April 17th, 1995
Saying goodbye to beloved Boston Garden, old Celtics relive a half century of otherworldly memories
The night perhaps becomes darker. The rain becomes a little harder. The streetlights forever are a washed-out yellow, playing against the thick pillars of the elevated trains of the MBTA's Orange Line above Causeway Street, the metal-on-metal screech of the trains becoming louder and louder. The characters become caricatures.
Memory is the editor. Memory is in control.
"Here was the first look I ever had at the Boston Garden," John Havlicek (Boston Celtics 1962-78) says. "I came to Boston straight from the [college] East-West All-Star Game in Kansas City. I was the Celtics' first-round draft choice, and I was traveling with Jack [the Shot] Foley, who was the second choice, from Holy Cross. We got into Boston around 11 o'clock on one of those dank, dark, dreary New England nights. We went through the tunnel from the airport into the city, and we arrived outside the Garden, with all the trains and the rain and everything. We checked into the hotel next door, the Manger...."
There is no hesitation in the words. Thirty-three years have passed in the 49-year history of the Celtics at the Garden since this particular March 31 night, in 1962. Thirty-three years and counting. There has been time to polish the story, to buff away the blemishes, to get everything right. There is almost a script.
"I was hungry, so I went back out to get something to eat," Havlicek continues. "The only place open was the Hayes Bickford cafeteria across the street. I went in, and a couple of guys were sitting by themselves, drinking coffee. Another guy was at a table, his head down, sleeping. Everyone was in there to get out from the rain. The counterman had an apron covered with stains from the day. I ordered a couple of eggs that came back filled with all the cholesterol in the world. I sat by myself and said, What have I gotten myself into?"
The particulars are important. The dirt on the apron. The cholesterol in the eggs. Jack (the Shot) was already in bed. The story has been told so many times now to friends and Rotary Clubs and to sponsors and sportscasters and anyone else that it has become as perfect as a parable, measured out for pauses and appropriate reactions at appropriate places.
"The next day I went to the game," Havlicek says. "They took me to the Celtics' locker room. I was devastated. It was this little room, tucked underneath a stairway. There were no lockers, just nails hammered into these furring strips around the room. The steps cascaded down, so one end of the room had a normal 15-foot ceiling, but the other end was as low as six feet. The shorter guys dressed at that end. The nails for the clothes, it seemed, were based on seniority. If you were a rookie, you were a one-nail guy. I had just finished my four years at Ohio State, which had the best facilities, and to come to this.... We went from the locker room to watch the game.
"It was the playoffs. The Celtics were playing [the] Philadelphia [Warriors]. This was the game where Wilt Chamberlain came after Sam Jones, and Sam picked up a wooden stool and said, 'Wilt, I'm not going to fight you fair.' Jim Loscutoff chased Guy Rodgers right into the stands, right into the promenade. I sat there and said, again, What have I gotten myself into?"
Thirty-three years and counting. There are last chances to check out some of the specifics—to walk across from the site of the Hayes Bickford, now a bank, and to enter the 66-year-old arena on top of the train station, to find that little locker room the Celtics once used, to stand at the absolute spot where Jones held that chair above his head—but the story pretty much travels by itself now. Soon there will be nothing to check.
The Celtics will play their final regular-season game at the Garden on Friday night, April 21, against the New York Knicks, ending a tenancy that has included 16 world championships and some of the most significant moments in NBA history. There is the possibility of one or two more playoff games as this season's team struggles to earn a postseason spot and an overmatched meeting with the Orlando Magic. A final exhibition game will probably be played in the old building next fall before the opening of the $160 million Fleet Center, which already stands next door. But certainly by October or November the wrecking crews will have begun work, and that will be that. The home of the NBA's most successful franchise, home from the moment the league was formed, will be gone.
Memory will be everything. Memory will be all.
Trademark black sneakers ran across a trademark parquet floor. That was what happened at the Boston Garden. The men inside the sneakers were pretty much invincible. Every fall for the longest time there was a ceremony, a ritual, as a banner was raised to the dusty beams at the ceiling of the old building signifying another championship that had been won during the preceding spring. Sixteen banners was the final total, nine of them from the '60s, domination for an entire decade. The black sneakers and the floor and the building were magic. Or was it the men who were the magic?
"There was one game where we wore white sneakers," Bob Brannum (Celtics 1951-55) says. "Walter Brown, the owner [Celtics 1946-64], tried it as an experiment. The same game, he turned the court sideways. He figured that more seats were in the end zones, so this way there would be more seats on the sides of the court. I don't remember the year. He let us wear the white sneakers because we all hated the black ones. No one else was wearing them. We played the game, lost, the court was turned back the original way, and we went back to the black sneakers. We never changed again."
The seats hung over the court, two balconies creating a vertical intimacy that architects of modern arenas somehow cannot seem to find. The sellout attendance figure for the longest time was 13,909, a number any Boston schoolchild knew as well as any date of any historical happening. A progression of stars came along, from Bill Russell (Celtics 1956-69) to Dave Cowens (Celtics 1970-80) to Larry Bird (Celtics 1979-92), each starting a new era of success when hope seemed lost. The constants were the building and the presence of Arnold (Red) Auerbach (Celtics 1950-??), who was coach and general manager and, since 1970, has been president of the team. As coach and G.M. he was wily and profane, shrewd and outrageous, a picture to see as he argued a point with the veins popping out of his neck or as he lit a cigar when victory was at hand.
"Red was paranoid," Bob Cousy (Celtics 1950-63 and now one of the team's broadcasters) says. "He always thought everyone was out to get us. Especially the referees. He would start screaming at the referees at the first call, sometimes even if it went for us. He always wanted that edge. He always talked about those s.o.b.'s in New York. That was his thing, that the league wanted New York to win and us to lose. I look at it now, it sounds so silly, but the thing was that when Red was screaming about New York and the referees, we all believed him. Which I suppose is all that mattered."
"I saw him have a fight in the lobby with Sid Borgia, the referee," says Tom Heinsohn (Celtics 1956-65 as a player, 1969-78 as the coach and now Cousy's partner on game telecasts). "They started talking back and forth, and Sid said, 'Yeah, yeah, you can talk. You don't have to worry. Your wife has a lot of money.' Red said, 'My wife doesn't have any money,' and punched him. They started fighting, right there in the lobby."
The building was as familiar and comfortable for the home team as could be. The Boston Bruins, the hockey team, were the landlords and, in most years, the more beloved local team, but the Celtics were the team that had magic on its side. No visiting hockey teams complained about the excess heat in their dressing room on hot days and the lack of heat on cold days. Plots abounded in basketball. The floor was supposed to have dead spots where an opposing dribbler would discover that the ball would die as surely as if he had bounced it in a mud puddle. The timekeepers were supposed to have slow fingers when the Celtics needed a few more seconds. The referees were supposed to be intimidated by the fans. A leprechaun supposedly came down from the ceiling at opportune times to knock away important shots.
"Again, all this was important only because other teams believed it," Cousy says. "Think about it, the dead spots. You're telling me that in a game as fast as basketball I could have the presence of mind to push someone over to the fifth board from the right because that's supposed to be a dead spot? Maybe in a slower game like baseball you could use that kind of local knowledge, but basketball? Come on. And the heat in the locker room? We had the same bad heat that they did."
"The heat came from outside the building in a 12-inch pipe," Havlicek says. "I checked this out. The farther along the pipe you were, the less heat you got as it was dispersed. I suppose, because we were about 25 feet closer to the source, we had 25 feet worth of better heat [than the visitors], but that was it. What I think helped us as much as anything was the clock. Not the clock now, the one before it. It had a black minute hand and a red second hand, and it was a hockey clock. Our periods would end at 12-minute marks on the clock, but the big designations were at 15, 30 and 45. I don't think anybody in the league knew how to read that clock except Red and us. I'd see guys staring at it. Or startled when the buzzer went off at 12 minutes."
"My father did control the water for the referees' locker room," admits Frankie Randall, son of longtime equipment manager Walter Randall. "He loved the Celtics. He started out sitting on the bench, but in 1959 Sid Borgia threatened him with a technical foul, and he left the bench and never again returned. He would sit in the locker room, watching the game on TV. When the referees made some bad calls, well, the knobs for the water in their dressing room were in the Celtics' room. A lot of referees had a lot of cold showers in Boston Garden."
The games and the championships were mostly a 49-year blur. Basketball is like that. The action seems to be written on phosphorous paper. Once exposed to the air, there is an exciting flash of fire, and then it is gone. Russell beats Wilt again! Cousy makes big pass! Bird drops three-pointer from heavens to win game! Celtics win! The Cousy one-hander and the Russell block seemed to evolve in an unbroken line into the Cowens dive on the floor and the Robert Parish (Celtics 1980-1994) turnaround jumper and the Kevin McHale (Celtics 1980-93) rebound layup. The little oddities seemed to remain longer than the most spectacular moments. The bumps in the line.
"After one of the championships, I'm not sure which one, the crowd ran onto the floor, and a couple of individuals tried to take off my uniform," Tom (Satch) Sanders (Celtics 1960-73 as a player, 1978 as the coach) says. "I was intent on getting off the floor, and the individuals seemed intent on getting a souvenir right there. They were pulling at my shorts, which were kind of loose. My shorts were coming down to my knees, and I was fighting my way off the floor."
"In 1984, the final game against the Lakers"—the first of three '80s Finals pitting Bird's Celtics against the Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar L.A. squads—"we had the game won, and my big idea was that I was going to get the ball at the end of the game," Gerald Henderson (Celtics 1979-84) says. "What I didn't know was that Danny Ainge [Celtics 1981-89] had the same idea. Kareem, I think, took the final shot at the buzzer. The ball went off the rim and straight up in the air. Danny got there first. He just about had the rebound. And I pushed him. The ball came back between his legs and right to me. I still don't think he knows who pushed him. He went down, and the crowd just rolled over him. I still have that ball."
The game most often attached to the Garden occurred on April 15, 1965, when Havlicek stole an inbounds pass from the Philadelphia 76ers' Hal Greer to Chet Walker and preserved a 110-109 win in the seventh game of the Eastern finals. While exciting, this game is far from the most significant and not necessarily the most dramatic in the long list of games. The reason it endures is the radio description by announcer Johnny Most, who died in 1993. An unrepentant Celtic booster, with a distinctive croak to his voice that was tuned by four packs of English Ovals cigarettes and countless cups of coffee per day, Most screamed the words, "Havlicek stole the ball!" with an urgency that suggested Martians had landed in the living room.
"Johnny must have had some good coffee that day because he was really excited," Havlicek says. "We had the game won by a point with five seconds left, but Bill Russell's inbounds pass hit the guide wire that went then from the balcony to the basket. Under the rules Philadelphia got the ball back. Russell said, 'Somebody has to help me out,' in the huddle during the timeout. They tried to in-bounds the ball. I was playing defense, counting to myself, 'One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two,' and when I got to 'one-thousand-three,' I knew I could sneak a peek. I saw Greer pass the ball, and I got my hands on it, and that was the game. I didn't know until a few days later about Johnny's call.
"Since then, it's never left. Just a few days ago I was at the Final Four and [CBS sportscaster] Pat O'Brien was doing his Johnny impression: 'Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!' Everyone seems to have a Johnny impression. He was the one who made that play different."
"My favorite Johnny Most story is when his pants caught on fire," current radio announcer Glenn Ordway says. "I was doing color, and I'm sitting next to him, and I smelled something burning. I said, 'Johnny, do you smell smoke?' He said, 'My pants are on fire.' He was always smoking, and he'd had a stroke, paralyzing him on one side, so it was hard for him to do some things, and his cigarette had dropped onto his polyester pants, and they'd caught on fire. He always wore that polyester. The fire was right at his crotch, and he poured coffee on it and I helped beat the flame out. It was funny, really. We came back on the air, and neither of us could stop laughing for maybe 45 seconds. We couldn't talk. The first promo I had to read turned out to be, 'Our guest today at halftime will receive a gift certificate from Eastern Coat of Watertown.' Johnny said, 'Not today he won't. I need new pants.' We started howling again. The whole thing is on some underground blooper tapes now."
The building was filled with characters. Howie McHugh, the Celtics' publicity man with the restrained look of a parish priest, sat on a folding chair at the edge of the parquet floor, center court, and quietly pronounced a string of the most vile curses imaginable on all referees. John Kiley, the organist, the one man who could make Eleanor Rigby sound no different than The Stars and Stripes Forever, hated basketball. He played with his back to the action and never cared what happened. He quit one day when his parking pass was revoked. The members of the bull gang—responsible for putting the court over the ice surface—were characters. The ball boys. The original owner, Brown, the founder of the team, was seen as a lovable plantation owner but was followed after his death by a string of venture capitalists and eccentrics, all the way to the present owner, who was given the team by his father and is known in the local newspapers as Paul (Thanks, Dad) Gaston. Characters. Buddy LeRoux, the trainer for eight early championship teams, parlayed his playoff shares into a string of investments that included hospitals, apartment houses, hotels and substantial pieces of the Boston Red Sox and Suffolk Downs racetrack.
"There were so many people around the building, if I saw them 20 years from now, I'd recognize them," McHale says. "I'd say, 'Fella, I don't know your name, but for an important stretch of my life I know I saw you every day.' "
"Marvin Kratter was a guy who owned the team for a year in the '60s," Havlicek says. "He had gone to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and come back with a stone that he found there. He said it was the lucky stone. Before games he would stand under the basket and hold out the stone so each of us could touch it for luck as we went past after layups. The first time I touched it, we lost, so I refused to touch it again. He would hold out the stone, and everyone would touch it, but when I came by, he would drop his hand because he knew I wouldn't touch it. He always sat next to our bench. After he owned the team a month or two, I would hear him saying, 'Run the 2 play.' "
The greatest game in NBA history was played in the building. The only problem is picking the game. The general choice is the Celtics' 128-126 triple-overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns in the fifth game of the Finals, on June 4,1976. The highlight was a 22-foot heave by the Suns' Garfield Heard to tie the score at 112 at the end of the second overtime. Havlicek had scored on a running bank shot to give Boston a one-point lead with one second remaining. Phoenix's Paul Westphal (Celtics 1972-75) called timeout, even though the Suns did not have any timeouts left. This gave the Celtics a technical foul shot, which Jo Jo White (Celtics 1969-79) converted but which also allowed the Suns the chance to throw the ball inbounds from center court, which set up Heard's shot. Boston rolled away in the third overtime.
"The league changed the rule after that game," Havlicek says. (Indeed, today the ball would go to the Celtics.) "We had all run into the locker room after my shot, thinking the game was over. If the play happened now, Phoenix would have won because that would have been a three-point shot by Heard. Then again, we had hit some long shots too during the game that would have been three-pointers."
The win gave Boston a three-games-to-two lead. "After we won, the series was finished," Havlicek says. "We went out to Phoenix for the sixth game, but right away you could see those guys were done. That game took everything out of them."
"I was the coach and everyone says that was the greatest game, but I don't think so," Heinsohn says. "To me, the greatest game ever was when we won our first title, in 1957, against [the] St. Louis [Hawks]. That was the seventh game, the Finals, and we won by two points [125-123] in two overtimes. I saw the two greatest plays I've ever seen in basketball in that game. The first was when Bill Russell ran the length of the floor faster—faster!—than it took for St. Louis to pass the ball the length of the floor and for a guy to take one dribble and a layup. Russell was there to block the shot. The second play was at the end of the game. [Hawk] Alex Hannum threw the ball inbounds off the backboard from half-court. It was a designed play with one second left. He threw the ball off the backboard, straight to Bob Pettit. Pettit, I think, was so amazed the play worked he missed the shot. If that game had been played today, with television and all the replays, it would be called the best game ever. Now, nobody even knows about it."
There were other grand nights, of course, dozens of them in 49 years. Besides Havlicek's, there were other grand steals: Henderson's against James Worthy and the Lakers in '84, Bird's against Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons in '87. In the '80s there was Bird's succession of mano a mano duels in playoff matchups with the Sixers' Julius Erving and the Knicks' Bernard King and the Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins (now a Celtic). There was Russell versus Wilt. Forever. There was Frank Selvy's shot that missed for the Lakers in the 1962 Finals. There was Michael Jordan's coming-out party when he scored 63 in 1986 in double overtime.
Tree Rollins of Atlanta bit Ainge's finger in 1983. ("Thirty seconds after it happened the story became that I had bitten his finger," Ainge says. "And that's the way it's stayed.") Bird returned from the locker room after taking a face-first tumble and led a first-round, series-clinching win over the Indiana Pacers in '91. Sam Jones made last-second jumpers, against the Warriors in '62 and against the Lakers in '69. Russell had 35 rebounds in one title game, 34 in another and was a player for nine titles, a player-coach for two. There was the hot (100-plus degrees in the building) night in the '84 Finals, Game 5, when the Lakers were informed that the air conditioners they had brought for their dressing room were not compatible with the Garden's electricity. The next year Jack Nicholson, the actor and fan, mooned the crowd from a skybox when the Lakers finally won a title in Boston. There was the suspended game against the Hawks in 1990, when condensation from the ice seeped through the floor.
Cousy retired in '63 and Russell retired in '69 and Hondo Havlicek retired in 78 and other standouts retired, and ceremonies were held for all of them except Russell, who hated that stuff and quietly pulled the banner with his number 6 to the ceiling before the paying customers were admitted. A fan yelled, "We love ya, Cooz," at Cousy's retirement ceremony. Havlicek planned his own event, bowing to all four corners of the building and ordering that the organ be abandoned for the afternoon, replaced by recorded rock-and-roll music. Bird's night, in '93, was not even the night of a game, but instead a special evening of videotaped highlights and visits from former teammates and opponents. There was the saddest night of all, when Reggie Lewis fell down against the Charlotte Hornets in 1993 and never returned, dead within three months.
The soul of the building remained its old-time quirkiness, its unpreserved preservation, nobody ever caring enough to really fix it up, but also no one ever caring enough to tear it down. The best seats were the best in basketball, closer than anywhere else. The worst seats were behind poles, the absolute worst. The smell was different from the new arenas, a combination of all the popcorn and hot dogs and spilled beer and smoke and perspiration and circus visits. The lack of air conditioning did not hurt the smell at all. There were stories of rats that roamed the building, large as house pets. There were stories of things that happened long ago matched against stories that happened yesterday. Stories were the soul of the building.
"We played doubleheaders a lot," Heinsohn says. "We played doubleheaders with the Globetrotters, with the ice shows.... We played doubleheaders with the rodeo. The dirt would be spread on the cement for the rodeo, and they would brush it all back and lay down the floor. You'd go running off the court and go straight into this big mound of dirt."
"One day I was recovering from a knee injury, running the stairs all alone," Sanders says. "I guess no one knew I was there, because they released the guard dogs. I wound up staring at this German shepherd at the top of the stairs, him staring at me and me staring at him and neither of us moving for a long time. Finally the guard came."
"I saw a rat that was so large, I should have shot it and stuffed it," McHale says. "I was walking across the court, and I saw this thing at the stairs that went to the exit. He was standing on his hind legs. I said, What's a rabbit doing in here? That's how large he was. I thought he was a rabbit.
"There were only two stalls in the bathroom in our locker room," McHale continues. "No matter how early I got there, someone else always would have been there before me. I finally found an answer. I got a ball boy to let me into the officials' locker room before they got there. I did that every night. It was perfect. Quiet. I could read the paper. It was my little secret. Somehow I thought it was justice. I was making a statement."
The future will be all mind. There will be pictures of the Garden and the events, of course, better pictures from each succeeding year, but cameras cannot capture day-to-day existence. Cameras cannot record smells and all sounds. There will be numbers, records, the Celtics with 1,287 wins in 1,709 home games (a handful in the smaller Boston Arena) as of Sunday, but numbers are not descriptions of people and places and situations and emotions. The building and the things that happened in it will exist primarily in the minds of the people who were there. Truth will be carried in a fragile envelope.
"Memory is a strange thing," Cousy says. "I went out to dinner with Tommy Heinsohn the other night with some advertising clients. We sat there for two hours, 2½ hours, telling all the old stories. Tommy was going on and on, telling these stories, and half of them I'd never heard before. Or didn't remember. I mean I was there when these things happened, and I didn't remember any of them the same way. Time passes, you know, and you can say anything, and it can sound right.
"With any successful business, any successful person, you can pick out reasons for the success that have nothing to do with it but sound as good as anything else. Do you know what I mean? The Celtic mystique. The Garden. I hear so many things that are ridiculous, yet they have been repeated so many times they sound true. Everything sounds true now."
There will be a ceremony to mark the final regular-season Garden game. A last ceremony. The plan is for 28 Celtic heroes to return, as many as possible. At halftime they will pass a ball back and forth.
Bird will stand in the corner. Three-point territory.
He will take a pass and raise the ball as if to shoot. Suddenly, visitors from all of NBA history will come flying in an imaginary pack, all of them, Wilt and Kareem and Magic and Dr. J and Senator Bill Bradley and World B. Free and Walter (Big Bells) Bellamy and Moses and Oscar and Jerry West and Isiah and Elgin and Air Jordan, himself. All of them. Bird will pull the ball back down.
Russell will walk to a spot underneath the basket. All alone.
He will take the pass from Bird and make the easy layup, and the doors will close on an era. Not only will the Garden era, the Celtic era, be gone, but also the era of old-time arenas, the cramped and crowded, working-class, big-city athletic show-places. The oldest building in the NBA will become the Los Angeles Sports Arena, built in 1959. The L.A. Sports Arena?
Ten years from now, no more than 15, the final shot will become a dunk. Russell dunked and the backboard shattered and everyone left and the Boston Garden was closed and the rats ran into the sea. That was the way it was.