For the first time in 7 years the Boston Celtics are legitimate NBA title contenders going forward once they get healthy next season. The little engine that could Celtics of last year really had no chance against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the dying days of the New Big Three couldn’t keep up with the Miami Heat. Now, the Celtics appeared headed for the stratosphere. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge wheeled and dealed to assembled the talent he has to contend this year. He unloaded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to net them Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum through the draft and wheeled some of the guys they got for Pierce & Garnett to net Isaiah Thomas which brought Kyrie Irving to the Celtics. Add in free agents Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, things are looking like we may be headed to another dynasty in the making. Things are looking up….but what if they didn’t, though? What if Danny Ainge didn’t have a clue what he was doing? What if legendary Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach was still alive and Danny did everything he could to spit in his face? What if Danny made personnel moves that made no sense and made the situation worse? Once upon a time the Celtics faced that situation.
The Celtics had won the 1976 NBA Championship with a core of great players. Forward John Havlicek, guard Jo-Jo White, guard Charlie Scott, forward Paul Silas, center Dave Cowens, forward Don Nelson and role players such as Steve Kuberski, Kevin Stacom and Jim Ard helped the Celtics to their 13th world title. They were coached by Tom Heinsohn, himself a former Celtics player that was apart of 8 world championship teams. Above Heinsohn was the legendary Red Auerbach, the longtime coach and general manager that had been the architect of all 13 championships up to 1976. The only hole in the wall of this amazing franchise was the ownership situation. Walter Brown was the original owner from 1946 until his death on the eve of the 1964-65 season. His job was to pay the players and stay the heck out of Red’s way. He was generally regarded as one of the nicest men in the business….unless they lost, which didn’t happen frequently once Bill Russell came to town. When he died, the ownership changed hands SEVEN times in the next 10 years. By 1976, the owner was Irv Levin and he too was told to stay out of Red’s way. The Celtics had won 13 world championships in under 20 years (St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York twice, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Golden State were the only other teams to win in that span) but then things began to fall apart. It started in the aftermath of the ’76 Finals. Their top rebounder Paul Silas wanted a better contract after being one of the central figures for the previous two championships. The problem was Irv Levin didn’t want to pay him and Red Auerbach was stuck in the 50’s mindset that players should be happy just to wear the uniform. Unfortunately for Red and Irv, Silas was NOT of the 50’s mindset. The American Basketball Association (a story for another time) brought competition and higher salaries to pro basketball and Silas wanted to get paid for being one of the top rebounders. As it was, the Celtics ended up signing forward Sidney Wicks and trading Silas for Wicks’ college roommate Curtis Rowe. Rowe and Wicks were cheaper than Silas but the effect of the trade was devastating. The Celtics prided themselves on being a well oiled machine, which is how they won 13 championships to that point. Cowens and Silas get the rebounds, Havlicek, White and Scott do the scoring. The problem wasn’t that Wicks and Rowe were bad players (they weren’t), they broke the machine because they were scorers, not rebounders. Dave Cowens briefly quit the team during the 1976-77 season but came back to finish strong. The Celtics lost a tough seven game series to the Philadelphia Sixers because the Celtics didn’t have the depth or rebounding due to Irv/Red’s penny pinching.
The following year the Celtics signed future hall of fame guard Dave Bing as 6th man but the team fell apart. Rowe and Wicks were reported to not care if they lost, pointing at stat sheets after the game and high fiving. The 1977-78 Celtics had all-stars in Havlicek, Rowe, Wicks, Bing, Cowens, White and Scott as well as first round pick Cedric Maxwell but couldn’t mesh at all. The annual Christmas party that was usually jam packed only had White and Havlicek attending. Tom Heinsohn was fired in early January after the Celtics lost every game on a road trip, replaced by the passive Satch Sanders. He was a great player himself but in over his head as a head coach. Charlie Scott was traded but it turned out to be a great move as it revitalized the career of the disgraced Kermit Washington (another story later) and brought the Celtics a 1st round draft pick. At the end of the season, the Celtics finished 32-50 and out of the playoffs for the first time in 7 years. The final embarrassment was served to Irv Levin on the season’s final game. It was John Havlicek Night as he announced he was retiring. Red purposely had Irv be the emcee so the Boston Garden faithful could boo him out of the building, which they did. Red had a plan, however, he knew he screwed up with Silas so he had to make things right. Plus with Havlicek gone he now had to rebuild. He signed backup center Kevin Kunnert to spell Cowens who was breaking down due to his reckless style of play. Kermit Washington was an outstanding rebounder so he could fufill Silas’ role and former Celtic Don Chaney (picked up in the Scott trade) could reunite with White to become the back-court duo they once were. Then came the draft where the Celtics took the ultimate gamble that wouldn’t pay off for another year. They owned the 6th and 8 th pick of the draft and Red drafted Indiana State junior Larry Bird with the 6th pick knowing he wouldn’t be available for another year. He then took the NCAA scoring champion Freeman Williams out of Portland State with the 8th pick. Now, he had the proven tandem of White and Chaney in the backcourt with the best scorer in the country as 6th man. He had Wicks and Rowe to put up points with Washington and Cowens grabbing the rebounds, plus he had the backcourt duo that helped win the 1974 title. A year later Larry Bird would be on the way as well. What could go wrong? Enter John…Y…Brown.
John Y Brown did more harm to professional basketball than most anyone else. You can say Donald Sterling wrecked the LA Clippers but that was just one franchise. Brown destroyed THREE, count em’, three franchises in the span of 4 years. Brown was the owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, yes, KFC as we know it today. He was also the owner of the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, one of the top teams of the ABA. In 1976, the ABA merged with the NBA but Brown sold the Colonels down the river. Rather than pay the 3 million dollar posting fee to merge, he liquidated the Colonels and used the profits to buy the NBA’s Buffalo Braves. Brown then ruined the Braves by selling off their star players Bob McAdoo, Ernie DiGregorio and others to keep the franchise afloat. Then during the 1978 off-season, Brown convinced Irv Levin to swap franchises. In a move that has never happened again, John Y Brown became the owner of the Celtics and Irv Levin moved the Braves to San Diego and renamed them the Clippers (now in LA). If that wasn’t enough, players were swapped as well. Williams, Kunnert, Wicks, and Washington went to San Diego for Tiny Archibald, Billy Knight and Marvin Barnes. Tiny was the 1973 NBA MVP who was recovering from a devastating injury that wiped out his ’78 season. Knight was a great scorer but played hideous defense. Barnes was a local legend, leading Providence College to the Final Four before hooking on with the ABA. He was a former ABA all-star but was battling a drug addiction that sidelined his career. In essence, the Celtics gave up four proven commodities for three question marks. Another problem was Red and Brown didn’t like each other. Red was old school to the point he hated the idea of women being involved in any sort of executive position. When John’s wife Ellie Brown was partially running the Colonels, Red scoffed from a distance. Brown reportedly wanted to replace Red as general manager with his Colonels GM Dave Vance. He almost had his chance as Auerbach was furious that the franchise swap ruined the roster he put together and it was done without his permission. New York Knicks owner Sonny Werblin and Red got along really well and Sonny asked if Red wanted to join the Knicks as their GM. Auerbach came THIS close to joining the Knicks but didn’t take the job because he knew that after all the damage he had done to New York since the 50’s, they’d never accept him like the Boston fans did.
Then, disaster continued to strike. Jo-Jo White wanted a new contract and Brown pretty much told him to shove it without actually saying so, the sensitive Jo-Jo never played with the same fire again. Marvin Barnes was good for a while but the drug problem escalated to the point he missed games, earning a release in January. Billy Knight played such poor defense he was booed out of the Garden and he had to be traded for Indiana Pacers center Rick Robey. To give an idea of how clueless Brown was, early in the season the Celtics needed scoring help. Brown wanted LA Lakers guard Earl Tatum and Auerbach instructed John to send a 2nd round pick for him and some cash. Instead Brown traded a FIRST round pick and his OWN money for Tatum. Auerbach could only shake his head at the incompetence. Auerbach managed to turn that into a positive by trading Tatum to the Detroit Pistons for veteran guard Chris Ford. Satch Sanders was fired after a 2-12 start and Brown was so cheap, he didn’t hire a head coach to replace him. They just made Dave Cowens player/coach for the rest of the season. Curtis Rowe was acting up, White was hurt, Cowens was stressed out, Havlicek was gone…it was all going down the drain. Red tried the best he could, trading Dennis Awtrey (signed to replace Kunnert after the swap) for a first round pick. Jo-Jo knew his days were numbered and the C’s weren’t going anywhere so he requested to be traded to a contender so he could go out with one last world title. Instead Brown traded him to the lowly Golden State Warriors (where there was a 7 foot backup center that would come into the story later) for a draft pick. Still, Red had Larry Bird on his way the next season and three first round picks to build around. The season was a disaster but there was still hope right? WRONG! Brown and Ellie were separated and now Brown was with Phyllis George (google her). One night Brown was at a New York Knicks game and Phyllis remarked that she loved watching center Bob McAdoo (the guy that Brown sold two years earlier) play. Brown turned to Knicks owner Sonny Werblin and said “How much for Big Mac?” There went the three first round picks that Red had carefully orchestrated to get. No one would have blamed Red for quitting right then and there. They didn’t need Bob as they already had Cowens and he was more like Rowe and Wicks than he was like Silas or Havlicek. McAdoo hated Boston, which had a well deserved reputation of a racist city, so much he slept on Cedric Maxwell’s couch the rest of the season rather than find a place to stay. Cowens and Mac immediately butted heads over playing time and Bob went as far to claim Cowens purposely sat him to lower his impending free agent value. The only good thing was Brown wasn’t the sole owner of the team. He had a silent partner Harry Mangurian who would be silent no longer when the McAdoo trade occurred. The Knicks wanted Brown to pay MacAdoo’s entire salary which would have bankrupted the team. Red called up Harry and asked what he should do and Harry’s response was “(Expletive) John Y Brown! Tell the Knicks if they include his salary the deal’s off!” The rift between Red and Brown got worse as Brown would openly mock him in front of former players and the team. The problem was John loved making deals and toyed with the lives of the players. Many of them had families and to be traded to different cities means relocating and endless moving. Had he been like every other owner from Walter Brown to the current regime of Wyc Grousbeck, which means let Auerbach run the show and get the heck out of the way, Brown would have been fine. As it was, Brown’s constant tinkering killed team chemistry, morale and hopes all in one year! The low point of the season occurred on March 9th, 1979 when they got humiliated 160-117 to Earl Tatum, trash talking ML Carr and the Pistons. Red stormed into the locker-room after the game and chewed everyone out, saying most won’t be back the next season. Mercifully the season drew to a close and there were two final kicks in the pants. Curtis Rowe and Bob McAdoo posed for the team picture before the season finale then packed their bags and left. They didn’t even bother to stick around to the end. The final kick was when coach Cowens decided to light up a cigar to signify the end of the season but couldn’t get the thing lit as the Celtics put away the New Jersey Nets by a score of 127-101. The final totals were 29 wins and 53 losses, their lowest win total since 1950 before Bob Cousy and Auerbach were even in town. The Celtics went from NBA champions in 1976 to a laughing stock just 3 years later.
Thankfully, Red Auerbach found a way to turn the tide. He convinced Harry Mangurian to buy out Brown and John went on to become governor of Kentucky, amazing country we live in huh? When all was said and done John Y Brown ruined three franchises in four years and who knows what else would have happened had he stayed or if Red bolted for the Knicks? Here’s a sickening thought, what if Brown included Larry Bird in the franchise swap instead of Freeman Williams (who turned out to be a complete bust for San Diego)? What about the Celtics after Brown left? Larry Bird was the real deal, new head coach Bill Fitch orchestrated a trade to land Kevin McHale & Robert Parish and the team would not have another losing season for 15 years, winning three world championships in the next 8 years to follow. The Celtics are currently one of the top contenders in the NBA and are set up for a window of success with a core of players 26 and under. As you’ve just read, it could be worse, you could have a Kentucky Fried Idiot running things.