"I thought it was someone important," Larry Bird cracked.
It wasn't. Just Kevin McHale.
McHale had permission to be late. He had shown up for practice in the morning after a late night of taping for "Cheers." He's hurt and not available. Yet.
We all know Robert Parish is going to start and that McHale, when healthy, will again alternate between center and power forward. Where it goes from there is what training camp (and other assorted politics) is all about.
And while McHale waits for his left foot/ankle to improve, one of the more interesting sideshows is being played out between two centers for some of his minutes.
One of them, Stojko Vrankovic, is watching from afar as his country gets ripped asunder by internecine warfare. The other, Joe Kleine, who was drafted ahead of Karl Malone, is hoping to simply hang on.
This year, the Celtics are committed to seeing whether Vrankovic can indeed play in the NBA. And last night, as the Celtics proceeded to beat the Lakers, 117-107, the 7-foot-2-inch Yugoslav turned in the type of performance that made you want to see more.
He came into the game with the Celtics leading, 24-15. He left with the Celtics leading, 47-31, though some of that can be traced to Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy unleashing his Quad City Thunder lineup in the second quarter.
Vrankovic closed the first quarter with a dunk (Bird's sixth assist of the quarter), but there was one telling sequence in the second quarter that illustrated why Boston is legitimately intrigued by Vrankovic.
Leading, 38-29, Vrankovic took a feed in the low post and hit his version of the sky hook. On the next sequence, he came off his man to block a Terry Teagle drive, a rejection that led to an Ed Pinckney layup.
In nine first-half minutes, Vrankovic had five rebounds, 4 points and a blocked shot. The night before, he had gone 28 minutes and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. He also had three blocks, at least four goaltending calls, and two post-pattern overthrows.
In the second half, there was an offensive rebound/dunk, a keep-alive and some Serbo-Croatian pivot pulling with Divac. Again, not enough to conjure up visions of David Robinson. Just 6 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes. Enough to titillate.
"I thought Stojko played very well," coach Chris Ford said. "I talked with him at practice and told him he did some things Friday well, some things bad, and some things ugly. I told him to concentrate on rebounding and clogging the middle and he did a good job."
This is what the Celtics want to see. Defensive intimidation. Rebounding. Any offensive production is a bonus.
LA center Divac, who is also Yugoslavian and in his third year, said Vrankovic is worth the wait.
"Boston doesn't know how well Stojko can play," Divac said. "I do know. He has a chance to be a very good center. And I think this year will be easier for him. It was for me."
There is also some pressure on both Boston and Vrankovic to see what's out there. Vrankovic is in the final year of his contract (estimated at $ 625,000) and another year of mop-up minutes could be his ticket back to Europe, where he can make similar money playing no defense and just 35 games a year.
Vrankovic said he feels much more at ease this season. He said he enjoyed his rookie year and the late workouts with Dave Cowens. He wants more time this year and the Celtics are ready to provide it.
And what about Kleine? He was a DNP in the exhibition opener and logged 10-plus minutes last night. The Celtics know what they can get from Kleine. They don't know what, or how much, they can get from Vrankovic.