Late in the afternoon on June 8, 1986, Danny Ainge gleefully bounced around the crowded, champagne-soaked, cigar-stenched Boston Celtics locker room, high-fiving each of the teammates with whom he had just crushed the Houston Rockets to win the NBA championship.
``Forty-five grand, baby," Ainge said. That was the playoff reward for the NBA champions. (The Miami Heat picked up $1.77 million, more than the entire playoff pool in 1986.) And the Celtics looked ready to do it over and over again.
Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were in their primes. Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Ainge were also good for several more years. The team had the second pick in the upcoming draft.
Had anyone that day offered that the Celtics would still be looking for their next championship two decades later, well, as Ainge put it, ``That would have been unbelievable. At that time, with the team we had, it seemed like it would go on forever."
Now, 20 years later, Ainge pores over tapes of prospective Celtics as the 2006 NBA draft approaches. He no longer is the fourth or fifth option on a great team. He's the first-option decision-maker on a mediocre team, the latest to be charged with bringing that elusive next championship to Boston. Red Auerbach couldn't do it. Dave Gavitt couldn't do it. M.L. Carr couldn't do it. Rick Pitino, Leo Papile, and Chris Wallace couldn't do it.
Along the way, each of the aforementioned gents had a hand in decisions that have put the Celtics in their present predicament. All made moves, good and bad. Occasionally, bad luck reared its ugly head, including in 1993, in horrifying finality on the floor at Brandeis University.
It's easy to look back at Len Bias and say his untimely demise triggered the 20 years (and counting) of banner-free basketball. But Bias never played a day for the Celtics and never made a decision that hurt the team, other than the one he made that took his life. Too much else has come and gone since then.
In time, that turned out to be a terrific selection. But coach K.C. Jones never embraced the rookie. Brian Shaw, a guard from Cal-Santa Barbara, was the No. 1 pick in 1988, and with Jones gone, the Celtics were changing, gradually, to a team of athleticism and youth.
In 1989, the Celtics had the 13th pick and Auerbach had his eyes on Michael Smith, a 6-foot-10-inch scoring machine from Brigham Young. Smith figured the Celtics would take UTEP's Tim Hardaway and that he would go next to the Warriors, who were coached by Don Nelson.
``Nellie had called me up to Salt Lake City during the playoffs when they were playing the Jazz and interviewed me at the team hotel," said Smith. ``It was mind-boggling. I really thought Boston was going to take Hardaway. DJ was on his last legs and they needed a point guard, so they should have. I never expected them to take me."
Smith played only two seasons in Boston. He had an encouraging stretch during his rookie season, and coach Jimmy Rodgers told him one night in Golden State that he was going to start. (Smith had been playing golf that day, thinking he'd be watching.) That started a stretch of seven straight games in which he averaged 14.6 points and shot 50 percent. Then, he was just as quickly sent back to the bench.
``Did I lose my confidence at that point? Yes, I did," said Smith. ``You need to play, and I thought I proved I could play. But that's no one's fault but my own."
General manager Jan Volk recalled the Smith selection, saying, ``In retrospect, he was not the player we had hoped he'd be." As for not taking Hardaway, Volk said, ``We already had Brian [Shaw, who would soon bolt for Rome for a year]. And we thought we had a deal for Larry Drew. But we sent someone to the airport to pick him up and he wasn't on the plane."
Hardaway, of course, had a big-time career. He was first-team all-NBA in 1997. He was second-team all-NBA three other times. He won Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000 and World Championship gold in Canada in 1994. He developed into one of the NBA's elite point guards.
Smith is right. The Celtics should have taken him.
``Next to Michael Jordan, he was the most unguardable player in the league," Smith said. ``People always used to rip my defense. Well, that's because every day in practice I either had to guard Larry Bird or Reggie Lewis. No one could do that."
Agreed Dee Brown, who was Gavitt's first draft pick in 1990, ``When he died, he was without question the second-best 2-guard in the league. How do you recover from that?"
The Celtics tried. But they soon discovered that there was no sympathy leaguewide for their predicament, a sentiment born from years of triumph mixed with more than a dose of institutional arrogance. They went to the Board of Governors meeting in the fall of 1993, months after Lewis died, and asked that the league consider some kind of move that would give the team salary cap relief. The motion never even got a second.
Gavitt said he remembered being approached by Suns boss Jerry Colangelo after the failed move and was told not to take it personally.
``This isn't about you," Gavitt recalled being told by Colangelo. ``This is about cigar smoke from all those years. This is about Red, not green."
You can make an argument that the last serious championship-level team came in Gavitt's first season, 1990-91. The team started out 29-5 and Chris Ford was the All-Star coach. But then Bird hurt his back at practice and nothing was quite the same. The team won 56 games, advanced to the second round, but lost to the Pistons in six.
What plagued Gavitt as much as anything was the dreaded salary cap. The Celtics had overpaid to keep their stars. But under the rules of the time, if they were traded, it would only be for a fraction of what the player earned. The same was true if the player retired.
``We literally had no wiggle room," said Gavitt, who did have success in the draft with Brown and Rick Fox (1991).
But after Lewis died, Gavitt decided that it was time for the Celtics to take a step or two backward to move forward.
``I thought we had to suck it up and lose a little bit," said Gavitt. ``The owner didn't want to do that." Carr replaced him as director of basketball operations.
Carr convinced ownership and Auerbach to essentially tank the 1996-97 season, which would give the Celtics a legitimate shot at drafting Tim Duncan. It was unprecedented and unCeltic, and Carr, who coached and ran the basketball operations, took many hits along the way.
``It was a very trying season," he said. ``The coach in me was trying to beat Michael Jordan while the GM in me thought that Nate Driggers and Brett Szabo would be fine."
Carr stops short of saying he intentionally tried to lose. Sort of.
``I wasn't trying to lose," he said. ``I never increased the talent so we could win. It didn't make any sense."
Brown was on that team and said it was incredibly frustrating because the players wondered what on earth was happening.
``We had no direction," said Brown. ``We were a laughingstock. And we had six guys on that team who didn't even get invitations to veterans camp the next year."
All by design. Not only did the Celtics finish with a 15-67 record, they went into the lottery with a 36 percent chance at the first pick. (Atlanta had a 25 percent chance this year.) They had their own chance plus that of Dallas. Additionally, Vancouver, with the worst record, was prohibited from having the No. 1 overall pick. It was a perfect storm.
Then came the drawing, and the Celtics were crushed. They got the third and sixth picks. Pitino, only recently put in charge, called Carr, who had represented the Celtics at the drawing, and told him to offer the Spurs, who had won, anything for Duncan.
``He'd have had to offer the State House, the John Hancock Building, and the tolls from the Mass. Turnpike," said Carr. ``And that might still have not gotten it done. That told me right there he didn't know what he was doing."
Pitino has since owned up to being too impatient and not letting his talent develop. His miscues were numerous, from the needless signing of Travis Knight (at the expense of Fox and David Wesley) to the ridiculous trading of a 1999 lottery pick for Vitaly Potapenko. Papile said recently that Pitino also would have made the deal for Scottie Pippen in 1997 for the team's two lottery picks, but that Bulls GM Jerry Krause ``left us at the altar. But yes, we would have done it."
But Pitino also was dead-on about Dirk Nowitzki (he cracked open a bottle of wine on the night of the 1998 draft, certain he was going to land Nowitzki). He drafted Paul Pierce, which, while many see now as a no-brainer, prompted Papile to wonder, ``Does that mean Larry Brown doesn't have a brain? He passed on Paul for Larry Hughes." Pitino saw enough of Knight after one year to trade him -- for Tony Battie. But he also failed to understand he wasn't in college anymore.
``He was as good a guy at X's and O's as I've ever seen," Brown said. ``But he was a terrible communicator. You just don't speak to people like he did."
Eventually, he was his own worst enemy. He promised he would leave during the 2001-02 season, his fourth, if matters did not improve. The players stopped playing for him and stopped listening to him, and matters did not improve. He left $22 million on the table. And the next two years, with his longtime lieutenant, Jim O'Brien, coaching the team, the Celtics went to the conference finals and conference semifinals with many of the same players Pitino had brought in.
They drafted Joe Johnson at No. 10, a junior college athletic specimen named Kedrick Brown at 11, and Joseph Forte at 21. Only Johnson is in the NBA, and he was dealt to Phoenix at the trading deadline of his rookie year. (Curiously, the Suns would have taken Brown instead of Johnson in the deal.) Wallace lobbied hard for a French point guard named Tony Parker at No. 21, but others, including Auerbach, pushed harder for Forte and prevailed.
``You look back now," said Papile, ``and if we draft Parker and we don't trade for Vitaly and use that No. 1 on Shawn Marion, I'm not so sure we wouldn't have been playing into June."
The 2001-02 team, helped by the Johnson trade, went to the conference finals. It was basically a three-month resurgence because Gaston refused to re-sign Rodney Rogers, who had come over in the deal and played a huge role.
Wallace and Papile tried to replace Rogers with Vin Baker. That proved to be disastrous. The team had an idea of Baker's drinking problems, even going so far as having someone live with him. Only briefly, after coming out of rehab in 2003, did Baker show anything.
``That one, I wish it could have been done over again," Papile said. ``But here's what's more amazing. Since he left us, he has gotten three more contracts."
He did, indeed, with New York, Houston, and the Clippers. But he also was making more than $5 million from the Celtics for not playing for them.
That was part of what Ainge inherited in 2003 and part of what he says he is still trying to fix.
Between their first championship and their last, the Celtics never went more than five years without winning it all. By their lofty standards, what has transpired since championship No. 16 constitutes a drought of biblical proportions.