Traditional four-year anniversary gifts run the gamut from fruit and flowers to blue topaz. But as the Celtics owners approach the four-year anniversary of their agreement to purchase the team for $360 million, the only gift that interests them is a championship ring.
Despite missing the playoffs last season and watching the team compile a 139-158 record during his official time as co-owner, CEO Wyc Grousbeck sounds more patient and optimistic than in years past. If nothing else, he has learned how to weather the inevitable ups and downs of NBA ownership, especially as the Celtics think long-term in a town that always wants to win now.
``Any year we don't get to the Finals is disappointing to some degree, and not making the playoffs last year was extremely disappointing," Grousbeck said. ``But we will patiently build and invest because we are fans first and foremost and want to compete at that level every year."
Asked about the biggest challenge of owning the Celtics, Grousbeck said, ``The patience to go `young and athletic,' which is a multiyear process. But the roster we inherited did not have championship upside potential, so we had to go younger and invest long-term."
Of the players on the roster when Grousbeck and his group took over, only Paul Pierce remains. There has also been dramatic turnover on the business side and in basketball operations, from the resignation of coach Jim O'Brien to the hiring of executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Although Grousbeck declined to address whether another disappointing season would prompt more changes, he clearly trusts Ainge on all basketball matters. When it came to questions about fan interest and free agency, Grousbeck referred to the counsel given by Ainge.
Asked about the perception that the Celtics were losing ground when it came to the interest of the average Boston fan, Grousbeck mentioned that the Celtics sold out their final 14 home games last season and ``will sell out even more this year, we expect." (Keep in mind, though, six of those games featured gate attractions Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia, and the Lakers. Plus, two other contests were makeup dates for the February blizzard.)
Part of the plan for attracting more fans is supplementing the show on the court with peripheral entertainment such as dancers. Some fans have questioned whether a more direct investment in the team might be better.
``Fans are voting with their feet, and we thank them for coming to see their team," Grousbeck said. ``With the hiring of Danny, Doc [Rivers], overall growth of the basketball operations staff, the 17 roster players, the long-term re-signing of our captain, Paul Pierce, we are investing in the team heavily and, we think, intelligently. As Danny has said, we will spend to win and spend to get us `over the top' when we get close.
``I also hear from fans on a daily basis, as does our season ticket department, and I am 100 percent confident in what we do with our game entertainment. We survey our fan base consistently and are constantly tweaking what works and what doesn't. Everyone has more fun when we win, including me."
Added Ainge, ``The feedback I get is both [sides]. There are fans that want to snap their fingers and get back to the '80s and there are fans more willing to be patient. I don't think fans are fading away into Celtics oblivion. When people see the basketball team, they'll like what they see."
And that could include free agents in the future. While the Celtics don't have money available to attract marquee free agents and are unwilling to trade young talent, big-name players remain interested in them, according to Grousbeck and Ainge.
``Danny Ainge told me [Friday] morning he has never seen this kind of interest from free agents in coming here," Grousbeck said. ``We have a first-class operation here in Boston. Our players that have come from other teams -- Wally Szczerbiak the most recent example -- will tell you they love the organization and the way they are treated.
``Bottom line is that NBA players want to win, and that is what we are building here. Winning is the allure, and we are getting closer."
Added Ainge, ``We're choosing to use the draft and trades instead of bidding wars with other teams over free agents. But we'll continue to look at free agents, too. It's a tool to build a team. But just like trades, they have to be the right deal for us."
If that is indeed the case, then the Celtics may have a special player in rookie Rajon Rondo.
When they acquired the long-armed, 6-foot-1-inch, 175-pound point guard in a draft-night deal with the Suns, no one questioned his defensive ability. It was his offense that raised concerns. Rondo struggled with his jumper at Kentucky, leading many pundits to describe his shooting as ``shaky," ``suspect," and ``inconsistent." It might have been the primary reason Rondo slipped to No. 21.
Rondo might silence his critics this season. During summer workouts in Chicago with Tim Grover and back home in Louisville, Rondo has focused almost exclusively on shooting. In Chicago, he estimates, he spent almost 2 1/2 hours a day on shooting drills, with 45 minutes devoted to individual work.
``I want to knock down the open shot, be comfortable shooting the ball, and be able to shoot it without hesitating," Rondo said. ``I've been working on everywhere. I like the pull-up a lot. So I'm working on that off the dribble and spot-up threes. I haven't really changed my form. [Shots] are going in and I'm just more confident. The more I see the ball go in, the more comfortable I am."
To get more comfortable with his new team and new town, Rondo will arrive in Boston Tuesday. He eagerly awaits the start of training camp, looking forward to the competition with Sebastian Telfair and Delonte West for playing time at point guard.
He's coming in early, he said, ``to get a head start. I'm excited to get it going. [The point guard spot] is wide open, I believe. I've just got to go in and prove it."