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Red's Army

Summer Reading: The Breaks of the Game Part 2: The Celtics “Mystique”

Jay August 11, 2011 Uncategorized Comments Off

Continuing our look at David Halberstam's fantastic book, today we will take a look at one of the aspects of the Boston Celtics organization that has been viewed as a myth since the days of Bill Russell and Red Auerbach: the Celtics Mystique.  The first part of the book review discussed how certain things within an organization can tear a team apart, with championship teams being no exception.  But there are few teams not only in basketball history, but in sports history that can claim it has something of a "mystique" about it.  Even in the late 1970's/early 1980's this seemed to be true as well.

During the time this book was written, the Seattle SuperSonics were the reigning NBA champions and head coach Lenny Wilkens found himself frustrated with his star guard, Dennis Johnson.  He was trying to keep his contending team all on the same page, but the times were changing in the NBA.  He sought the opinion of one of his other star players in Paul Silas.  We pick it up from page 159:

 Many of the new young stars were black, and Silas considered himself in a better position to say these things to them than a white player or coach would be.  He and Wilkens had discussed Dennis Johnson, and Silas allowed the justice of Wilkens's position, that you had to give a player as talented and sensitive as Dennis Johnson room to grow, you could not make him conform.  But Silas saw the drawbacks too.  First, the more flexibility Wilkens showed, the less respect Johnson had for him.  Second, DJ's behavior was tearing Seattle apart.  It was not playing like a championship team; nor did it feel like a championship team.  A championship team, he believed, had a certain respect of coach for players and players for coach, and, above all, of players for each other.  A respect that had its own built-in discipline.

Silas had played for the Boston Celtics, and he had not at first believed the myth of the Celtics as being special.  But very soon he became a convert, and one of the things he admired most was the way in which Red Auerbach made the players themselves the keepers of the tradition, and thus the enforcers of their own discipline.  He sensed that on this team Dennis Johnson was now a threat to the entire delicate mechanism.  Perhaps, thought Lenny Wilkens, perhaps Silas was right, but for the moment he was trying desperately to reach his talented young player, trying to excuse the rudeness and the rebuffs he was receiving.  He was convinced that if any coach in professional basketball could understand Dennis Johnson, could identify with his problems and the complexity of his world, it was Lenny Wilkens.  He saw himself, quite rightly, as a pioneer both in race relations and in changing the labor laws that made it possible for young players to negotiate huge salaries.  It was odd to deal with a young man who had so little respect for what had gone before, so little appreciation of the past.

 The Silas story reminds me of when the New Big Three were formed in the summer of 2007.  Neither Kevin Garnett nor Ray Allen ever expressed any interest in Boston because of the 'mystique' or their storied past.  But like Silas, once they were here, their collective feelings changed.  I remember KG telling Ainge he should have traded for him years ago.  I can recall one post-game interview during the championship season that Ray said he feels like this has been his home for his entire career, and he had yet to even complete a full season.  Since then, both of them have converted, much like Silas before them.

This is not to say that they have some magical potion that they force these guys to drink because there have been several players to wear the green that didn't buy it.  But the other ironic thing about that excerpt is that Dennis Johnson was another convert.  Halberstam didn't touch upon this because his book was published after the 1980 season completed.  DJ was eventually traded to the Phoenix Suns where he was deemed to have attitude problems as well.

Red, doing what he did best, preyed on the problems of other teams and brought DJ in at the perfect time.  Tiny Archibald was just about done as an NBA player, so he needed a point guard.  Technically, at the time, Gerald Henderson was their starting "point guard" when DJ came to Boston, but DJ became on convert too.  Now, in most of these instances it's far easier to convert and buy into the 'mystique' when you're joining a contending team already, but it does prove that it can happen.

It can work the opposite way too, and the story of Dennis Johnson, the SuperSonic, could be a cautionary tale of Rajon Rondo.  Remember, when he was a rookie, he was nothing but a migraine for Doc Rivers, who one could argue, is a modern day version of a Lenny Wilkens in a coaching sense.  Rondo quickly "converted" when the team became an overnight contender, with the likes or KG, Ray and Paul Pierce likely keeping him in check.

There is a possibility he could revert to that early Rondo, like DJ did, and see himself as a champion, a great player on a declining team.  I don't believe this would happen because unlike DJ, Rondo's contract is solid for a few years, and the end of the New Big Three Era is likely to be over following this season (if there is one).  It is something to watch out for, though highly unlikely, especially since the C's will most likely become his team.

Either way, it's interesting to see just how long the whole "mystique" angle has been discussed in NBA circles. It starts at the top with ownership and management, and this team is in good hands going forward into the new era.

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