SERIOUSLY, FOLKS . . . : Cedric Maxwell Leaves Some Bitterness Behind in Boston, Starts Anew With Clippers

Times Staff Writer

For a guy who actually used to like being called Cornbread and who for many years was, without question, the most voluble player of the Boston Celtics, Cedric Maxwell seems rather concerned these days that many in the National Basketball Assn. don’t take him seriously.

Maybe it’s because Maxwell has too much fun out there. His game face is an amused smirk, as if he knows something nobody else knows. He unabashedly enjoys entertaining reporters with his remarks, and he even admits that practice is something that is best avoided, if possible.

Maxwell freely admits that he often plays the court jester, but he also maintains that he is misunderstood. It disturbs Maxwell that people remember him more for what he says than what he does on the court.


He says he has felt this way almost his entire career, but it didn’t bother him much until recently, when his successful--if somewhat overlooked--career hit the skids.

These feelings surfaced early last spring, when the Celtics were well on the way to the NBA’s best regular-season record, and it escalated into full-scale bitterness when the Celtics blamed him for their playoff loss to the Lakers.

Maxwell, who had never missed more than four games since his rookie season, complained of soreness in his left knee and wanted some time off.

The Celtics rolled their eyes. Sure, they had heard that one before.

Eventually, though, arthroscopic surgery showed that Maxwell had a torn cartilage.

Then when Maxwell failed to be a factor in the playoffs, Celtic President Red Auerbach said that Maxwell hadn’t worked hard enough to rehabilitate himself and, worse, didn’t care.

Auerbach could not be reached for comment, but Celtic Coach K.C Jones said he feels bad that Maxwell’s final days with Boston were so acrimonious. “I never question a player’s injury, but others did,” Jones said. “In my opinion, Max did the best he could to come back, but it wasn’t good enough. Max had a lot of great years here, but decisions had to be made.”

By the time the Celtics sent Maxwell to the Clippers--"the Siberia of the NBA,” he jokingly says--for center Bill Walton, Maxwell had a hurt that couldn’t be repaired by any surgical procedure. He felt like a worn-out pair of shoes thrown to the back of the closet.

When Maxwell learned that the Celtics, in Los Angeles this week to play exhibition games against the Lakers, were staying in the same hotel he was, he asked the Clippers if he could stay somewhere else.

“I’ve never had my integrity questioned before,” Maxwell said. “That hurt more than anything. And it came from people who knew me, knew my game, knew what I was all about.

“I can be a happy-go-lucky person, and I have to admit that I don’t work in practice as hard as I should. (But) I stated I was hurt and they just didn’t believe me. For them to question it and say I didn’t try, well, it was a bad situation.

“I don’t know why, but players have never been able to leave Boston in good graces once they’ve been traded. It’s like, Red Auerbach’s this legend and no one else can be right. It’s obvious I couldn’t win, probably because I was the guy they thought I was. People don’t know the real Max.”

OK, so just who is the real Cedric Maxwell?

Is he the ebullient, carefree player whose main objective is not only to win but to have a good time doing it? A personality who once compared his verbal prowess to that of Muhammad Ali?

Or, as Maxwell now claims, is all that merely a facade that covers a serious, caring player who prizes winning above everything else?

“I think he can be both,” said Clipper Coach Don Chaney, who played with Maxwell at Boston and also introduced Maxwell to his wife, Renee.

“You can be around a player for 20 years and not really know anything about him because you only see him in a basketball situation. You don’t see him away from the court, after the season. Cedric is a lot more serious than you might think, and most people don’t think he’s serious at all.”

Maybe it’s best not to categorize Maxwell at all. He can change personalities in mid-sentence. Asked to describe the so-called real Maxwell, he looked at the ground and lowered his voice.

“I’m a very shy person,” he said. “Not the most sociable person in the world. Very intense and competitive. Love to win. A lot of people think I’m super outgoing. I am outgoing only to a degree. I’m not an ego worshiper. And I like the simple things.”

Maxwell paused. Then, eyes sparkling, voice rising, he continued.

“Yeah, I like the simple things in life--like Mercedes and Porsches,” he said, laughing. “But people just look at the guy out there who just scored a basket and is raising all sorts of hell. Most of all, I’m a winner. By no stretch of the imagination am I a loser.”

No one ever said otherwise. You can chuckle at Maxwell’s sometimes outrageous statements and cluck over his peculiar on-court behavior, but he has been more than a bit player in the Celtics’ rebirth as an NBA power.

After his first two dismal seasons with the Celtics, when the franchise was at its lowest point, the club won 75% of its games and two NBA championships with Maxwell as a starting forward.

Boston’s success, of course, can be directly related to Larry Bird’s arrival, as well as to solid play by Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson.

Still, when the Celtics won the NBA title in 1981, Maxwell, not Bird, was named the most valuable player of the series. And when Bird and teammates were slumping in the 1984 final series against the Lakers, it was Maxwell who boldly told them before Game 7: “Get on my back, boys, because I’m gonna carry you.”

You may remember the quote, but do you remember that Maxwell went out and did it, finishing with 24 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists?

It seems that Maxwell will be forever shackled with his reputation as a comic. A few years ago, when he denounced the Cornbread nickname and asked to be called plain old Max, it wasn’t long before people picked up on it and called him Mad Max.

Basically, Maxwell accepts that and sometimes revels in it. But after his embittering experience last season in Boston, Maxwell has felt the need to defend himself as a basketball player.

His detractors in Boston and elsewhere say that Maxwell, who will be 30 next month, left much of his talent back in Boston. Maxwell counters by saying those detractors never fully noticed--or appreciated--his talents in the first place.

In 1978-79, his second year in the NBA, Maxwell averaged 19 points and 8.5 rebounds a game as the starting small forward. The next season, though, Larry Bird arrived and roles changed. The 6-foot 8-inch Maxwell was moved to power forward and told to concentrate on defense and let Bird do the scoring. Even after Bird took over, Maxwell still averaged double figures every season and flourished in the playoffs.

Not that many noticed, Maxwell said. The way he sees it, he’s been working in the shadow of a giant Bird most of his career. It has been suggested that Maxwell harbors a slight resentment toward Bird for that reason.

“I know the league and I know (the Celtics) have one of the greatest white players ever to play the game, so I wasn’t going to get the attention,” Maxwell said. “I won the MVP in the (1981) championship (series) and Larry scores 27 in the last game only, so people said he should’ve gotten it. But I had a complete series.

“I don’t look at it as a black and white situation in Boston, even though I once got criticized a lot for saying that the city of Boston had a racial overtone. It’s just that Larry Bird is Larry Bird.”

Bird justifiably receives more attention than his teammates, but no one was quoted more than Maxwell during his tenure in Celtic green. Whether it was sarcastic comments about opponents, intentional or unintentional malapropisms, or unsolicited observations about life and times in the NBA, Maxwell has few peers when comes to the spoken word.

As The Times’ Randy Harvey wrote during last season’s playoffs: “When Maxwell says he has one thing to say, get ready for a filibuster. Gentlemen, start your pens.”

Some of the funnier and/or stranger Maxims over the years:

--On last season’s much publicized on-court fight between Bird and Philadelphia’s Julius Erving, which cleared the benches: “I was like a young Martin Luther King out there--nonviolent.”

--On his off-season hobbies: “I like to watch other people work. Every day, I hop in my car and drive around, pull alongside some guys who are working construction and say, ‘Sorry, boys, but I’ve got nothing to do today.’ ”

--On being traded from Boston to the Clippers: “The first thing I’m going to do is get rid of all those green tennis shoes. I don’t want to see anything green that isn’t money.”

--On why he voted for archconservative Senator Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina: “Because most of the bros back home don’t make as much scratch (money) as I do.”

--On Boston guard Danny Ainge, a Mormon: “Danny’s a guy you’d want your daughter to marry. But not my daughter, because I don’t want all those grandkids.”

--On whether he can help the Clippers qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons: “My wife’s name is Renee, not Lois, and I’m not going to come out of some phone booth with a red cape.”

OK, so it may not be good enough for the Comedy Store, but it’s better than most of what you’ll hear in the NBA. Maxwell says that thoughts just come to him and he blurts them out. But there also is a strategy behind some of his comments.

Two years ago, when the Celtics beat the Lakers for the championship, Maxwell and cohort M.L. Carr rattled the Lakers by calling them the Fakers, and saying they didn’t play physically enough to win. McHale said: “He gets the other teams saying things about us, which gets us stirred up. We seem to play better when there’s animosity.”

Animosity still lingers among Los Angeles basketball fans. People sent nasty letters to the newspapers, calling Maxwell a thug, among other things, when it appeared the trade would be made. During the Clippers’ exhibition season, from Bakersfield to Pomona, Yuba City to Santa Ana, fans have heckled and booed Maxwell.

“They might forget later on,” Maxwell said. “But it’s going to be a season where I’ll be heckled a lot. It’s a big joke on the team. They love to have me introduced after Jamaal (Wilkes, the former Laker). Jamaal gets a standing ovation; I get booed and hissed. I know why it happens. I played on one of the most hated-loved teams in sports.”

Loved in Boston, hated most everywhere else. Sometimes, though, Maxwell wasn’t a crowd favorite even among Boston fans. In the early ‘80s, Maxwell caught a lot of heat when he said of Boston: “Although it’s OK if you’re an athlete, it’s not an especially nice place in which to be black.”

The heat didn’t bother him. “I say what I believe in, instead of what other people feel I should say,” Maxwell said. “Some people didn’t respect my honesty when I said that about Boston. By being so honest, people sometimes take shots at me because of that.”

In 1982, Maxwell believed that the Boston press took what he calls a cheap shot when they reported that a paternity suit had been filed against him. He announced he would not talk to reporters all season. The newsmen snickered and made bets as to when Maxwell would break his silence. He never did.

“That was my stand toward the press that some things are private,” he said. “To this day, I’d do it again. My hometown (Kinston, N.C.) has 22,000 people. This was not a quiet thing down there but an international incident. It was bigger than the war in El Salvador. It was bigger than Ronald Reagan, bigger than the election and everything else that year.”

What happens in Kinston is important to Maxwell. Although the Maxwells live in Charlotte, where Maxwell received degrees in geography and black history at North Carolina Charlotte, he returns to Kinston each summer to visit his parents and friends.

Maxwell is the son of a retired marine drill sergeant and he spent three years in Hawaii. Most of his youth, though, was spent in Kinston, a small middle-class town in Eastern Carolina. Had it not been for basketball, Maxwell might be working at the local Du Pont plant, or in the tobacco industry.

But Maxwell cringes when it is suggested that he might have followed his father’s suggestion to become a Marine.

“I’ve never been a person who liked authority,” he said. “Never liked somebody telling me what to do. I’ve been drilled all my life (by his father). I don’t need anymore commander in chiefs coming down on me.”

Basketball wasn’t always the answer for him, either. Maxwell was cut from his high school team as a junior. By the next basketball season, however, he had sprouted to 6-7, had filled out his frame a bit and gained co-ordination. He was a local star, but ignored by most colleges. North Carolina Charlotte was interested, and Maxwell accepted the scholarship.

He made the most of college, not only earning two degrees but assuring himself a professional career by leading the 49ers to the NCAA semifinals his senior year. Charlotte lost to eventual champion Marquette, 51-49.

Maxwell got his nickname, Cornbread, as a college player. It came from a movie called “Cornbread, Earl and Me,” in which, coincidentally, the Clippers’ Wilkes played Cornbread. The nickname slowly died at Boston, but it was momentarily revived last season when the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Maxwell Cornhead.

Whatever the name, Maxwell is out to show people that he is still one of the best defensive forwards in the league, as well as a capable scorer and rebounder.

The Clippers are convinced that his left knee is fully rehabilitated. General Manager Carl Scheer would not make the trade until Cybex tests, which measure muscle strength, showed that Maxwell’s left quadriceps muscle was equal to his right.

K.C. Jones, even after cutting Maxwell loose, said he can still play.

“No question in my mind,” Jones said. “I haven’t seen him since the playoffs, but when he’s healthy, he’s a very good player. He gave up too much of his game to fit into our system. With the Clippers, he can be a total player.

“I’m going to miss him because he was a very important part of the Celtics on the court and especially in the locker room. He kept the team together and loose. You can’t understand how important that is.”

Chaney, who praised Walton’s talent, nonetheless said that the departed center “alienated the team.” With Maxwell, he said, there is a more positive attitude.

Since Maxwell is bothered that he never received the recognition he deserved in Boston, can it be presumed that he will try to find it in Los Angeles?

No, Maxwell said. “I’m not looking for stardom, now, or tons of respect. I’m just looking to get into a situation where we can win games. What we really need is a guy to come in and dig ditches and man the trenches.

“It’s funny. I’ve had a career that a lot of guys probably would have loved to have. But at the same time, it’s one where I’ve never really been accepted as a star player for Boston. I’ve either been the other forward or a funny man.

“I’m just going to try to win in L.A. I won’t say we’ll ever win a championship, but I will say we’ll make the playoffs this year.”

Seriously, Max?