How '86 Celtics ruined Christmas but saved their season

How '86 Celtics ruined Christmas but saved their season

When CSNNE senior producer Jim Aberdale and Special Projects producer Torey Champagne originally hatched the plan for this #86Celtics series, they were in part inspired by the idea of introducing a younger generation of Celtics fans to this legendary Celtics team. In that spirit, for this week’s special (if not topical) Christmas-themed installment, there’s no better way to relate to the kids than with a Christmas story. 

“But how do you write a Christmas story?”

That was my exact Google search, and the best result brought me to the website writer.ie and an article entitled: How to Write a Brilliant Christmas Short Story for Children.

So, for fun, let’s follow that advice step-by-step, and tell a tale that we’ll call: How the #86Celtics Ruined Christmas + Saved Their Season

**Tip 1: Before you start writing, think about your story and your characters. Go for a walk and mull it all over in your head; then grab a notebook and start scribbling down some ideas.**

Oh, hey there.

Sorry I’m a bit out of breathe but I just got back from a walk, and after mulling a few things over, decided to scribble down these two thoughts:

1) Despite the way history remembers the 1986 Celtics, you should know that this team struggled a bit in December of that celebrated season. It began on the 6th, with that embarrassing loss to Portland. From there Boston won two in a row but then dropped three of the next five, including three straight on the road.

Heading into their Christmas Day game in New York City, the Celtics were 21-6, and, while that’s impressive, it’s far from legendary. By comparison the 2007-08 Celtics were 24-3 through 27 games. The 2008-09 Celtics were 25-2. The #86Celtics were 21-6 but still a work in progress. They were still learning how to play with each other and experimenting with different lineups and rotations. They were a very good team but not yet great.

2) This was also back in a time when NBA road teams weren’t required to arrive in the visiting city the night before a game. Game-day travel was the norm -- especially between New York and Boston. However, given that this particular Christmas contest began at 3:30 p.m., the NBA switched up the rules and declared that the Celtics would spend Christmas Eve in NYC.

**Tip 2. Once you have mapped out your main characters (for a short story like this, don’t use too many main characters), and your plot, give your story an exciting or intriguing opening scene.**

The words reverberated like a cannon through the halls of Celtics headquarters. 

“This is crazy, Jan!” screamed power forward Kevin McHale. “They can’t expect us to be OK with this!”

“Kevin, I know,” said general manager Jan Volk. “There’s just nothing we can do. We’ll head down the night before. We’ll do it as a team.”

“Team?” McHale asked. “You know I’m all about team. But there’s nothing more important than family, Jan. There’s nothing more important than seeing my kids open their gifts on Christmas morning and spending that time together, in our home, in front of our tree.”

“Kevin, our hands are tied here,” Volk said. “The league says they’ll fine anyone who’s not there the night before. We’re talking $15,000.”

“They can fine me,” McHale said. “I’m not missing Christmas.”

So on Christmas morning 1985, while the Celtics woke up in their rooms at Manhattan’s Summit Hotel, Kevin McHale opened presents with his family back in Weston, Mass. Once the festivities wound down, and the moments had been cherished, he hopped in a cab to Logan Airport, and then on a 9 a.m. shuttle to JFK, all while knowing that his morning was $15,000 well spent. 

**Tip 3: Think about the setting of your story – where will it take place. And add details – icicles, food. Use your senses to add depth to the tale – smell, taste, touch. What does Christmas smell like?**

Christmas smelled like Madison Square Garden -- home of the New York Knicks -- and while the future looked bright for New York with rookie Patrick Ewing in the fold, the present was colder than an icicle. It tasted like a lukewarm hot dog that had spent the night rolling around in a bag of sweaty gym socks. The Knicks entered that Christmas game with a record of 9-19. They’d already lost to Boston twice on the young season. And from the start it looked like they were in line for yet another defeat. This time on national TV.

Led by Kevin McHale, who arrived with more than enough time to spare, the Celtics won the first quarter 23-14. They led 46-32 at the half. With 6:39 left in the third quarter, the lead ballooned to 58-33 and suddenly all the frustrations of the previous few weeks disappeared. All the controversy surrounding McHale’s decision to stay back was moot. This was the merriest Christmas any Boston fan could ask for. The Celtics were back!

** Tip 4: Conflict is vital in any story, even a children’s story. Without the Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood wouldn’t be a very interesting story. Think of the favorite traditional tales for younger children – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, even Pinocchio – they are full of larger than life characters and HUGE emotions. Love, hate, revenge. Think big for your story too. Don’t be afraid to use strong emotions. Maybe Santa’s in mortal danger; maybe he’s stuck in a snow drift or has been captured by aliens – the sky’s the limit.**

“Let’s make the next two minutes a personal thing. Don't let your man score for the next two minutes.”

Those were the words of Knicks point guard Rory Sparrow as his team emerged from a time out -- still down 25 -- and while the notion of holding this Celtics juggernaut scoreless for two minutes might have sounded far-fetched, even for Christmas, the Knicks did their point guard proud. It was like the whole team had their bodies invaded by the aliens in Space Jam, while the Celtics quickly devolved into a squad of Disney princesses. As it turned out the Celtics didn’t score again for four minutes. The Knicks finished the third quarter on a 20-5 run, and trailed by only 10 heading into the fourth.

Boston was in mortal danger.

**Tip 5: Keep rewriting the story until you think it’s as good as you can make it. I rewrite each of my books up to ten times before handing them over to my editor.**

That crumpling sound is every NBA beat writer tearing up the game story that he thought was in the bag. You know, one of those situations where the lead is already written, and the narrative is already set, and now it’s just a matter of filling in the final numbers and heading back to the hotel for shots of eggnog. But in reality no one at MSG was headed anywhere anytime soon. While both teams searched for a Christmas miracle, they wound up running a Christmas marathon.

From the Celtics perspective, Patrick Ewing played the role of a 7-foot Grinch. He exploded for 18 points in the fourth, while the entire Celtics roster only managed 23. With 34 seconds left, Ewing scored again to tie the game at 86-86, and complete a remarkable 25-point comeback. The Celtics had a shot to win it at the buzzer, but McHale’s last second attempt was blocked by 6-foot-5 Ernie Grunfeld. They had another great chance to put the game away in overtime, leading by five with 1:09 to play, but then Ewing scored again, and the Celtics couldn’t execute on offense, and Trent Tucker hit a three-pointer with 11 seconds left to send the game into a second overtime.

And in that second OT, the Celtics just never had a shot. They were toast. The Knicks outscored them 16-7 in the final five minutes and the #86Celtics walked off the court utterly embarrassed in front of the entire country, after their fourth straight road loss and fourth loss overall in the last six games. These were dark and desperate times.

The end.

**Tip 6: And finally ask a trusted, smart friend or colleague to look over your work before you submit. A second pair of eyes can make all the difference.**

So what do you think?

Classic Christmas story, right? You’ve got chills all over your body? You can’t wait to pass this one down to your children’s children’s children and re-read it around the fire every Christmas for eternity?

Okay, fine. It’s a total bummer. But I just got back from another walk, and mulled over a few more things, and want to wrap up the column by scribbling down two more thoughts:

1) This Christmas story didn’t have a happy ending, but it might be the reason that the #86Celtics finished with the happiest ending of all.

“In retrospect, it was absolutely the game that turned our season around, even though it was memorable for all the wrong reasons," Jan Volk said at the time. “What it did was it refocused the team and made everyone acutely aware that as good as we were — and we thought we were pretty good — that it wasn't going to happen just by being there.”

After Christmas, the Celtics went 46-8 the rest of the way.

2) As you probably know, back in 2012 Kevin McHale lost his 23-year-old daughter Sasha after a long battle with lupus. Now Sasha was born in 1989, so she obviously wasn’t there to open presents with her dad on that Christmas morning in Weston. But if anything you can imagine that her death left her father with a magnified appreciation for every second that he’s spent with every one of his five children. You know that for every ounce of criticism he received for putting himself before the team in 1985, he’d do it again 1000 times over without a moment’s hesitation. For the rest of us, Kevin’s loss (and this Christmas story) serves as a reminder of what it really means to lose something. That no matter how serious we take sports sometimes, and how bent out of shape we get after a loss, there’s no loss more damning than the loss of perspective.

NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod: Reserve-heavy Celtics keep at it, top Trail Blazers

NBC Sports Boston Photo

NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod: Reserve-heavy Celtics keep at it, top Trail Blazers

1:13 - The Celtics came away with a 105-100 win in Portland on Friday night. Find out why Chris Mannix is calling this the best Celtics win of the season.

6:05 - Mannix discusses details about Kyrie Irving’s ‘minimally invasive’ procedure on his knee and what his level of concern is with A. Sherrod Blakely and Gary Tanguay.

10:03 - Michael Holley and Tom Curran discuss what NFL players, including Devin McCourty, are doing beyond the gridiron by being active in criminal justice reform discussions held at Harvard this week.



Morris getting it done for Celtics on both ends of the floor

Morris getting it done for Celtics on both ends of the floor

When you think about Marcus Morris these days, big-time scoring immediately comes to mind. 

But in Boston’s 105-100 comeback win over Portland, Morris’ contributions went beyond the game-high 30 points he dropped on the Blazers.

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“Coach (Brad Stevens) is doing a great job of getting me the ball in my spots and my teammates are finding me,” Morris told reporters after the win. “And I’m just coming through.”

He’s providing strong play and a tremendous presence at both ends of the floor which has been critical to the team navigating some choppy waters with a number of regular rotation players – namely Kyrie Irving – out with injuries.

“One thing is, he’s healthy,” said Boston’s Al Horford, referring to the sore knee that limited Morris earlier this season and at times forced him to miss games. “And the other is, he’s just more confident, he’s playing very assertive. He’s playing great right now, in a really good rhythm.”

Said Stevens: “That’s been him (Morris). As he’s continued to feel better; I think physically he’s felt as good as he’s felt. He’s comfortable in our system and we need him to score. If you’re a basketball player and your job is to score, that’s a pretty good job.”

And it’s one that even with all the injuries Boston has played through, few envisioned him being such an integral part of the offense. 

Morris’ calling card prior to arriving in Boston was his defense. 

But Morris has made it known that his focus on the floor is to be as complete a player as possible.

“I’m not trying to just limit myself to just being that scorer,” Morris said. “Also, on the defensive end I think I’m bringing it; my defense has gotten a lot better, especially my on-the-ball defense. I’m trying to be that all-around player and not just an offensive player … but I can score.”