Remember when the mere mention of the Boston Celtics made grown men quake? When their arrival in town was a momentous event? When beating the green-and-white was a highlight of the season?
If you've been watching the NBA standings lately, you know those days could be back. The Celtics are a league-leading 27-3, having won nine of their last 10 games. Before December was out, they had already won more games they did all last season.
And while it's OK to ask the 2008 Celtics about the old teams, don't expect them to brag about their current situation. When this year's team jumped to an 8-0 record, coach Doc Rivers scolded his club: "Did we get a trophy for going 8-0? The answer is no. We get nothing."
That's because, he added, they had done nothing. Yet.
With the old Celtics, Larry Bird would drift past the opposing bench and inform them he was going for 40 points that night. But for the new Celtics, the plan is to lie low and stay humble. "We're trying to earn respect," said Rivers. "I don't think we're respected yet, but it's good to be relevant in anything."
It has been a long time since the Celtics were good enough to worry about relevancy. Back in the day, people either hated or loved them. But for two decades they've mostly drawn indifference. Like a retired locomotive, they were a reminder of a bygone era, curious but obsolete. Boston hasn't won a championship in 22 years; hasn't been to the NBA Finals since 1987. The Celtics have only been to the playoffs five of the past 14 seasons.
Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale retired. Len Bias and Reggie Lewis died. Detroit and Chicago became Eastern Conference powers. What was supposed to be a temporary slump turned into a drought, which stretched into eternity. Before long, the proud franchise was nothing but a memory.
Even the famous Boston Garden was scrapped in favor of a new building, and there were no more ghosts to help the Celtics. The venerable arena gave way to the Shawmut Center, which became the FleetCenter, which became TD Banknorth Garden.
How Boston's turnaround occurred is a simple story of friendship and necessity. Team executive Danny Ainge convinced former teammate Kevin McHale, his counterpart in Minnesota, to trade superstar Kevin Garnett for a slew of mediocre players and future draft picks. That came a month after the Celtics added All-Star Ray Allen in a trade with Seattle.
Suddenly long-suffering star Paul Pierce had two other all-stars at his side. The only question was whether there were enough basketballs to go around. So far, that hasn't been a problem. Each of the Big Three is scoring around 20 points a game. (Ainge, by the way, insists they haven't earned the moniker "Big Three" until they win a title.) Boston is leading the league in scoring differential (more than 13 points).
Gaining star players is one thing, getting them to work together is another. So Rivers decided he would preach defense first.
"I told them I was disappointed in the first press conference. All anyone talked about was offense," said Rivers. "I told them if we think we're going to win all our games on offense, we'll win some games, and we'll get our points, but we're going to go home and all be upset with each other. But if we all commit to defense you three especially then we have a chance of being a good team."
Last week against the Jazz, Boston forced some early fourth-quarter turnovers and quick shots, and converted them into baskets, escaping with a 104-98 win. Pierce went scoreless in the first half but rolled for 24 in the final two quarters.
"The ultimate kind of respect and this is terrible to say is when you walk into a building and the other team doesn't want to play; they know they're going to lose," said Allen. "I've seen that with the Chicago Bulls teams, where other teams just laid down because they didn't ever think they had a chance to win."
How far away are the news Celtics from that kind of respect?
"I think it comes after having won a championship," added Allen. "We haven't been the reigning champions."The wait may soon be over.