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It's back to the future for the Celtics

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / May 31, 2008

The last time the Celtics were in the NBA Finals, Ronald Reagan was president, you could fill your gas tank for something less than a monthly mortgage payment, the Soviet Union, not the baseball team that plays in the Bronx, was considered the evil empire, people actually listened to ABBA, and at least one of the Three Stooges was still alive.

That's a long time ago.

Oh, and another thing: Johnny Most, the legendary Celtics play-by-play man, who smoked as many cigarettes as Bill Russell blocked shots, was alive, and if he was alive last night he would have screamed himself hoarse, shouting: POSEY STOLE THE BALL!

Arnold "Red" Auerbach, the soul of the Celtics, was still alive back then, too, and I wish he had lived two more years, because then Red could have been there last night to see history repeat itself in an extraordinary way. He would have seen the Celtics get back to glory road, the road to glory in the NBA Finals, doing something he did 44 years ago.

If you are under the age of 30, you probably have no idea what everybody's talking about today. If you are under 30, you probably think of the Celtics as just another plodding NBA team, making its money off luxury suites and merchandise, resorting to pole dancers and acrobats during timeouts to keep the interest of those more interested in a Stella Artois than a backdoor pick.

But there was a time, in this town, when tall men were known by simple names: Larry, DJ, and The Chief.

When the Bruins game was switched off, because there was only one TV in the bar, and the basketball game was put on, even in Southie.

When beating the Lakers was what you looked forward to because, unlike a World Series, there was ample evidence, 16 banners worth, hanging from the Garden rafters, that it was more than plausible, and because it would wipe that smirk of Jack Nicholson's face in the front row.

It's back to the future because those days are here again.

Now it's Ray, KG and The Truth.

Now the basketball game is being projected on three of the four flatscreens in the bar, with the Red Sox relegated to the fourth, the one in the corner you have to crane your neck to see.

Now beating the Lakers, wiping that smirk off Jack Nicholson's puss, is all that matters.


We have spent much of this year talking of the Celtics turnaround, the greatest change in win-loss ratio in NBA history. We have marveled at Kevin Garnett's infectious intensity, Ray Allen's similarly infectious work ethic, Paul Pierce's maturity, the emergence of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, the old pro class of late-season pickup P.J. Brown.

We have talked about all the important basketball touchpoints until we're blue in the face without paying much attention to the extraordinary social and cultural one: the Boston Celtics are an all-black team. Brian Scalabrine and Scot Pollard, two white guys, played very limited roles during the regular season. But Pollard's hurt and Scalabrine's invariably in street clothes. So the Celtics are, for all intents and purposes, an all-black team.

Think about that.

In 1987, when the Celtics last played for the NBA championship, loads of kids in the city's African-American neighborhoods wore Lakers jerseys. If you drove around Blue Hill Avenue or Dudley Street or Morton Street, you saw Laker purple and yellow, not Celtic green. Black kids identified with the Lakers more than the Celtics. They wanted to be Magic Johnson, not Larry Bird.

It was crazy, in one sense, because the Celtics history on race was the most progressive in the NBA, even if the city that the Celtics called home didn't exactly share those accolades nationwide. But the Lakers were Hollywood flash and, nerdy Kurt Rambis aside, extremely black, high socks and high fives.

Few know or appreciate the history. On the day after Christmas in 1964, Celtics coach Red Auerbach put out a starting five that consisted of Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders, Sam Jones, and Willie Naulls. It was a great moment in the civil rights movement, especially in a town like Boston, when for the first time an NBA starting lineup was made up of five black men. But Red wasn't looking to make history. Tommy Heinsohn usually started, but he was hurt, so when Red looked down the bench he selected Naulls, not because he was black, but because he was the best forward available.

Red drafted the first black player, Chuck Cooper in 1950, and in 1966 handpicked as his successor Russell, the NBA's first African-American head coach. Red made the issue of race relevant by treating people's race as irrelevant when judging them.

So, in that respect, the fact that the Celtics team that last night whooped up on the Detroit Pistons to earn a crack at the Lakers and a chance to add to their record 16 NBA championships is entirely black doesn't mean much.

But it does when measured against the 21 years that have passed since the last time the Celtics played for a championship. In 1987, when the Lakers beat the Celtics to take the title, Boston was just a decade removed from the turmoil of school desegregation, while it was a full four years before Rodney King's beating by L.A. cops would lead to riots. The O.J. Simpson saga didn't begin to unfold until 1994.

The Lakers team that will come to the Garden, 21 years after the fact, now looks a lot more like the 1987 Celtics than the 2008 Celtics do. The Lakers are mostly black, like all NBA teams, but they have a core of white players who play crucial roles, as the 1987 Celtics did.

This goes beyond the court. It's played out on the street. You might see an odd Kobe Bryant jersey in Roxbury, or North Dorchester, or Mattapan, these days. But nothing compared to the number of Pierce and Garnett jerseys. There may be a few more Posey jerseys out there from this day forward.

It's 40 years since Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated and American cities burned. Today, the Celtics are as black as the Chuck Taylor hightops the great Celtics teams of the 1960s used to wear.

I don't know what that means, but, in this town, it means something.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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