knew where the dead spots were because you bounce the ball so much it just becomes automatic," Jones says. "You'd think the air went out of the ball—that's why you'd get called for carrying the ball or bouncing it too high or whatever—but a lot of times we'd try to force the guy dribbling the ball over to an area we knew was dead.
"Besides using the fundamentals of defense—you know, moving the feet, standing between the man and the basket, forcing him to go right if he likes left, the whole thing—all the time your machine is ticking upstairs. You're thinking the guy is getting closer to a dead spot, and it was automatic—you'd try to move him closer."
The original price of the floor was $10,000, but it should have been much higher. DiNatale remembers that his father was given 25% of the Celtics in payment because Celtics owner Brown was having tough financial times. Brown later found the money, and DiNatale's father returned the Celtic stock.
"I guess he made a mistake, huh?" DiNatale says. "I'd probably be sitting right next to Red now, watching the games. The favor was repaid, though, in 1948. There was a big fire that burned down my father's lumberyard. We had contracts to make four or five floors, and Walter Brown let us do the work inside the Garden. I remember working there as a kid, building those floors. Northwestern. Texas A & M. I can't remember the other ones. Those floors were made right inside the Boston Garden ."
The Garden floor has been refinished three or four times during its 40-year life, which would be the limit with most wood floors, but because it is twice as thick as the normal floor it will be able to handle twice as many refinishings. Twice as many? That would make the floor 80 years old before it is unusable. The floor may be as durable as the building. Maybe even more durable.
"We have a unique situation with the floor," Auerbach says. "It's the thing people recognize most. If we went to a new arena, we would pack it up and bring it with us. We'd still have our history."
A new arena?
A new arena. The idea is a perpetual threat, a constant cloud shaped in the form of a question mark, a Ghost of Christmas Future that sat down inside the Boston Garden as long as 20 years ago and will not leave. A new arena?
The proposals arrive with every election year and fairly often in between elections. The scale models that have been built could fill the parquet floor, end to end. The blueprints and glossy brochures could be stacked in a pile that would reach the championship flags.
A new arena?
"I think a new arena would be a mistake," Mooney says. "The answer is in renovation. This building has some problems, especially in vertical transportation. It needs escalators. It needs air conditioning. The heat...when this building was built, heat was cheap. There was one switch for the entire building. On or off. We've done a lot of work here. This is not the grimy building it was 10 and 15 years ago. There is more we can do.
"You would just lose so much history if this place were destroyed. What's lacking can be addressed. The things that are here can't be replaced. That's my feeling."
"There's a lot of tradition, a lot of nostalgia," Auerbach says. "You'd hate to give that up, but...when you get down to it, it's impossible to make this building what it should be. You can air-condition, put in escalators, do all of that, but you can't change the seating. The seating's still cockeyed."
The debate sometimes seems as old as the building. The Garden and the Bruins on one side. The Celtics on the other side. Upstairs vs. downstairs. The owners vs. the renters.
The Celtics might be the more well-known team around the country by a large margin, but at the Garden they mostly have been in-laws living in somebody else's house. The Bruins occupied the building first and they have maintained squatters' priorities—the team has always been partially owned by the building's owners—while the Celtics have gone through a list of different owners.
"There was a time when it was terrible, just terrible," Auerbach says. "They'd fight you on this, fight you on that, always fight. A customer would come up to the window to buy a ticket to one of our games, and the ticket seller would say to him, 'Why do you want to see those guys? Basketball?' "
He says there were so many troubles he can't remember all of them. The Bruins always had first choice of practice, the Celtics went on most days to local gyms. The Garden wouldn't buy new freestanding baskets for the longest time, claiming they wouldn't fit through the door. Says Auerbach , "That's why the wire was strung to the basket, creating the play where Havlicek stole the ball from Philadelphia in 1965. The Garden wouldn't let us get the new ones." And how about this? The Garden even charged the Celtics for raising and lowering their championship flags.
"Wasn't that ridiculous?" Auerbach says. "They'd keep the Bruins' flags there for all the games, ours and theirs, but they'd make us take ours up for the Bruins games. I think they didn't want to be embarrassed because we had so many. Ridiculous. They'd make us take 'em up and then they'd charge us for doing it."
For the longest time, the upstairs-downstairs situation even extended to the attendance figures: The Celtics won the championships; the Bruins filled the building. As recently as 1971—after all of the Bill Russell championship years—the Celtics still had only 850 season-ticket holders.
"People would come into the office to buy a season ticket and we'd take them by the hand, walk them into the building to show them where their seats were," Auerbach says. "I'd walk them. That's how small we were."
The situation has changed. The relationship between the Celtics and the Garden management is better now than it has been in years. The building is better. The Celtics are the darlings of the city and are no longer charged for raising and lowering their banners. The team has sold out 265 straight games. The season-ticket base is 12,500 and the announced waiting time for season tickets is seven years, but even that figure might be an understatement.
The Celtics still want to leave. "The building simply is not built for basketball," Auerbach says. "Hockey people don't seem to care where they sit, but basketball people want to sit between the baskets. There are very few seats here between the baskets. We'd like a place with at least 9,000 seats between the baskets."
"We can list our choices, one-two-three," Celtics general manager Jan Volk says. "Our first interest is a new, modern building. This place is not going to be here forever. Our third and last choice is a rehab. We think that would be only a short-term solution and would preclude a new arena ever being built. Our second choice, after a new arena, is to do nothing. That's all. Do nothing. Wait until a new arena is built."
Any of the three options is possible. There are plans to build a new Garden, plans and more plans, the latest a proposal by Boston developer Rosalind Gorin, in a group that includes Bobby Orr and former senator Paul Tsongas, to build an arena on the present site, surrounded by a mall, office towers and a hotel. Delaware North Corporation of Buffalo, owner of the present Garden, has a plan for renovation, also involving a mall, office towers and a hotel. There is also the other plan. The familiar plan. The same plan. No plan. Do nothing.
The Garden somehow survives.
"Back when this building was built, it was part of one of the most ambitious construction projects in the country," Mooney says. "An office tower on one side. A hotel on the other. The arena and station in the middle, connected to the other two."
The office building remains. Indeed, the Celtics ' offices are on the eighth floor. The hotel, known first as the Hotel Manger, later as the Hotel Madison, was demolished a few years ago to make room for a federal office building. The demolition was accomplished on one Sunday morning, one of those now-you-see-it, now-you-don't calculated explosions of dynamite.
"We were worried about that," Paul Mooney says. "We had people stationed around the building with seismographs, waiting to see what would happen. We didn't know what damage there was going to be."
"What happened?" he is asked.
"One piece fell against one wall. It knocked a two-by-two hole out of one of the ramps. Other than that, nothing."
The time is 11 o'clock at night. Jay Miller looks out of one of the few windows at the back of the building. A crowd is leaving, another game finished. He can see a traffic jam in the big parking lot in front of him, the elevated expressway behind the parking lot and the Bunker Hill Monument in the distance.
"This is where we used to sneak in," he says. "See the fire escapes on the side of the building? We used to come in from Natick and chip in to buy a ticket for one kid. He'd go in and open the door for the rest of us. We'd be waiting on the fire escapes."
Today is yesterday and yesterday is today. Kids sneak into the building the same ways their fathers did. They come to the same neighborhood, see the same things, do the same things. No change. The Garden still is a collection of doors and stairwells and empty rooms leading to one large and famous room. The best seats in professional sport are here, so close you can hear the players breathe. The worst seats are also here—behind a pole, or underneath an overhang—obstructed views that make the action at one half of the floor only a rumor.
The night still wears a Borsalino hat and a pencil-thin mustache. Thirties romance and '40s adventure and '50s memories. The trains arrive. The trains depart. The rummies stand against the wall. Larry Bird waits inside. Or is it Bill Sharman ? Or Eddie Shore ? Or Bobby Orr ? Or Gene Autry ? Or Benny Goodman ? Or Sonja Henie ? Or Dorothy Hamill ? Or Bill Tilden ? Or Martina Navratilova ?
"You always had to watch out for the guard with the German shepherd," Miller says. "It was just by chance. You never knew when he would come. One night, you won't believe it, a buddy of mine named Joe Atkinson and I were sneaking into a Celtics game and the door got stuck and Joe was half in and half out. The dog got him. Bit him on the arm."
Miller is 23 years old now. He will sneak in no more. He doesn't have to. This past season he has been a rookie forward, a tough guy for the Bruins. He now plays the games while the next generation tests the back doors. He is inside.
"I sit on the bench and look around," Miller says. "Every day I'm here, I look up at those flags and look around this building. I'm here. Bobby Orr sat on this same bench. Milt Schmidt . Lionel Hitchman. All of them. This is where I always wanted to be. And here I am."
This is it? This is it.
- #05 (Walton)
- #08 (Wedman)
- #12 (Sichting)
- 1971-72 Lakers
- 2007-08 Scores
- Banner 17
- Grassy Knoll Network
- Green Mile
- Larry & Magic
- NBA Scoreboard
- Russell v. Chamberlain
- Walton Gang (1977)