Superbowl 52 doesn’t need to be explained apart from a lot of fans believe that it was the end of the New England Patriots 17-year stranglehold on the National Football League. Fans also thought it was over after the Patriots got annihilated by the Baltimore Ravens at the end of the 2009 season but head coach Bill Belichick found a way to extend the dynasty almost another full decade. The Boston Celtics had a 30-year stranglehold on the National Basketball Association but it didn’t come to a crashing halt, oh no. When the New York Yankees dynasty ended, they won the American League pennant in 1964 but were in last place by 1966. The Chicago Bulls won 6 championships between 1991 and 1998 and went splat in 1999. The Celtics dynasty ending was like slowly running out of gas on the highway so your speed drops from 90…80…70…60…etc. So what happened? Well, A LOT. Mostly it was unavoidable but a lot of tragic events and dumb decisions turned the greatest franchise in NBA history to the league’s laughingstock in 1997.
Without going into an in-depth chronicle of the Celtics, I’ll be brief. Owner Walter Brown had four miserable seasons from 1947-50 before he hired Red Auerbach as coach and general manager after the 1950 season. Red transformed the team into a contender by adding men such as Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey and others. Things came together in 1957 when Red drafted Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn (yes. THAT Heinsohn) and KC Jones in the same draft. The Celtics proceeded to win 11 of the next 13 world titles by having superstars, great role players and shrewd drafting by Red. In the 1970’s the production line continued with two more titles before the Kentucky Fried Idiot ruined it. Red outlasted the idiotic John Y Brown and proceeded to put the Celtics of the 1980’s together. By 1984 the Celtics had Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, Gerald Henderson and Dennis Johnson with good bench help in Kevin McHale, Scott Wedman, Danny Ainge, ML Carr and Quinn Buckner. Carlos Clark and Greg Kite filled out the roster but this group had one of the greatest NBA Finals series of all time with the LA Lakers. The beginning of the end of the dynasty can be traced to one moment which was a trade that occurred on October 16, 1984.
During the 1984 season it was becoming clear that either Gerald Henderson or Danny Ainge had to go. Not that they didn’t get along but they were both the same player. It would be unfair to have one rot on the bench in favor of the other so one of them had to go for more help against the Lakers in the future. On October 16, 1984 Auerbach made his choice but in the worst way possible. Gerald Henderson was shipped off to the Seattle Supersonics for a 1st round pick not in the 85 draft, but a year later in 1986. Red said his reason was Gerald came to training camp out of shape which was so cockamamie it wasn’t even funny. Gerald saved the Celtics bacon in 84 and was always in shape, for whatever reason Red didn’t want to say he felt Ainge had more upside. With Gerald gone and Maxwell battling injuries, the 1985 bench didn’t have the same depth the 1984 team had and the Lakers got their revenge by winning the 85 Finals on the Garden floor. Red made two more trades following the 85 season but this one actually worked out. Red never forgave Maxwell for not coming back the same player in the 85 playoffs so he shipped him to the Los Angeles Clippers for the often injured “6’11” center Bill Walton. The other was shipping the beefy Buckner to the Indians Pacers for shooter Jerry Sichting.
The 1986 Celtics have been considered one of the greatest teams of all time and with good reason. In the height of the NBA’s popularity with Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, the Celtics were the best team. The starting 5 of Bird, Parish, Ainge, McHale and Johnson were arguably the best in the league and the bench of Walton, Wedman, Sichting, Kite, David Thirdkill, Rick Carlisle and rookie Sam Vincent was capable of handling the load. The only reason this team didn’t win 70 games were miracles and just plain boredom. The New Jersey Nets won the first game on a buzzer beater and Larry Bird famously scored 50 in Dallas because he wanted to see if he could win a game by himself….he didn’t, the Mavericks won. Either way they were 67-15 and blitzed through the playoffs, losing just a single game in the second round on their way to the NBA Finals. A lot of old timers felt the Lakers tanked their 86 West Finals series with the Houston Rockets out of fear of being embarrassed by the Celtics, but nevertheless it was Houston who had to face the juggernaut in the 86 Finals. As expected, the Celtics wiped the floor with the Rockets, winning in 6 games to claim their 16th world championship in 30 years. On June 8, 1986 the Celtics were 16 time champions, had the best team and even more good news. Remember the trade of Henderson to Seattle? Seattle went 31-51 as Jack Sikma, Gerald, Tom Chambers, Ricky Sobers, Xavier McDaniel and Frank Brickowski just couldn’t gel and their pick ended up in the lottery. The lottery gave the Cleveland Cavaliers the 1st overall pick (surprise, surprise) but the Celtics ended up with the number 2 pick. Red was delighted because he already knew who he was going to take. Maryland forward Len Bias had been on Red’s radar since he was a freshman due to Red’s influence and allies in the DC era. Lefty Dreisel, Maryland’s coach, was a friend of Red and always told him that Len was gonna be great. His senior year he went head to head with North Carolina’s senior center Brad Daugherty and came out on top more often than not. The consensus was Daugherty was the most NBA ready but Bias was the best pure athlete available. Lefty said he saw Michael Jordan at UNC and told Red that Bias was just as good. On June 17th the NBA draft commenced where the Cavaliers took Daugherty and the Celtics cheerfully chose Len Bias. The Celtics had just won the world championship with Bird, Parish and McHale still in their primes with the next superstar on its way. Bias coming off the bench would spell Bird, Parish, McHale and even Walton. What could go wrong?
The answer to what could go wrong was an absolute tragic travesty. After Bias went to a Reebok party with Danny Ainge, he decided to back to his dorm to have a little party with his friends. The party proved fatal as Bias snorted a particularly nasty type of cocaine that killed him. If trading Gerald Henderson was the beginning of the end, this was like cutting the fuel line on the highway car. Just like that the next superstar was gone and in the ultimate kick in the ass, the Celtics had to pay his salary cap hit and get NO compensation. Red had “retired” as general manager at the end of the 1984 season but it was still him calling the shots and for once a deal blew up in his face. He tried to scramble to get bench help by signing Darren Daye and Fred Roberts but neither one of them had the potential or skill Bias had. The 1987 season went bad right from the start during training camp. Bill Walton was practicing with Parish and ended up breaking his pinky finger. While recovering he was riding his exercise bike for 8 HOURS at a time. He wore down his foot before the season even started and it ended up breaking during exhibition season. Walton would be out until March but he wasn’t the only one missing. 6 games into the regular season Scott Wedman’s heels gave out and he never played again. That’s no exaggeration, Wedman never played in the NBA again. With Walton and Wedman out, the Celtics starters had to play more than they should have and the received an even worse blow in a late March game with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Larry Nance stepped on McHale’s foot and broke it, although the Celtics team doctor couldn’t find it. For the next few weeks McHale was playing in immense pain but the doctors were telling him he was fine. Finally in Game 2 of the first round playoff series against the Bulls, his foot gave out. Fed up with the Boston doctors, he went to the Chicago doctors for a very good reason. Superstar Michael Jordan had the exact same injury to his foot in 1986 so Chicago’s doctor knew what he was looking for. Sure enough, McHale suffered a fractured navicular bone in his foot. McHale had a choice to continue playing or shut it down. The loss of Bias reared its head as if they had him and he was good as he was supposed to be, Red could have sat McHale down and said “Shut it down, we got this.” McHale sat out a few games as Bill Walton stepped in and helped the Celtics sweep the Bulls in Game 3 and then help win Game 1 at the Boston Garden against the Milwaukee Bucks. McHale said screw it and he was gonna play, and unfortunately its a good thing he did because after the Celtics win in Game 2, Walton re-broke his foot in practice. The Celtics survived the 7 game set with Milwaukee but Parish sprained his ankle in Game 5 and Ainge sprained his knee in Game 7. They walked into Detroit in the East Finals hobbled yet managed to win a hard fought 7 game series to earn a rubber match showdown with the Lakers. With McHale on a fractured foot, Walton and Wedman done, Ainge with a bad knee and Parish with a bad ankle, the Lakers feasted on the Celtics and won the 87 Finals in 6 games.
The Celtics scored in the 1987 draft but didn’t at the same time. They drafted Reggie Lewis out of Northeastern University but Celtics coach KC Jones barely played him. The foot injury robbed McHale of the first month of the 1987-88 season and once again, without Bias, Walton and Wedman bench strength was all but useless. Going into the 1988 playoffs the Celtics had won 57 games but this time it was Bird’s heel that was bothering him. McHale was never the same after the foot fracture and DJ was getting slower every year. They wiped out the New York Knicks in the first round but once again should have lost in the second round when the Atlanta Hawks won 3 straight games including Game 5 in the Garden to take a 3-2 series lead. At that point the Celtics bench was 97 year old Artis Gilmore, Dirk Minnifield, Brad Lohaus, Marc Acres and Fred Roberts. Somehow the Celtics won Game 6 in Atlanta and Bird outdueled Wilkins in Game 7 to advance to the East Finals. This time the much younger, hungrier and improved Detroit Pistons pounced on the old Celtics and defeated them in 6 games to head to the NBA Finals against the LA Lakers. One of the reasons why was KC refusing to play Reggie. When Jones was a rookie, he was told to shut up and learn from the bench and that was his mentality when Reggie was a rookie. It cost the Celtics dearly and Auerbach knew it. Rather than outright firing him after his many years of service as player and coach, he whispered in his ear to “retire” to let assistant Jimmy Rodgers coach the team moving forward.
The pattern developing was they simply couldn’t fleece the league anymore for the players they needed. No longer could they trade a Brad Lohaus for a Clyde Drexler or trade a Dirk Minnifield for a 1st round pick. The Celtics knew DJ wouldn’t last much longer so they drafted guard Brian Shaw in the first round of the 1988 draft. The 1989 season with Jimmy Rodgers as coach was over before it almost began when they lost Larry Bird himself. Larry’s heel had deteriorated so bad during the 1988 season he overcompensated on his other foot rather than get surgery like Wedman had to. As a result, his other heel gave out and he went into the 1989 season with two bad heels. 6 games into it, he was done with double heel surgery. The 1989 season ended up being a wash but a few things went right that could help the future. With KC Jones out of the picture, Reggie Lewis was let off the leash and he did not disappoint. Reggie averaged 18.5 games as fans retroactively got angry at KC for leaving him to rot on the bench as the Pistons ran over the tired starters in Game’s 5 and 6 in the 88 East Finals. Also the Celtics signed guard Kevin Gamble out of the CBA and he turned into a good role player. Needing front court help, general manager Jan Volk unloaded Danny Ainge and Lohaus to Sacremento for center Joe Kleine and 1985 NCAA hero Ed Pinckney. If Bias didn’t die, there would have been no need to trade Ainge who still had a good 5 years left in the league. As it was, the team faltered as internal squabbles began to develop. Jerry Sichting was traded for Jim Paxson (no, not John) and Paxson didn’t particularly care for DJ’s walk the ball up style. Rodgers promised a different coaching philosophy but still kept the half court game which didn’t mesh well with Pinckney, Lewis and Gamble who could run. Good news appeared on the horizon when it was announced Larry Bird would be ready for the second round. Volk was so excited he cut 12th man Ronnie Grandison to clear a spot for Larry. There was only one problem, their 42-40 regular season record gave them the 8th seed in an unusually balanced Eastern Conference meaning they had to play the Pistons in the first round. Naturally the Pistons swept the Celtics and moved on to win the NBA title. Had they won just 5 more regular season games, they would have played the Knicks and who knows what would have happened.
So 3 years after winning 67 games and the NBA title, the Celtics won 42 and were swept out of the first round. Time to rebuild right? Absolutely….only they screwed up. If losing Walton, Wedman and Bias along with the injuries to McHale and Bird weren’t enough, another final nail in the coffin was the 1989 draft. The Celtics felt that Robert Parish had one or two good years left (wrong) and thought they were all set at point guard with Shaw and Johnson. Red always liked big men so with the 14th pick in the 1989 draft, they selected Michael Smith of BYU…….yeah. Smith was such a stiff he was gone in under 2 years and look who was left on the board. The very next pick the Golden State Warriors selected all-star point guard Tim Hardaway. Seattle not only took the REAL big man the Celtics needed in Shawn Kemp, but took the guard as well in Dana Barros. The Chicago Bulls drafted future all-star BJ Armstrong and The Los Angeles Lakers drafted future all-star center Vlade Divac. Hell the Portland Trail Blazers scored in the second round when they picked up Clifford Robinson. Any one of these guys could have helped the Celtics future rebuild. To make matters worse, in August of 1989 Brian Shaw shocked the world by leaving the Celtics to play pro ball in Italy. So let’s look at the drafting of the Celtics. Len Bias never played after being chosen in 86, Lewis finally broke out in 89, Shaw left after just one year and Smith sucked. That’s essentially three wasted draft picks and the real reason the Celtics ran into the ground. By 1990 the internal squabble tore the team apart. DJ was on his last legs, Bird wasn’t the same after double heel surgery and McHale was installed as 6th man to spell his aching feet. The Celtics signed portly guard John Bagley to replace Shaw but didn’t have the same zip Shaw did. What helped kill the 1990 team was coach Jimmy Rodgers not being able to settle on the style of play. DJ and Bird wanted the half court offense they had been running for 10 years while Lewis, Gamble, Pinckney and Paxson wanted to push it up. Faction went against faction and even though the Celtics won 50 games, they were not a team united. Things looked good when they won the first two games of their opening round playoff series with the New York Knicks, but suddenly completely collapsed, losing their final 3 games. It was one of the most embarrassing collapses in team history and Rodgers took the blame. He was shown the door as was one of his assistants.
That was it for the dynasty right? Nope, for once they got it right in the 1990 off-season. Chris Ford had been on the 1981 championship team and was an assistant coach on the 84 and 86 teams so the veterans respected him. He was the choice to replace Rodgers and the first thing he did was draft dynamic guard Dee Brown. Not only did they draft Brown, Brian Shaw was coming back to replace the retired Dennis Johnson. Now with Gamble, Lewis, Shaw, Pinckney and Brown, Ford said they were going to push it up this season. Then to show who was boss he said in a team meeting “This is how its gonna go….right Larry?” Larry replied “(Expletive) you Doc!” but he sure as hell didn’t complain when the Celtics started blowing the doors off the NBA early in the 1990-91 season. The Celtics wiped the floor with both the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons on their way to a 29-5 start. Fans were speculating if the “Zip Boys” (Gamble, Pinckney, Brown, Shaw and Lewis) would be enough to support Bird, Parish and McHale past the Pistons, Bulls and Lakers for a championship. It looked like it as the Celtics owned a 39-12 record on February 17, but then the wheels fell off. McHale’s foot began to act up and a back injury Bird suffered in the 1985 off-season reared its ugly head. This wasn’t normal back spasms, this was Bird spending the night in traction at Mass General bad. The Celtics played just over .500 with a crippled Bird and hobbled McHale the rest of the way and finished with a 56-26 record, good for the 2nd seed in the East behind Chicago. In the playoffs the depleted Bird pulled himself together to help the Celtics survive a scary first round series with the Indiana Pacers to move to a showdown with their rival Detroit Pistons. It looked like the Celtics had finally conquered their rivals when they won Game 2 in the Garden and 3 in the Silverdome by 32 points to take a 2-1 series lead. Then as if Bird nearly crippled and McHale hobbled wasn’t bad enough, Parish managed to sprain both ankles in a Game 4 loss. Game 5 in Boston should have gone to the Celtics but a blown offensive goaltending call led to a Pistons victory. The end came without Robert Parish when the Pistons won Game 6 in OT to end what should have been their renaissance season.
Believe it or not the 1992 season ended one game better. Their first round draft pick Rick Fox proved to be a good little role player but the 92 season went bad from the start when not only Dee Brown, but Brian Shaw both suffered long term injuries which led to John Bagley being the starting point guard for most of the season. When Shaw returned he was treated to a chorus of boos. One of the main reasons the Celtics lost to the Pistons was Shaw played horribly in the Detroit season. Combined with leaving the team in 1990, Celtics fans never forgave him. On January 10, 1992 the Celtics traded Shaw to the Miami Heat for Sherman Douglas. Sherm was more of a classic point guard but didn’t have the raw talent that Shaw had. Once again Bird hurt his back and it was clear McHale and Parish were beginning to show their age. Reggie Lewis had developed into a star and Gamble, Pinckney and Brown continued to zip it up so there were positives, but the Celtics stumbled to a 36-30 record on March 17. Then suddenly the Celtics got red hot without Bird. They won 15 out of 16 games to close the year 51-31 to win the Atlantic Division and the third seed. Not only that, after going 5 games with Indiana in 91, the Celtics swept the Pacers in the first round in 92. Their second round opponents would be ironically Brad Daugherty and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Daugherty had turned into the star everyone expected him to be and it would only be fair to assume Len Bias would have been right there on the opposite side for the Celtics. The Cavs routed the Celtics in Game 1 but Boston took Game 2 in Cleveland and Game 3 in Boston to once again give hope the third round was possible. Even better, Larry Bird was ready to play Game 4 after being out for over a month. The Celtics had a chance to win at the buzzer in regulation which would have put them up 3-1 in the series but Lewis missed a shot. The Cavs won in overtime and then routed the Celtics in Cleveland. Bird gathered himself to start Game 6 and the old veteran guided the Celtics to a 31 point rout to send the series to a decisive game 7. It was decisive all right, Cleveland flat out kicked their ass. Daughtery, Mark Price and the Cavs couldn’t miss and ran away with a 122-104 victory.
That was it for Larry Bird who announced his retirement on August 19, 1992. He left the fans with one last happy memory. Celtics vice President Dave Gavitt offered a champagne toast around the room to end the ceremony and Larry quipped “How bout a beer?” The Celtics first round pick in the 92 draft was Rick Barry’s son Jon. No doubt listening to his father bitterly claim how evil the Celtics are since birth, Jon had no desire to play here. Barry was traded for Alaa Abdelnaby which certainly didn’t help future plans. The 1993 Celtics without Bird were just plain…plain. Lewis was still the man but Gamble, Pinckney, McHale and Parish all regressed. The Celtics replaced Bird with Xavier McDaniel, who was Seattle’s star of the late 80’s but he too was past his prime. Sherm Douglas was about as exciting as a glass of water and Dee Brown couldn’t stay healthy. Rick Fox wasn’t developing into the star the Celtics had hoped and the Celtics were trotting out absolute nobodies during the 93 season. Remember Joe Wolf, Bart Kofoed, Kenny Battle, Marcus Webb and Lorenzo Williams? Of course not. The true end of the dynasty occurred in Game 1 of the 1993 playoffs. The Celtics managed a paltry 48-34 record, 19 fewer wins than 7 years earlier. The Celtics were battling with the Charlotte Hornets in the Garden when suddenly Reggie Lewis fell to the floor in the first quarter for what seemed to be no reason. He mysteriously was out the rest of the first half but returned for the third quarter. The Celtics won 112-101 but something was terribly wrong when once the doctors got a look at him, he was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs. Not surprising, the Hornets won the next 3 games (Game $ on a now famous buzzer-beater) to eliminate the Celtics. Kevin McHale retired at the end of the season but strangely he was an afterthought after 13 years of service due to the ongoing Lewis drama. It was revealed that Lewis was suffering from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which in regular terms means he had a bad heart condition. The best doctors in the world pretty much said Lewis had to retire and be put on a defibrillator the rest of his life. Things got stranger as Lewis called a press conference and brought out Dr. Gilbert Mudge….who looked like a mudge. Anyway this guy came out on national television and said Reggie’s fine and he’ll be ready for the start of the 1993-94 season. Boston Globe journalist Jackie MacMullan was as confused as everyone else and knew something was up. You don’t have a group of heart specialists say you have a fatal heart condition and then have someone else say “nahhh he’s fine”. Sure enough, Reggie was shooting hoops at Northeasten University on July 27 when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Its been 25 years and I don’t think Dr. Mudge has shown his face in Boston outside of a courtroom ever again. If losing McHale was expected, losing Reggie was not. Some fans say this was far worse than Len Bias dying because you never saw Len play whereas Reggie had developed into a star before everyone’s eyes.
The Celtics as a franchise has never truly recovered. The Celtics sank like the Titanic in the 1994 season and didn’t have a winning record until 2002. Chance after chance to draft the next Celtic great came and went as one bad decision led to another. The Celtics drafted Acie Earl in the 1993 draft with Corie Blount still on the table. Eric Montross was drafted in 1994 with Eddie Jones still available and Eric Williams was drafted in 1995 with Theo Ratliff and Michael Finley (ironically both played for the Celtics well past their primes) on the table. Jan Volk gave way to Dave Gavitt. Gavitt gave way to ML Carr and Carr gave way to Rick Pitino. None of which knew what they were doing and it starts up top. If the general manager doesn’t know what he’s doing, the coach and the players suffer. As I said earlier, the Celtics had an EIGHT year period without a winning record and it all stemmed from the death of Len Bias which also stemmed for the cockamamie trade of Gerald Henderson. The Yankees and the Bulls went splat but the Celtics went put-put-put-put…..put….put…….put…kaput. Even though Danny Ainge turned the franchise around once he took over in 2004 to put the Celtics back on top in 2008, the dynasty never returned. He has a real chance now with Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier gunning for a title in 2019, but nothing will compare to the 30 year reign of terror the Celtics had on the NBA….or the 7 year reign of error that followed.