Spider Hangs 'em up

November 29, 1997
He's known Wilt, Elgin, Jerry, Oscar, Kareem, Michael, Willis - let's face it; he's known 'em all, including Pat Riley, who accused him of spying on a Laker practice session in 1985.

The Celtics, well, what do you think? He was pretty tight with Bill Russell, and then rolled through the years with Sam, K.C., Hondo, Cowens, Larry, Kevin, Chief, D.J. and the current bunch. Satch Sanders gave Spider his restaurant for his daughter's wedding reception.

The refs? Start with Sid Borgia and keep right on going. Jess Kersey gave him an official NBA referee's jacket. He wears official NBA referee shoes on the job. When they were slipping and sliding all over the Garden floor during that infamous Atlanta game seven years ago, Dick Bavetta sought Spider's advice on what to do. Well, wouldn't you? 

For 33 years he's been as much a part of Boston professional basketball as the parquet floor or the 24-second clock. If you've gone to just one Celtic game since 1964, you've seen him work. If you've gone to many Celtic games, you probably think you know him.

Time out, here comes Spider. Fedora perched atop his head - he's owned as many as 18 at a time - he jauntily pushes the broom up and down the parquet. There is always that spring in his step, Spider's way of announcing to the world that there was nowhere else he'd rather be (more so in the Garden, as opposed to the Fleet), taking care of that precious real estate, and watching his belovedCeltics.

"I always thought it was a joy to go to work," he says.

Now nobody makes a living pushing a broom on a basketball floor, not even one as sacred as our parquet. Rudolph "Spider" Edwards has worked as a member of the famed Boston Garden/FleetCenter "Bull Gang," the nickname for the manual labor guys without whom the building could not open. He's done it all, with one exception. "I never drove the Zamboni," he says. "Never wanted to." But now it's over. As of this morning, he is Spider Edwards, Bull Gang, Ret.

This is the story of a South Philly guy who grew up wanting to be the welterweight champeen of da woild (and idolizing Beau Jack), who emigrated to Boston, who was laid off by the United Auto Workers, who was lucky enough to have an uncle named Malcolm Simmons in the Garden employ as Supervisor of Porters and Maintenance, and who was therefore taken on in what he assumed would be a temporary gig until something better came along.

That was 1964. The temporary job lasted 33 years.

He saw the Celtics win championships in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1984, and 1986. He says the 1976 Triple OT win over Phoenix was "basketball at its best" and that the 1982 impromptu "Beat LA" chant in the face of Philadelphia victory was "the greatest display of sportsmanship I've ever seen in my life." He has seen countless demonstrations of great basketball, all of which he completely appreciated because "basketball is my life - period."

He admits to a love/hate relationship with the Old Garden itself. "I was one of the guys preaching that we needed a new building," he admits, "but I hated to see the Garden go. It will take a while for the new one to get that type of feel."

At least he's done with the sawdust. "The old building leaked everywhere," he points out. "One night we had to sit by the floor with mops. I remember John Havlicek hopping over the mops. In the rest of the building, we used sawdust. I got sick of it."

The job itself was best in the beginning, back when Eddie Powers ran the Garden as a mom and pop store. "What a great human being," Spider recalls. "At contract time, you'd go into a little room with him. You'd tell him what you want. He'd say, 'Here's what I can give you.' Five minutes later we'd shake hands. Now you're dealing with corporate lawyers.

"Eddie would come in and sit down with you, anytime," Spider continues. "The people cared about you then. They knew you, and your family. They'd come in and have a drink with you at the Christmas party. Those people did exist. Wonderful people."

The people have made it all worthwhile for Spider, and by that he means co-workers such as Oliver "Flipper" McConnell, who gave him the nickname "Spider," and his longtime buddy Ray "Hammer" Landford, as well as more public figures such as one Larry Bird.

"A couple of years ago I was over at the draft at the World Trade Center," Spider recalls. "I had my charts of college players, as I always do, and I was sitting there minding my own business when Larry walked by. Suddenly, he turned around and walked back to my table. He apologized for walking by without saying hello and he shook my hand. That, to me, is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me."

It took a while for Spider to realize he was the kind of celebrity whose mop would fetch an astonishing $ 1,600 at the final Boston Garden auction. "I'd go to malls and people would recognize me," he says, shaking his head. "In the beginning he was known for a pretty good facial resemblance to the great Hal Greer. But as time went on he became known for being Spider, on and off the parquet.

"And one time a man came up to me on the floor and asked for my home address," Spider says. "I was leery. I asked him why. He said, 'Do you remember a time about 17 years ago when you came across a kid who was crying because he had lost his train ticket and didn't have enough money to get home? And you gave him the money? Well, that was me.' About three days later, a package arrived. He had found out I had grandchildren and he had sent me a package of baby things and sleepwear. Isn't that fantastic?"

The private Spider is an unreconstructed basketball junkie who spends summers haunting playgrounds from Philly to Boston watching the game he loves. He is also a huge baseball fan, having followed the team from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta. The Patriots? "Last Sunday gave me heart failure." And let's not forget the Bruins. "They're friends of mine, too. Ray Bourque's a great guy. And I once surprised Milt Schmidt by giving him the name of Willie O'Ree."

At an exceedingly spry 67 ("And proud of it"), there is no physical reason for him to retire. The truth is that when the Garden morphed into the Fleet it lost its soul. Richard Krawczyk doesn't know his kids' names, and neither does he have a toddy with the boys at the Christmas party. It's just the times; that's all, and Spider figures it's time for him to move on before he winds up saying something someday that he shouldn't.

What's up now? "Some kind of trip with wife Wanda. She's earned a little something." He'll find time for kids ("I've got a weakness for kids and the handicapped"), and, of course, he'll be back at The Fleet watching Antoine, Dee, Ron, Chauncey, and the rest of the new generation of Celtics, none of whom would identify him as a ringer for Hal Greer, but all of whom know him as the irreverent, irrepressible Spider.

And so another slice of sporting Bostonia removes itself from our midst. He's not even gone 24 hours and he's missed already.

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