LOS ANGELES - The 1986 Celtics were possibly the best basketball team ever. Stocked with four Hall of Famers, they won 50 of 51 home games, hung a 16th banner for the Garden rafters, and drafted a young man considered by many to be the top college player in the country.
Red Auerbach's smoldering cigar was Boston sport's eternal flame, and men in black high-tops ruled the hardwood world. Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale were in their primes, and Maryland All-American Len Bias was ready to carry the torch into the 21st century. It looked like the Celtics might run out of space for championship flags on the Garden's dusty ceiling.
No. Bias died of cocaine intoxication two days after the '86 NBA draft and it has taken the Celtics more than two decades to get back to where they once belonged.
Tonight, the Celtics can win their first championship in 22 years with a victory over the Lakers in the Staples Center. An entire generation has grown up with no memory of Celtic greatness. Lakers guard Jordan Farmar was born six months after Len Bias was buried.
The Patriots and Red Sox in this century have made trophy-hoistings routine events in Boston. Duck Boat tires are bald from toting David Ortiz and Richard Seymour up and down Boylston Street. Young Celtic fans might think the New Three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett are destined to rain confetti on the Hub again next June and the year after that.
But it doesn't work that way in today's NBA. Championship moments must be savored. One never knows when the next opportunity will come around. To think otherwise is to tempt the gods.
The late Alan Cohen, part-owner of the Celtics during the golden days of the '80s, understood. He wrote a letter to then-general manager Jan Volk after Bias died in '86, warning of the sin of hubris. Cohen reminded Volk that it was important to remain humble. Just when you think you're invincible, somebody can come along and tear down your house.
"It was his way of trying to make us understand that these things do happen," recalled Volk, who left the team in 1997. "If you don't appreciate what you have, it can all be gone. Things unraveled very quickly after Len Bias's death. We had some bad luck."
It's an understatement.
Reggie Lewis - drafted one year after Bias - blossomed into an All-Star, then dropped dead of cardiomyopathy in 1993. McHale broke a bone in his foot. Bill Walton broke a foot and would play only 10 more games. Dave Gavitt came on board as CEO and failed.
The old Garden was torn down, and Celtic pride and mystique seemed lost in the rubble. M.L. Carr's "championship-driven" team went 15-67 in 1996-97. Introduced as a savior in '97, Rick Pitino stripped Auerbach of the team presidency and resigned after four years of failure. The Celtics gave up on young players Chauncey Billups and Joe Johnson.
There was the Vin Baker debacle, when millions of dollars were wasted on a washed-up player in need of alcohol rehabilitation. Respected coach Jim O'Brien resigned in midseason of 2003-04. The Celtics twice positioned themselves for top lottery picks, only to come away without Tim Duncan or Greg Oden. There were short springs with no playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Patriots and Red Sox started winning championships and Boston's most storied franchise teetered on the brink of irrelevancy.
"We had a lot of good fortune back in the old days," acknowledged Bob Cousy, the first great Celtic and a man with six championship rings. "We were good. But we were also lucky. In order to win as much as we won, you have to get a number of breaks, and we always seemed to be on the right end of those breaks. Then it all went away.
"I agree with people who trace it back to the Bias thing. From that day on, I can't think of any deal they made, or any draft choice they made that went in their favor. Twenty-two years. Nothing, nothing, nothing. It was just bad karma all around."
The current Celtics owner, Wyc Grousbeck, was in his third year of law school at Michigan in 1986.
"I was in school with some guys who had gone to Maryland and we watched the ACC all year," said Grousbeck. "We all figured the Celtics were all set. It was a huge moment."
The string of snake eyes was still alive at this time last year. Auerbach died on the eve of the 2006-07 season, and the Celtics endured an 18-game losing streak en route to a 24-58 record. With franchise players Oden and Kevin Durant available, many Boston fans rooted for losses to increase the Celtics' odds of getting a rookie star. But the Secaucus ping-pong balls bounced the wrong way again and the Celtics got the lowest selection possible.
The rest, as they say, is history. In the proud tradition of Auerbach, GM Danny Ainge overhauled his roster without much help from the draft. He dumped the No. 5 pick and came up with Allen. Then he cut a deal with old pal McHale and brought Garnett on board in exchange for half the Celtics roster and a bag of Grousbeck's cash.
Then he went out and acquired role players named James Posey and Eddie House - men who stood tall in Boston's historic comeback victory in Game 4 Thursday night. Ainge added P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell after the All-Star break. The GM also committed to coach Doc Rivers, a much-maligned strategist who had never won a playoff series.
And here they are. One game away. No NBA team has ever lost a Finals in which it held a 3-1 lead.
"I don't want to celebrate too much today," said Grousbeck. "I would say this: Boston deserves championship teams. The fans of Boston deserve teams that are in the Finals, and our idea is to have a 20-year run where we can at least be contenders."
Just like in the old days. Before everything changed.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.