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Seeking a return to glory

Team committed to reclaiming past success

In the first of a two-part series, NBA Hall of Fame honoree Bob Ryan -- once dubbed the de facto commissioner of basketball -- offers his thoughts on the relevance today of the 16-time world champion Celtics, and whether the franchise that defined greatness can ever return to the glory days.

Larry Bird plays one of his transcendent games as the Boston Celtics blow away the Houston Rockets, 114-97. It is their third title in six years and the 16th in 30. They sell out every game. TV ratings are at their zenith. The Celtics are everyone's symbol of excellence. Thanks to a smart trade with Seattle, a high draft pick is assured. Bird, Parish, and McHale are at their peak. The dynasty is seemingly without end. The Celtics own this town.

It is June 8, 1986.

''Is it really that long?" inquires David Stern.

Yes, Mr. Commissioner, we soon will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 16th -- and, as yet, final -- Celtics championship. And we can safely say that the Boston Celtics no longer own this town.

The Red Sox and Patriots own this town, and all the winter guys can do right now is say, ''Hey, remember us?" The Bruins can say with great pride that, once upon a time, they owned this town, just as the Celtics did 20 years ago. But the difference between the Bruins and the Celtics always was that the Bruins were of interest only inside Route 128. At their peak, the Celtics were the most internationally well-known American sports franchise, period. Long before Michael Jordan became an international conglomerate, the Boston Celtics were both America's team and the world's team. They were the Manchester United of basketball.

But that was, as the song says, Once Upon A Time. The question is, can Once Upon A Time ever come again?

Team owners Wyc Grousbeck, Steve Pagliuca, and their partners think so. They've put up $365 million -- and that's just to start -- to make it happen.

Say this for these guys: They gulp down gallons of their own Kool-Aid every day. When the subject of their whopping investment comes up, they are relentlessly upbeat.

''We're 150 percent happy," declares Pagliuca. ''What we've set out to do is put the building blocks in place to get back on that championship road."

But there's more at stake. Everybody wants a championship; that's a given. But everybody can't win a championship every year, and that's a given, too. The Yankees have not won a championship since 2000, but their popularity and value keep going up. They drew more than 4 million this year and they are an endless source of conversation simply because, well, because they are the Yankees and they still stand for something in the minds and hearts of their followers. If you're old enough, you remember that it was once like this for the Boston Celtics.

''Absolutely, the No. 1 thing is winning a championship," asserts the Abbey Group's Bob Epstein, one of the team's managing partners. ''Winning a championship is very cathartic for the fans and very cathartic for the organization. For how long? Two weeks? Then life goes back to normal. You cannot have your meaning limited to winning championships. The benefit of winning championships is to show that you have done it with a team and a team effort. You get thought of as 'winners' in a broader sense."

Buying into tradition
Messrs. Grousbeck, Pagliuca, and Epstein represent something very different for the Celtics. Since Walter Brown died in 1964, the Celtics have been owned by a succession of outsiders, some better-financed and some more well-intentioned than others. These people are ours. Grousbeck was born here. He was in attendance when Carlton Fisk hit the foul pole. Pagliuca has lived here for a long time. Epstein has Brighton and Newton roots and as a young lad went to Bob Cousy's famous camp in Pittsfield, N.H.

You must take them at their word when they say that buying into the Celtics is more than just a business investment. They are wrapping themselves inside a tradition that remains the envy of the town's other franchises. The Celtics have won more championships (16) than the Red Sox (6), Bruins (5), and Patriots (3) combined. And they are gambling that there is still some tangible residual benefit as a result.

''The history," says Pagliuca, ''is all good."

''I don't see any downside," says coach Doc Rivers, whose team practices every day in a gym with replicas of the 16 championship banners and the 21 retired numbers (and one name). ''It helps. It reminds me of why we play, not for the name on the back, but for the one on the front. It's something I can use a lot. I have an amazing amount of resources."

''Without being corny or sugary, we know that the team doesn't truly belong to us, but to the fans," says Irv Grousbeck, Wyc's father and one of the team's managing partners. ''There is a great tradition here."

He said ''is," and, for all their sake, he'd better be right. The central question is this: Do the Celtics still matter in this town? Or have circumstances changed so dramatically in the last 20 years that what once was, never will be that way again?

Among those who retain their faith in the Celtics as a brand is Bill Ryan, the CEO of TD Banknorth, a major Celtics advertiser. ''The brand is still there," he maintains. ''Whether you're talking about 20 years ago or 10 years ago or right now, the Boston Celtics are still winners. When you mention the name 'Boston Celtics,' you find they are viewed as the ultimate winners and team players."

Charlie Baker, CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, another Celtics advertiser, is equally effusive. ''When we look at the quality of people involved, we give them high marks," he explains. ''We feel we, as an advertiser, are getting into something good at an early stage, which is something you always like to do. We did not decide to do this as a short-term play."

That's nice talk, and it's good for the Celtics that men of this caliber believe in them and their product. Listening to them, you would almost forget that:

TV and radio ratings have been abysmal for several years.

The Celtics have no national respect. They will be featured on one (1) exclusive national telecast this year, a TNT game in Miami March 16. They have not been deemed worthy of being on ABC. This does not include overlap telecasts and seven appearances on NBA TV, which has a very limited audience.

It is news when the Celtics sell out a regular-season game.

The Celtics are hardly ever the topic of conversation on local talk radio.

Channel 4 was the only local TV station to send a crew on the road during the playoffs last spring.

Many onetime fans are completely put off by the so-called ''presentation" of modern NBA games.

Ticket prices are daunting for people with families.

There is no -- how shall we put this? -- ''buzz."

But the owners seem oblivious to all of this. Are we talking parallel universes here?

New rings of honor
Among the many things that have happened in the 20 years since flag No. 16 was hoisted aloft are the ascendancy of the Patriots and the ever-increasing phenomenon of the Red Sox. Three Super Bowl championships in the last four years? Unimaginable. The Red Sox actually winning it all, and coming back from an 0-3 deficit against the Yankees to do it? Selling out an entire baseball park for the season? We'll see you an unimaginable and raise you an unfathomable. With the Patriots lasting into February and the Red Sox being conversational fodder 365 days a year, who needs the winter teams?

The Celtics profess not to be concerned. Good for the Red Sox and Patriots, they say. What they do can't hurt us.

''We bring up the success of the Red Sox and Patriots all the time," says Danny Ainge, 3-point shooter extraordinaire turned executive director of basketball operations. ''We make them aware. They know if we can get back to that level there will be that kind of buzz for us. I love what they've done. It sets a standard for us. I don't look at them as competition."

''There's nothing wrong with living in a town of champions," says Rivers, who, like Ainge, is a huge sports fan. ''I love the Patriots. I love everything they stand for. You see a team like the Patriots, and it's easier to get guys to buy into playing roles."

There might be something of a panic if those concerned viewed the local sports scene in pie-chart fashion, with every team getting a slice of the audience and no more. But they don't. It's not either/or. There can be space in your heart -- and wallet -- for more than one allegiance.

''It's not a zero-sum game," says Irv Grousbeck. ''Absolutely not. There's a commonality here. I don't think it's a fixed pie chart at all."

To have any chance of recapturing the '80s buzz, the team has to get better. As has been famously observed, Larry, Kevin, and Robert aren't walking through the door, and they surely aren't going to be replaced in the affections of seasoned fans by Paul Pierce, even if Ainge maintains that he should be regarded as one of the ''five or six greatest Celtics of all-time." They had a real opportunity to gain fans and create at least a minor buzz last spring after finishing strongly and winning the Atlantic Division. Had they followed up by winning a playoff series or two, they might have captured the local imagination.

But they undid two months worth of goodwill buildup by becoming the first NBA team ever to lose three home games in a series, a demise capped off by a gruesome 27-point loss in Game 7. Many observers viewed it as a stunning loss of basic credibility.

Wyc Grousbeck chooses to accentuate the positive. ''It was one of the high points of my life to walk into a sold-out building for a Game 7," he insists. ''My first reaction was, 'What a thrill it was to have a Game 7.' My second reaction was, 'How the hell did we lose by 27?' But the team came back more enthusiastic, willing to work even harder, in this year's training camp."

Winning that division title had no resonance, not with the team laying that oversized playoff egg. They are stuck in the vast middle of the NBA, needing more than just one or two players to become a prime contender. The owners are saying all the right things, preaching above all patience and saying how they want to do this the right way. Rivers says he is completely comfortable with the type of backing he gets from above.

''They're businessmen, but they really are fans," he says. ''I really believe that if we were ever really in a position where one big move could put us over the top, they would blow their budget to smithereens in order to do it. I don't doubt that."

Restoring glory the goal
It would be impossible to exaggerate how much fun it once was. When the Russell Celtics were winning all those championships from 1957 through 1969, they were pretty much a local cult fave who, everybody said, would have been worshipped in New York. They started to broaden their appeal in the city where the hockey team always had owned the winter when Dave Cowens showed up. And they made their big move when Red Auerbach made one of his classic moves to bring Larry Bird here. The city and the country were infatuated with the men in green.

Remember the 10 60-win seasons? Remember the sheer exhilaration of the '80s? The 1981, 1984, and 1986 championships were just the beginning of the fun. Those teams played at an aesthetically pleasing team level that, in all likelihood, never will be reached again -- anywhere. Going to see a Celtics game in the Old Garden in the mid '80s was more reassuring than suspenseful. In a two-year stretch, the Celtics were 94-4 at the Old Garden.

''When I became commissioner [in 1983], I thought the natural state of affairs was to go coast-to-coast-to-coast in June," says Stern. ''It was a wonderful time. But things change. I thought for a while that the only person immune to the normal shifting fortunes was Jerry West and the Lakers, but even that relationship ended. But the normal order is for things to be cyclical. A Milwaukee gets a Lew Alcindor. Boston gets a Bird. San Antonio gets a Duncan. Cleveland gets a LeBron. I love watching it all."

While the commish doesn't actively root for anyone, he can lavish praise on whomever he likes and he happens to like the new owners of the Boston Celtics.

''With respect to the operation up there, we have a way of tracking the [business] practices, and they are very good," Stern says. ''I think they are particularly strong in customer service. They are respectful with their sense of trusteeship regarding the franchise. I am impressed with the way they treat the retired players, the legends, and I am very happy with the respect they have shown for Red. And they have become significant contributors at the league level."

No one knows when the next title will materialize, but they do not lack auxiliary goals.

''From Day 1 we've had four objectives," Pagliuca says. ''We wanted to build a world-class basketball operation, and toward that end we've invested $20 million. We wanted to get a strong ownership group. We wanted to improve the fan experience by offering more services to the fans. And we wanted to invigorate the Celtics' community activities."

The owners are particularly proud of their Shamrock Foundation, which just raised $1 million with a dinner and has attracted the attention of advertisers such as TD Banknorth's Bill Ryan. ''That's one of the values of local ownership," Ryan points out. ''We are very impressed with their involvement in the community, especially with regard to the welfare of children. That is a large reason why we've become involved with them."

So we have established beyond all doubt that everyone involved truly believes there is a Celtic ideal worth clinging to. There is no question the owners believe it. Ainge believes it. ''I remember coming here the first time back in 1981," he recalls. ''I had been to games in Portland, but this was just different. I loved the passion."

The coach is another true believer, going so far as to make sure his young children were taken to a game here before the old Garden closed in 1995, just so they could say they had been.

''If we ever win, I'm in The Club," Doc says. ''I love it here. I knew I would like it, and I do. I know people don't believe it, but I took this job because it was the Celtics."

But does anyone else believe? Will the Celtics ever again be a passion or obsession for the masses? Was the mania that peaked on June 8, 1986, all due to the glow reflecting off one man? Can this ever be a basketball town again?

''We can't ask for that buzz," says Grousbeck. ''We have to earn it."

They can ask and perhaps they can earn. But it's a different era, and it's far from 100 percent certain they'll ever receive it.

Tomorrow: The state of the NBA

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