This journey through time with the #86Celtics started back in January, when Red Auerbach used his magic conch shell to assemble a legendary starting five and their Hall of Fame sixth man. From there it moved on to investigate the truth behind the most ruthless trash-talking story you’ve ever heard. We saw the #86Celtics fight through their two most frustrating regular-season losses. We reorganized the mangled chronology of Larry Bird’s three-point contest three-peat, we analyzed Bird’s hilarious career as a TV pitchman and compared the Celtics of then to NBA players of now.
After that we watched the #86Celtics pass the ball like few teams before or since. We talked with Tommy Heinsohn about the only Celtics team to finish with a better record than the ’86 squad. We saw Boston overcome Michael Jordan’s greatness in round one of the playoffs. We saw them reach new heights against Atlanta in round two. Finally, in last week’s edition, the Celtics swept the Bucks in the Conference Finals while the Lakers choked out West. That left Boston vs. Houston for all the Tostitos, and what happened next will SHOCK you --
Click bait only works for headlines.
Anyway the Celtics beat the Rockets handily in six games for their 16th championship. Kevin McHale averaged 25.8 points to lead all scorers but Bird won the Finals MVP in a landslide. He averaged 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists for the series. He was two rebounds and three assists shy of averaging a triple double. Bird was the greatest basketball player in the world and topped it off with a Game 6 showing that many (including Bird) consider the best performance of his career.
“The Houston Rockets were like an unwary couple pulled over on the highway for going three miles over the speed limit by a burly Georgia cop with the mirrored sunglasses,” Bob Ryan wrote after the Game 6 clincher. “The cop’s name was Bird. The bailiff’s name was Bird. The court stenographer’s name was Bird. The judge’s name was Bird. And the executioner’s name was -- guess what? -- Bird.”
“That was the only game I thought I was totally prepared for,” Bird later said. “As far as focus was concerned, none better. Never. I should have quit right there.”
Here’s a great video (inspired by Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and edited by Colin Stanton) about that Game 6. Watch it now or later, but definitely watch. It’s five minutes and encapsulates the total Bird experience. If nothing else, click ahead to the 2:35 mark and watch him win a jump ball against Hakeem Olajuwon. That’s focus, will and determination. It’s borderline witchcraft.
The last scene is particularly great as well. It begins with Bird drenched in booze and sweat in the postgame locker room, standing next to 68-year-old Red Auerbach. They’re both holding the Larry O’Brien trophy while Danny Ainge jokes in the background and Kevin McHale stands to the side taking long swigs from a can of Miller Lite.
Brent Musburger is in front holding a comically oversized CBS microphone, and he has an important question for Larry:
“So is Larry Bird satisfied now at this point in his career?”
* * *
As you can probably guess from the arc of the story, this is the last dispatch in our #86Celtics series. Hopefully you enjoyed reading these things. Hopefully they were a refreshing break from the anger and negativity that dominates most of today’s sports coverage. And with that, hopefully you’ll stick around for three final thoughts.
1. Throughout history there have been many great quotes about history, but one of the best comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
There are few ways to interpret that but for these purposes I take it to mean that basically everything we accomplish in our time is in large part a product of the people who came before us. Today, whether personally or professionally, we stand on the shoulders of generations of hard work and ingenuity. Our goal should be to raise the bar for tomorrow. As it relates to the #86Celtics, this concept came up during my conversation with Tommy Heinsohn. I had asked him about the city’s obsession with the Celtics teams of the ’80s, and how even today the mere mention of Larry Bird and the #86Celtics leaves fans all googly eyed.
“Listen, I’m not taking anything away from Larry Bird,” Heinsohn said. “I loved watching Larry Bird. But Boston was ready for Larry Bird. Back when we came up in the 1940s and ’50s, they were barely playing basketball in the high schools in Boston. My teams didn’t have any built-in fan base. We were touring through Vermont and Maine and New Hampshire, playing like 20 preseason games a year to build up interest, and then we won all those championships.”
After Heinsohn coached the Celtics to the 1976 NBA title, the count was 13 championships in 20 years, but things unraveled pretty quickly from there. John Havlicek was older. Dave Cowens was burnt out and took a leave of absence. The Celtics only won 44 games in 1977 and lost in the second round to Philly. That next season they fired Heinsohn after an 11-23 start, finished 32-50 and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. That next season they fired Satch Sanders after a 2-12 start, replaced him with him player-coach Dave Cowens and finished 29-53. This was the first time the Celtics posted consecutive losing seasons in the 27 years Red Auerbach was associated with the team. The 32- and 29-game win totals were the two worst of Auerbach’s tenure as well.
“It was total futility,” Heinsohn said. “Then all of a sudden Larry showed up and there was a rebirth. He brought an instant renewal of that ‘We’re gonna win a championship’ attitude and the built in fan base was already there, ready to explode.”
For the record Tommy wasn’t slightly annoyed or the least bit bitter when he said this. It’s just the truth. So after three months of drooling over the legacy and impact of Bird and the #86Celtics, let’s take a quick second and recognize that nothing would be the same without the legacy and impact of the great Celtics players and teams that came before them.
2. No one knew it at the time, but while the 1986 title marked the culmination of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, it was also the end of an era.
Sure, there was another trip to the Finals. Bird had to two more truly great, peak seasons in him. McHale had one. In the bigger picture Boston won at least 50 games in five of the next six seasons — but it was never the same. It was never as good. Take a look at a screen shot from that Musburger interview and it’s crazy to think that this was the last time Bird ever held a new championship trophy. It was the last time McHale drank a postgame beer while standing on top of the world. It was the last championship of Red Auerbach’s lifetime.
Looking back at the whole roster, Robert Parish was the only member of the #86Celtics to win another title as a player, and he did it as a 43-year-old bench warmer for 1997 Bulls. Danny Ainge is the only other guy (after 1987) to even play in another Finals. To take it a step further, Parish, Ainge (2008 Celtics) and Rick Carlisle (2011 Mavericks) are the only #86Celtics to experience the thrill of another NBA title in any capacity.
This is all a reminder of just how rare seasons like 1986 are, how lucky these players were to be a part of it, and how lucky Boston was to witness it. At the same time you can probably argue that the Celtics were pretty unlucky. After all, nine days after this championship celebration, Boston drafted Len Bias. Less than 48 hours later, Bias overdosed on cocaine. Did that cost the Celtics another championship or two? Was Bias the Big 3’s Kawhi Leonard? Would Red have otherwise passed away without lighting one more championship cigar? No one really knows, but that’s the point. We never know. All that exists in any moment is that moment, which is why it’s comforting to know that when asked after his last NBA title: “So is Larry Bird satisfied now at this point in his career?”
Larry Bird answered: “As of right now, I am.”
3. And that’s that. This was your last dose of nostalgia until June 15, when CSNNE premieres a full-length documentary (“The ’86 Celtics”) featuring exclusive interviews with the players who played on the team, the writers who covered the team, and -- making his American television debut -- hologram Red Auerbach!
OK there’s no hologram Red Auerbach. But honestly, this movie will be great. It will be the perfect way to pass the time between the Celtics/Warriors NBA Finals and the night Danny Ainge decides whether to take Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram with the No. 1 overall pick. On a personal level, I already love the documentary because it provided the opportunity to run with this #86Celtics series and re-live one of the most important seasons in Boston sports history. It was a lot fun. And if you’ve been along for the ride, regardless of age or prior familiarity with the team, here’s hoping you feel the same way.