When It Came to Building a Championship Team, Boston’s Red Auerbach and a Supporting Cast Had All the Answers and, Eventually, the Top Players : THE MAKING OF THE CELTICS
Did you know that the Lakers enabled the Celtics to draft Larry Bird?
Or that by showing Bob McAdoo the door, the Celtics were able to acquire two starters?
Could Rick Robey have beaten the Lakers with a 21-foot jump shot in Game 4 of the championship series?
The 1984-85 Celtics weren’t built; they were heisted.
The man who deserves most of the credit is their president, Red Auerbach, although he had a supporting cast of General Manager Jan Volk, Bill Fitch, the former coach, Coach K.C. Jones and personnel director Jimmy Rodgers.
They have benefited from the NBA’s free-enterprise system.
Translation: The rich get richer at the expense of the poor. And the poor agree to it, in some cases inviting it.
For the Celtics, it was no trivial pursuit. As you will see, they had all the answers.
Question: How did the Lakers make it possible for the Celtics to draft Bird?
Answer: In June of 1977, the Lakers traded Lucius Allen to Kansas City for Ollie Johnson and two draft choices, a first and a second in 1978.
Six months later, during the 1977-78 season, the Lakers sent the first-round draft choice they had received from Kansas City along with Don Chaney and Kermit Washington to Boston for guard Charlie Scott.
The 1978 draft choice the Celtics received from Kansas City, by way of the Lakers, turned out to be the eighth selection in the first round.
Because they had that selection, the Celtics were able to gamble with their own first-round draft choice, the sixth selection, and take Indiana State’s Larry Bird.
He still had a year of college eligibility remaining in 1978-79, but under NBA rules at the time, he was eligible for the 1978 draft because he already had been in college for four years.
That gave the Celtics rights to Bird for the 1979-80 season as long as they signed him before the 1979 draft, which they did.
“If we hadn’t had that draft choice from the Lakers, I don’t know whether we would have taken Bird,” Volk said. “We wouldn’t have been getting a player we could use immediately in the first round. We weren’t in a position at that time to forfeit a number one.”
As it evolved, the Celtics didn’t get a player in the draft they could use in 1978-79. They used the eighth selection obtained from the Lakers for Portland State’s Freeman Williams, who never played in Boston.
The Celtics had a 29-53 record that season.
The next season, with Bird as rookie of the year, they finished 61-21.
Incidentally, Charlie Scott played the final 43 games for the Lakers in 1978 and was traded to Denver when the season ended.
Q: Which three players, including two starters, did the Celtics acquire because they let McAdoo go, and who was the major figure in that deal?
A: The Celtics might not have Robert Parish and Kevin McHale if M.L. Carr hadn’t played out his option with Detroit and signed as a free agent in 1979 with Boston.
As compensation, Detroit asked for McAdoo.
The Celtics agreed under the condition that the Pistons also send two 1980 first-round draft choices to Boston.
Boston was only too glad to part with McAdoo, who came to the Celtics 40 games into the 1978-79 season from New York in a deal engineered by John Y. Brown, the Celtics’ owner at the time and later the governor of Kentucky.
Afterward, Brown became known in Boston as Why John Brown?
Both general manager Red Auerbach and player-coach Dave Cowens were opposed to the deal, which cost the Celtics three first-round draft choices and a player to be named later.
Cowens had another reason for not liking the deal. He was the starting center and didn’t want to share playing time with McAdoo.
But Brown was insistent. The story in Boston is that Brown wanted McAdoo because Brown’s wife-to-be, Phyllis George, had enjoyed watching McAdoo play for the Knicks.
“You want him, little lady?” Brown is supposed to have said to George. “You got him.”
In the 20 games McAdoo played for the Celtics, he averaged 32 minutes. But he never felt wanted and was grateful, at least for a while, for the trade to Detroit.
As for the two 1980 first-round draft choices the Celtics got in the deal, they traded them before the 1980 draft to Golden State for Parish and the Warriors’ first-round draft choice.
One of the draft choices from Detroit was the first selection, won in a coin flip with Utah. The Warriors, who had the third selection, wanted Purdue’s J.B. Carroll.
Because the Celtics preferred McHale over Carroll, they traded the first selection to the Warriors and took McHale with the third selection.
“If we had kept the first selection, we would have drafted McHale,” Volk said. “The only question after we made the trade was whether Utah would take McHale or Darrell Griffith with the second selection.
“But even if they had taken McHale instead of Griffith, we wouldn’t have been unhappy. We could have found a place in our lineup for Griffith.”
With the other first-round choice Golden State got from the Celtics, the 13th selection, the Warriors took Rickey Brown, who was traded to Atlanta after two and a half seasons. Carroll is playing in Italy.
Meantime, Carr, who started this business by playing out his option in Detroit, had a couple of productive seasons with the Celtics and is now the league’s highest-paid cheerleader.
Q: Which Boston starter testified in court that at one time he had no intention of ever playing for the Celtics.
A: Even though Danny Ainge announced before the 1981 NBA draft that he would forgo a promising basketball career to continue playing major league baseball, the Celtics took him with their second choice in the second round. He was the 31st selection.
But after two seasons of flailing at the curveball with the Toronto Blue Jays, Ainge decided his future was with the Celtics.
That ruffled the feathers of the Blue Jays, who took the Celtics to court for tampering with a player under contract.
Ainge said in court that he hadn’t intended to play in the NBA when he originally signed with the Blue Jays and had informed all NBA teams, including the Celtics, of that decision before they drafted him. He told the judge his change of heart had not occurred under pressure from the Celtics.
The Celtics settled with the Blue Jays and had Ainge under a contract of their own in time for the 1981-82 season.
Ainge now says he probably would be involved in a pennant race with the Blue Jays today if any NBA team other than the Celtics had drafted him.
“They’re the only team that could have made me think about changing my mind,” he said.
Q: Which Boston starter was called a cancer by one of his former coaches and traded by another team for two second-round draft choices and a backup center?
A: Dennis Johnson was the MVP in the 1979 championship series for Seattle, but he and Coach Lenny Wilkens were at odds the next season. When Johnson was traded to Phoenix in 1980, Wilkens called him “a cancer on the team.”
Two years later, Phoenix Coach John McLeod apparently had decided the same thing. The Suns tried to trade Johnson but found that no team would give them a player of equal value in exchange.
By the end of the next season, 1982-83, the Suns had given up and traded him to Boston along with first- and third-round draft choices in 1983 for Robey and two 1983 second-round draft choices.
“We were aware of Dennis’ reputation,” Volk said. “But when we checked with people who knew him, we didn’t hear anything that made us think he wouldn’t fit in with the Celtics. The trade turned out to be an excellent one for us.”
The Suns can’t say the same thing. Robey played 61 games in 1983-84 but was limited to 14 minutes a game because of knee surgery. He played only four games this season because of heel surgery.
With the first-round draft choice they received from the Suns in 1983, the Celtics selected backup center Greg Kite.
Q: Can you name a Boston player who was still on the payroll of the Cleveland Cavaliers while playing for the Celtics?
A: After 54 games of the 1981-82 season, the Celtics figured that they needed more scoring punch from the bench.
They sent Darren Tillis, their 1981 first-round draft choice, a 1983 first-round draft choice and an undisclosed amount of cash to Cleveland for Scott Wedman, a former All-Star. The Cavaliers agreed to pay half of Wedman’s $800,000 annual salary until his contract expired in 1983.
At that time, the Celtics signed him for three more years at $400,000 a year.
Q: One reserve came to the Celtics in exchange for a player who already had retired. Who were the two players?
A: Cowens played one season for Fitch before deciding he’d had enough. Of Fitch and basketball. He retired in 1980.
Two years later, he decided he missed the game. But he didn’t miss Fitch, who was still coaching the Celtics. Besides, Parish had established himself as the Celtics’ center.
Cowens wanted to play for Milwaukee, where his friend and former teammate, Don Nelson, coaches.
The Celtics were agreeable. But because Cowens was still their property, they asked for Quinn Buckner in return.
Cowens’ comeback was short-lived. He played only 40 games for the Bucks in 1982-83. Buckner started for the Celtics on occasion that season and has provided backcourt depth the last two seasons.
“We’ve been trying to trade John Havlicek ever since,” Volk said.
Bonus Question: Who were the five players drafted ahead of Larry Bird in 1978?
A: In order, Mychal Thompson by Portland, Phil Ford by Kansas City, Rick Robey by Indiana, Micheal Ray Richardson by New York, and Purvis Short by Golden State. And at that time, Richardson still was spelling his first name right, M-I-C-H-A-E-L.
HOW LAKERS WERE BUILT Boston isn’t the only team that has built a championship contender throughfortuitous trades and the draft. The Lakers acquired four starters as a result of trades. Two of them were first picks in the draft. Who says the rich don’t get richer through the draft?
PLAYER YEAR HOW ACQUIRED KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR 1975 Traded Elmore Smith, Brian Winters and first-round choices Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman to Milwaukee for Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley. MICHAEL COOPER 1978 Third-round draft choice, 60th player selected. MAGIC JOHNSON 1979 First-round draft choice. Choice acquired, along with a first-round draft choice in 1977 and a second-round in 1980, as compensation for Gail Goodrich when he became a free agent and signed with New Orleans Jazz. Lakers drafted first in 1979 after winning coin toss with Chicago. MITCH KUPCHAK 1981 Traded Jim Chones, Brad Holland, a 1982 second-round draft choice and a 1983 first- round draft choice to Washington for Kupchak, who had played out his option and became a free agent. MIKE McGEE 1981 First-round draft choice, 19th player selected. KURT RAMBIS 1981 Free agent. BOB McADOO 1981 Traded a 1983 second-round draft choice in December, 1981 to New Jersey, which held the rights to McAdoo even though he sat out first three months of the season and was technically a free agent. JAMES WORTHY 1982 First-round draft choice. Acquired choice and Butch Lee in 1980 for Don Ford and a first-round draft choice. Lakers drafted first in 1982 after winning coin toss with San Diego. LARRY SPRIGGS 1983 Free agent. BYRON SCOTT 1983 Traded Norm Nixon and Eddie Jordan to San Diego for Swen Nater and Scott, the fourth pick in 1983 draft. RONNIE LESTER 1984 Free agent. CHUCK NEVITT 1985 Free agent.