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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Latest Basketball News & Rumors Today / We got the Return of Celtic Pride Part I: How the 1983-84 Celtics returned to their heritage

We got the Return of Celtic Pride Part I: How the 1983-84 Celtics returned to their heritage

The return to greatness!
Publish Date:03/31/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis
Boston Celtics Larry Bird and Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson with Pat O'Brien at the 1990 NBA All-Star Game

In the fall of 1982, Billie Charles Fitch was wearing his welcome out as coach in Boston. As subsequent events would demonstrate, Fitch became a drag usually after three seasons as a coach. With the exception of superstar Larry Bird, the team was basically ready to mutiny against Fitch’s incessant demands. But Fitch, himself, was ready to leave Boston, since he thought he’d never get credit for his basketball mind. He would blame his boss Red Auerbach for this.

In 1980, Red Auerbach had been blistering hot over University of Virginia Center Ralph Sampson. Though he was just finishing his freshman year, Auerbach(like a good deal of NBA people) saw Sampson as an avatar, a foreshadowing of what was to come in the NBA. Versatile, Ralph was said to be a combination of Bill, Wilt, and Kareem. He would stop at nothing to grab him, even visiting the kid’s family. But family pressure would intervene, and Ralph would stay put.

Auerbach was rebuffed, but Fitch had other ideas in mind anyways(though, he in fact would eventually draft Sampson); Using his Big Ten connections, he zeroed in on the University of Minnesota Center named Kevin McHale. His sources told him McHale (Sampson notwithstanding) was the best big in the Nation; Most people thought that this honor belonged to either Sampson or Purdue’s Joe Barry Carroll. Auerbach demurred, but Fitch was adamant.

Finally, Red would visit a UofM game, and Auerbach was enraptured. But, Fitch didn’t just want McHale. As it happened, in 1980 the Celtics had the 1st pick, courtesy of the Detroit Pistons. Fitch, then, thought of packaging that #1 to acquire a laconic center named Robert Lee Parish. Parish had been something of an underachiever with the Golden State Warriors, and Barry was thought to be a great center of the NBA. But Fitch didn’t see an underachiever.

He saw a running big man in need of coaching, and so he thought of packaging that #1 and #13 for the 3rd and the rights to Parish. But Fitch had to be certain that the Utah Jazz (picking #2), wouldn’t want McHale. Inside sources claimed that Darrell Griffith of NCAA Champion Louisville was their man, and that is who they took. Now Fitch had his men, but he didn’t have his credit.

The Celtics were Auerbach’s team, and so this is who would receive the credit. Fitch would say” What can I say, Red has done it again” but he privately seethed. The Celtics 1981 title had somewhat soothed things, but the 1982 flameout in the East Finals had been draining. Worse, the hated Philadelphia 76ers had grabbed MVP Moses Malone without altering their core, and the inside scoring of Philly had been dramatically improved. But now, in the fall of 1982, Fitch was tired of hearing “how Red would have done things”.

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When a bad foul shooter named Charles Bradley was practicing free throws, Auerbach( who was at practice) offered some tips. Since his retirement in 1966, this had been standard Auerbach fare. It hadn’t been an issue before because all of the Celtic coaches had also played for the Redhead; They didn’t mind, and in fact often solicited advice from the mentor. But Fitch was an outsider, with an ego not being maintained. It would appear when he saw Auerbach with Bradley; He would say “You know, I wish you hadn’t done that”. Auerbach, for his part, was equally dissatisfied.

He had privately resented Fitch’s “overcoaching”, believing it to drain his immensely talented team. Moreover, Fitch had excluded the ex-player (and Red favorite assistant ) KC Jones, who was very popular with all the players. Auerbach would live with this as long as the results were successful, but the team began going through the motions. Fan favorites like Danny Ainge were getting little playing time, completely distrusted by Fitch. McHale, the prize of 1980, was now behaving like an underachieving high schooler forever in detention.

Bird was Bird, but he would enjoy himself a little too much with his close friend Rick Robey, nicknamed “Footer”. In addition, the departure of Chris Ford and Wayne Kreklow as locker room guys had left the 83 Celtics with a glut of talent. Fitch, who believed in depth, now had too many guys to play. Dissension increased, and the Celtics would bow out of the playoffs with an embarrassing sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks. Changes now were in order, but even Auerbach had to be shocked.

Fitch would depart, reconstituting himself with the Houston Rockets( where he drafted Sampson). Fitch revitalization project Nate “Tiny” Archibald would be waived, and the team now needed another guard. In Phoenix, the mercurial Dennis Wayne Johnson had once again destroyed his relationship with another franchise, and he was available. This was amazing. D.J. was a great defender, the only man in the league capable of slowing down his buddy Magic Johnson.

He played hard, and he never feared the moment. Though no one realized it at the time, Bird had found a kindred spirit; someone who approached the opponent with the same ruthless determination. The rest of the Celtics had been something as jokesters; DJ, however, took the game seriously. Bird would call him the best player he ever played with, and most people took that as a shot at McHale. This writer, though, saw it as more of DJ is the perfect compliment for Bird in his rivalry with Magic(whom DJ mainly guarded).

Now, K.C. Jones would become the new coach. It was overlooked. K.C. had coached the then Washington Bullets, taking them into the 1975 Finals. But a well-viewed timeout exchange saw assistant Bernie Bickerstaff leading it; instead of respecting K.C. delegating skills, it was viewed as him not being able to control the team. After another season, Jones would be dismissed, with no one calling but his old teammate Satch Sanders.

Now, he had the job of his dreams. K.C. would also be seminal, much like D.J. For one, he turned the team over totally to Bird. Two, the team(who considered Fitch a flake) straightened up for K.C. Even Bird, the last supporter, became very serious under the new mentor. Three, far from being threatened by Red, he would solicit advice from his former coach. The result had been a loose, more surly team. The rage they had within would be directed against the rest of the NBA.

Also, K.C. solved(for this season) some of the chemistry issues. Easily, besides Bird, the two most popular players were Ainge and McHale. McHale had recently signed a huge deal, and Ainge’s rookie deal had been considerable. But K.C. left such matters to management; On the court, he started Cedric Maxwell and Gerald Henderson. Both men were perfect compliments to the slow-footed Bird and Johnson.

Max, in particular, saved Bird from embarrassing defensive matchups against the likes of Alex English and Julius Erving. He allowed Bird to roam, and Bird would respond by becoming one of the game’s premier team defenders. As he had with D.J., Bird would call K.C. the best coach he ever had, even replicating elements of his style when he himself became a coach. The Celtic machine was now well oiled and ready for battle. Let’s see how the season will fare out.


Boston Celtics 1983-84 62-20  Coach: K.C. Jones


Point Guard: Gerald Henderson 11.6 points, 1.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists

Shooting Guard: Dennis Johnson 13.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists

Small Forward: Cedric Maxwell 11.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists

Power Forward: Larry Bird 24.2 points, 10.1 points, 6.6 assists

Center: Robert Parish 19.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks

Reserves: Kevin McHale, Greg Kite, Quinn Buckner, Danny Ainge, M.L. Carr, Scott Wedman, Carlos Clark

Strengths: Inside play, cohesion, team leadership, fast-breaking capability, depth. This team posed incredible matchup problems for the opposition. Without Robey, Bird matured and became league MVP. He was now making a superb case for being among the greatest players ever to lace up on the hardwood. Parish remained a fast, superb center with an unblockable shot. McHale, flush with a brand new contract, would increase his scoring average by 4 and win the Sixth Man of the Year Award. It was thought that the departure of Archibald would slow the Celtics transition game, but Henderson was one of the fastest men in the league from baseline to baseline. Quietly, he would come into his own as a point guard. His speed hid the fact that with Johnson the game required a more deliberate speed. Maxwell provided length on both sides of the ball and complemented Bird well. But most importantly this team had depth. McHale, Ainge, Wedman, and the aggressive Quinn Buckner all accepted their roles when inserted into games. Coach Jones would deal with the minutes and personalities with the precision of an engineer. If you get a chance check out these newest sportsbooks!

Weaknesses: Lack of mystique, failure to show up in the most important games, too much depth, racial tension, contract negotiations. Like the 83 version, this team had too much depth. While it didn’t affect the 84 version, it would leave ripples down the road for the duration of the decade. Unlike the last two Celtic generations, this bunch had not yet developed that “intimidation” factor. The hated 76ers had effectively demolished that winning a Game 7 in Boston, and now the Green and White needed to earn it back. By now, the 76ers and the LA Lakers had a lock on the NBA Finals, having advanced to 3 finals in four years. The Celtics definitely wanted to replace Philly, but they would need to show they were above and beyond the best team(at least in the East). They would play both giants a total of 8 times and lost 6 of them in the regular season. This leaves us to the next and perhaps most important point. Besides Bird, the most popular Celtics had been McHale and Ainge. As we can see, neither man started, as Jones wisely understood that Maxwell and Henderson complimented their Hall of Fame starters(Bird, Parish, Johnson). That Maxwell and Henderson were African American starting over their more popular Caucasian teammates was both unremarkable and controversial. It was unremarkable because, well for nearly 30 years the Celtics were perhaps the sport’s most progressive team. It was controversial because the black Celtics(particularly Maxwell) held grudges for what he perceived was racial bias. Henderson, a self-admitted “wide-eyed enthusiast”, hadn’t much noticed that management was clamoring for Ainge to start. Ainge, a gifted athlete, had been in Fitch’s doghouse. He compounded this by averaging a disappointing 5.5 points through the 84 season, and Jones had perhaps even less trust in him at this point. So Henderson started, oblivious to the manipulation and intrigue happening around him. Maxwell, however, was another matter. Check out the latest Gambling news!

Cedric Bryan Maxwell had been harboring a secret. A deeply held one fueled by paranoia. Though he was best friends on the team with the irreverent McHale and Carr, he was determined to not follow M.L. as a conformist. How did this happen? Well, in December 1978 the Celtics had been a mess. The main players on the team had only cared about their paychecks, and this would only get worse when the team acquired(without Auerbach’s knowledge or blessing) Bob McAdoo(a Laker by 1984). The black players, like Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks, had soured on the open racism of Boston’s fans watching an awful Celtic team. So, the team effectively quit, and Max then had been Henderson, a “wide-eyed enthusiast”. Auerbach, though, had deeply believed in team harmony, and so he arranged an annual Christmas Celtic party. He decorated the room with gifts, but no one showed up. After some time, a humiliated Auerbach would (with help) gather up his gifts for his ungrateful players. Finally, Maxwell had shown up, and Auerbach was grateful. He related” You know Maxwell, you remind me of that old guy Step-n-Fetchit”, which Maxwell took as a compliment. When he bragged to a close friend how the great Auerbach had complimented him, the friend explained that this was the equivalent of using the “N” word. Maxwell was stunned but never said anything then. But, when Rowe would say,” Hey man, there are no Ws and Ls on the paycheck”, he understood. And when Bird came aboard, Max would seek to destroy the rookie.

He got away with this early, but Bird gained his footing and began to dominate. But there would always be an in-house rivalry. It only got worse in 1981; Bird, shooting wise, had been terrible in the 1981 Finals. Meanwhile, the “steady Ceddy” had led the team to their 14th title. But winning felt like humiliation. Instead of celebrating his Final MVP, the focus had been on Bird’s struggles. Max seethed. Then, his paranoia would get the best of him. By 84, Max would notice a trend in the local papers. Whenever the team lost, the pictures would be shown of a black Celtic, but victory would show a Caucasian one. Johnson and Parish had also noticed this, but their positions were rock-solid secure. Maxwell could not rid himself of the idea that the gifted Bird was somewhat overstated; This, of course, was ridiculous, and Carr( and even Buckner) had tried to keep him strong-willed. But Maxwell saw Carr as a borderline sellout, and Buckner was suspect because of his Hoosier ties with Bird. Max, in fact, had joined the anti- Bird faction led by McHale. This was disastrous because again he was in the middle of a losing situation. Plus, his contract(along with Henderson’s) was up at the end of the season. The Celtics would have to make some choices, but it would be years before the full impact would be realized.

1984 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Washington Bullets 3-1

The Celtics had opened the playoffs as the first #1 seed to play in the opening round as the 84 playoffs were expanded. They would draw the once-great Washington Bullets, who by 1984 were an overachieving bunch of brawlers. The Bullets did not have a lot of talent, but they had a lot of fighters. With their tough little point guard, Frank Johnson, and Rickey Sobers, they added the tough Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn, nicknamed “McFilthy and McNasty” by announcer Johnny Most. The Bullets wanted to slow the game down, curtail Boston’s bigs, and pull a few upsets. The games were closer than they should have been for this reason, and Boston took a difficult series lead by fighting in four games.

Eastern Conference SemiFinals: New York Knickerbockers 4-3

This series was also marred by fights. Maxwell, despite the hidden tension, remained a committed player. The Knicks had come close to the qualifications of a great team; their coach, Hubie Brown, was a strong, tactical leader. He ran a patterned offense that called every single play while stressing defense. His players were fundamentally sound, but Bernard King was the catalyst. The “King of New York ” had become the league’s best player beside Bird; they would duel in this series. Max, ever boastful, announced he was gonna stop the b..ch. In the now-classic series against the baby Detroit Pistons, Bernard had dueled with Isiah Thomas. He would average 40.6 in the series, and he was basically the Knick offense. But Maxwell had “held” King to 26 in the opening game, and a pedestrian 13 in game 2. The Celtics had taken an easy 2-0 lead. But back in New York, King would get his crown back. He would lead the team back in the series, with a 43 point game 4 outburst. A smiling but unapologetic Maxwell, announced, “the b..tch is back.” What should have been an easy series was now tied, but Mr. Bird would arrive. Coming one assist short of a triple-double, he led the Celtics to a 121-99 game 5 win. The Celtics were again in the driver’s seat, but King got 44 in game 6 to force a game 7. Once there, Bird would get a 39 point triple-double, and some of the mystique returned. The Celtics would win 121-104. They had passed their first serious challenge.

Eastern Conference Finals: Milwaukee Bucks 4-1

There had been some speculation that this series would have a “revenge” factor; The Bucks had handed the Celtics their first-ever sweep in 1983. But the Celtics would be battle-hardened, while the Bucks had played the mediocre Atlanta Hawks and then surprising New Jersey. The Celtics would win the first three games, and close the series easily in 5. They handed the Bucks the ultimate disrespect; they would pointedly say that last year had nothing to do with this win. It would be the only series in 1984 that did not contain a single Celtic fight.

NBA Finals: LA Lakers 4-3

Now, we get to the main event. This is the matchup the entire world was looking for. The two greatest franchises with a literal laundry list of past and present legends. They were practically a mirror image of each other. Consider:

The emergence: Red Auerbach vs Jerry West 

 These two are 1 and 1A of all-time great General managers. In 1984, Auerbach was the legend, while West was still laying his foundation. But these two had been gunning for each other even then for nearly a quarter-century. In the fall of 1965, Auerbach decided to retire after the season. He publicly announced “You’ve got one more shot at Auerbach” as he dared the Lakers to vanquish him. In April, the Lakers came up short, 95-93 in another 7th game loss. Auerbach retired, a champion coach. He announced, again, he would retire as GM after the 84 Finals; West, still seeking meaning, wanted nothing more than to beat the Celtics.

The rivalry: Pat Riley vs. K.C. Jones

Today, Riley is a legendary Coach while K.C. Jones is largely forgotten. Riley is seen as having rivalries with more established coaches; But from 1984-87, these two were the premier coaches in the NBA. They both became coaches for the team they played for, trusted by the men that once coached them. Both fashioned themselves as blue-collar, grinding coaches who replaced the men(Bill Fitch, Paul Westhead) who were tuned out by their teams. Both men handled the quirky personalities they were responsible for; And most telling, each man had a long collaboration with (ex- Celtic and Laker team President in 1984) Bill Sharman. Both men established soul mate relationships with their most popular players. Moreover, in their differences there were similarities. K.C.The Depression-era black man would croon to a Frank Sinatra tune while listening to Duke Ellington.Riley had been a James Dean type who loved the sweet Motown sound(when his high school had its 50th anniversary in 2013, he hired the Temptations to perform). Both men in 1984 were considered lucky in coaching their respective teams. But both men would have those teams ready to play. Do you wanna know how we rate online casinos?

Cedric Maxwell vs Jamaal Wilkes

On the surface, comparing a Hall of Famer to a former Finals MVP seems ludicrous. But, by 1984 both of these men would play a diminished role compared to seasons past. Interestingly, Maxwell’s nickname was based on a character played by Wilkes.

Bob McAdoo vs Scott Wedman

Again, this is based on their roles in 1984. Both men were sharpshooters coming off the bench.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar vs Robert Parish, The Captain vs the Chief

Both men had expressions that rarely changed. Both men were often judged to not care about the outcome of the game. Abdul Jabbar in 1984 had accomplished the impossible; He became the All-Time leading scorer and actually played better than the previous year. Meanwhile, he was often criticized for playing subpar in NBA cities like Cleveland and San Diego. In short, he played transcendent when the moment dictated it. Parish, meanwhile, was considered “Mr October” after legend Reggie Jackson. This wasn’t a compliment, as “The Chief” wasn’t considered a clutch player. Both men had unique shots, and Parish was the fastest center in the NBA.

Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy

Both men were still finding that groove that would make them elite in 1984. Both men had dynamite footwork. Worthy was the fastest big, while McHale was the most versatile.

Michael Cooper vs Dennis Johnson, The “Teammates Burden”

Here you have the most versatile defender of his generation against the most aggressive. Cooper wanted to destroy Larry Bird, while DJ had lost the last 8 playoff games against the Lakers. He wanted to badly defeat his ole friend Magic. These two guys could also score when called upon.


Danny Ainge vs Byron Scott, the athletic sharpshooters

Ainge was still distrusted by the coaches, but he was the team’s best shooter and athlete. Meanwhile, Scott would become a proxy in the developing conflict between Coach Riley and Jerry West. The real issue is that Riley looked at Scott as a coach, while West did as G.M. This would not be an issue in 1984, but the fissure would lead to a full-blown feud. As for Ainge, his development would indirectly inspire free agency, and ultimately a national tragedy.

Magic vs Bird, the sequel

In 1984, there was a real rivalry fueled by jealousy and hatred. Bird had never forgotten that feeling on March 26th, 1979 when he lost to Michigan State. Meanwhile, Magic would win an NBA title, Finals MVP and seeth that he got a mere 3 out of 66 votes for Rookie of the Year. Bird would finally get a title but he wasn’t Finals MVP(like his rival). Magic would win again, and it was established by 1984 he was the better winner. But Bird, by virtue of his MVP, was by now seen as the better player. Both players wanted to destroy each other; they would now get their chance. We can throw in the rivalry between the two announcers, Chick Hearn and Johnny Most. In the sequel, we will review each game.


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