Throughout their history, the Red Auerbach Boston Celtics have been the consummate visionaries. Much of their mystique can be traced to the 1956 trade that sent Cliff Hagan and Easy Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks for the third pick in the draft, which Auerbach used to draft Bill Russell.
That led to 11 championships in 13 seasons.
In 1978, Auerbach used the sixth pick in the draft to select Larry Bird, who still had a year left in school. Auerbach figured that waiting a year for Bird would be insignificant, and he was correct. The Celtics have won three titles in the Bird era.
But in August, a bit of the mystique died when the Celtics were slow to react to the Brian Shaw-to-Italy threat. Because the Celtics were over the salary cap, Shaw was forced to play his rookie year for the NBA minimum. He played well enough to start in 54 games, and so it was obvious he was in line for a big raise.
But the Celtics tried to low-ball him (about $500,000 a year) and were shocked when he quickly accepted an offer to become Danny Ferry's teammate with Il Messaggero in Rome. With Larry Bird missing 76 games last year because of surgery on each of his heels, the Celtics' only accomplishment was that their 23-year-old future stars -- Shaw, and Reggie Lewis -- received ample playing time and experience.
Now with Bird returning to form -- he had 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the Celtics' 111-99 victory over the Spurs Tuesday -- the Celtics have only one weakness. Point guard. The three in camp are 35-year-old Dennis Johnson, retread John Bagley and Continental Basketball Association refugee Kelvin Upshaw, who was cut by the Miami Heat last season.
With a little Celtic foresight, Shaw would have been the starter and any of the others could have been the backup. And the Celtics would have been two-deep at every position. Instead, they have exposed themselves to second-guessing.
Simple arithmetic has become a popular exercise in Boston. Question: What is the total of $550,000 and $425,000? There are three answers:
1. The salaries of Bagley and Yugoslavian Dino Radja, who has gone back to his country for a year after the Celtics settled a court case with his Yugoslavian team. After he departed, Bird said, "To be honest, I don't know if he can play."
3. A reasonable amount to pay Shaw.
The Celtics, of course, are sensitive about their loss. "It's like a lot of other things," said General Manager Jan Volk. "When you have the benefit of hindsight, I suppose you can look at things differently."
But that's the point. Celtic mystique was built on foresight, not hindsight. Bird has attempted to downplay Shaw's loss, saying, "Brian was a good player, but I don't think he was the difference between winning a championship and not winning one. We lost Brian, but I came back. Who would you rather lose? Brian Shaw or Larry Bird?"
If you are a Celtics fan, the answer is obvious: neither. The Celtics still have depth. And Bird looks fit enough to lead them to the NBA finals. But Shaw's absence could cause them to fall short. After Shaw elected to go to Italy, salaries took an upward turn with Kevin Johnson, Terry Porter and Jon Koncak all receiving deals worth more than $2 million a year. When Shaw returns, he will cost the Celtics more money than he would have this season. They chose not to pay him now. That could prove costly on the floor. And they will pay him a lot more later.
The bacchanal boys -- Shaw and Ferry -- are finding their Roman holiday a little grim. After winning its first game, Il Messaggero has lost four straight, including one to a team that entered the game with no victories. Ferry had a season-low 14 points in that game while Shaw was 7 of 21 from the field. One headline in a Rome paper screamed, "This Time There's No Alibi." That headline appeared in the paper that owns the team.
Until a major knee injury in 1985, the Philadelphia 76ers' Derek Smith, who was with the Los Angeles Clippers at the time, seemed destined for a career as an All-Star. Now he is a role player, and he said there is a big difference.
"When I was a rookie, I was interviewed by CBS and NBC and ABC and all the cameras and all the newspaper writers," Smith said. "This year (when training camp began), I sat by myself off to the side and no one came over to interview me except this one guy. He had a little video camera and I answered his questions and then asked him who he was with. He said, 'The Gordons. We live right across the street.' "
--The Lakers have trained in Hawaii the last two years, and next season they will take on an international flavor. They will train a week in Tokyo and play two exhibitions there before playing two more in Hawaii.
--No one wants to say it publicly, but several NBA executives are speculating that the Denver Nuggets could be the first NBA team to be defeated and embarrassed by a foreign team in the McDonald's Open, which begins Friday in Rome.
--Could it be an omen? The New Jersey Nets began the preseason against the Celtics by missing 14 consecutive shots.
--Keep an eye on Nets rookie guard Mookie Blaylock. He is going to be a heck of a player.
--The Washington Bullets have a bleak center situation with Mel Turpin (a mere 264 pounds of blubber) and rookie Doug Roth, who is legally blind in one eye.
--The Houston Rockets have three recovering drug users on their team -- John Lucas, Mitchell Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd. And the team has announced that immediately after the final game of each road trip, they will charter a plane home, obviously to try and limit the temptations of the road.
--The Atlanta Hawks are impressed with Soviet forward Alexander Volkov, who has demonstrated excellent technical skills and may move ahead of Cliff Levingston in the forward rotation. "The dude is incredible," is how Dominique Wilkins put it. An anonymous Hawk told an Atlanta newspaper, "Volkov is kicking Cliff's butt. He's too good for him."