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Mark Acres: BIG BANGER

The Mark Acres Interview
By:  Michael D. McClellan | Friday, May 6th, 2005

 

Mark Acres played but two nondescript seasons for the Boston Celtics, his contributions to the team accelerated by the injury-plagued retirement of backup center Bill Walton, but he remains a cult favorite among the hardcore Celtic fans of the day.  To them, Acres represented hope – hope that the team had finally found a player to ease the heavy minutes logged by timeless center Robert Parish, hope that the Celtics’ bench could finally compete with that of the hated Los Angeles Lakers, and hope that a 17th championship banner was just a roster tweak away.  Acres was an amalgam.  He was Greg Kite with a better offensive game.  He was Mel Counts with more meat on his bones.   He was a player who could spell either Parish or Kevin McHale, giving them a much-needed respite from the grueling endurance contest otherwise known as the NBA regular season.  That Acres was ordinary was of little consequence; to the hardcore Celtic fan, players such as Acres, Brad Lohaus and Conner Henry were diamonds in the rough, hidden gems to be unearthed in a valiant quest to bring yet another championship trophy to Causeway Street.  And while Acres may have seemed relatively pedestrian by NBA standards, remember:  The big man with the long first step was far better than the rest of us – if you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve never played for the Boston Celtics – and for two seasons he was good enough to hang with arguably the greatest frontline in all of basketball history.

 

Born in heart of Laker country, Acres grew up idolizing players such as Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.  He rooted for the team in its annual quest for NBA supremacy, unaware that he would one day find himself thrust directly into the great Celtic-Laker rivalry, going toe-to-toe with the incomparable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Unfathomable then, but that was long before Acres grew into a standout player at Inglewood’s Palos Verdes High School.  Acres was the star on a state championship team at Palos Verdes, and his play at John Wooden’s basketball camp drew comparisons to the great Bill Walton.  A McDonald’s High School All-American, Acres also competed in the U.S. Olympic Festival before attending Oral Roberts University.  It was at ORU that Acres, playing for his father, Dick, would become a four-time All-American and catch the attention of the Dallas Mavericks.  Acres led ORU to the Midwestern Collegiate Conference title as a junior, averaging 18.5 ppg and 9.6 rpg, shooting 56.4% from the field, second best in school history.  He starred in the post-season NCAA tournament against All-Americans Joe Kleine of Arkansas and Keith Lee of Memphis State.  Clearly, his stock was on the rise.

 

The Mavericks selected Acres in the second round (after selecting centers Bill Wennington and Uwe Blab with the sixteenth and seventeenth picks, respectively), convinced that he play at the NBA level if he bulked up and polished his game.  Acres did just that, playing in Belgium for two homesick seasons, returning to the United States more confident in his low-post game.  He was no longer the timid player that Norm Sonju, then the Mavericks’ president, had seen in that first training camp.

 

“At that camp he was afraid to mix it up,” Sonju said at the time.  “He was really pushed around.  We just didn’t have a place on the roster for him because he wasn’t tough enough.  All of that changed when he got back from Europe.”

 

Acres averaged 19.5 ppg and 10 rpg during his first season in Belgium, and then followed that up with 20 ppg and 16 rpg a year later.  He was no longer rail thin, and was suddenly unafraid to bang against opposing centers in the post.  He remained the property of the Mavericks until the 1986 NBA Draft, when the team selected Roy Tarpley with the seventh pick overall.  Dallas loved Acres’ potential, but it simply had too many big men on its roster.  Acres was cut loose.  The Celtics, sparse in the middle with Bill Walton battling a foot injury, wasted little time in snatching up the big banger from Inglewood.

 

Acres’ two seasons with the Celtics were loaded with memories.  While the 1987-88 team failed in its bid to return to NBA Finals, succumbing to the young, hungry Bad Boys from Detroit, Acres was there for the classic Game 7 Eastern Conference Semifinals shootout between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins.  He was also there to see Reggie Lewis blossom a year later, as Bird played only six regular season games due to injury.  From Boston, it was on to Orlando for the 1989-90 campaign, where he would play three seasons, before finishing with Houston (6 games) and Washington (12) during the 1992-93 season.  Through it all, his time with the Celtics remains the biggest thrill of his basketball career.  He treasures his time spent playing for the team he once rooted against, and smiles at the thought of his reserve role with the Big Three.

 

The rest of us should be so lucky.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were born on November 15th, 1962 in Inglewood, California.  Please share some of the memories from your childhood, and also some of the events in your life that led you to the basketball court

MARK ACRES
I was a Laker fan growing up – we’ve got the Lakers in town here – and they were always very competitive.  And it always seemed to come down to the Celtics and Lakers for the NBA Championship, so it was kind of interesting that I landed in Boston.  My father was also a coach.  He was a high school coach, and later a college coach.  So that’s pretty much how I got into basketball.


 

CELTIC-NATION
You played your high school ball at Palos Verdes.  What are some of the memories that stand out after all these years?

MARK ACRES
Oh boy, that’s a lot of water under the bridge [laughs].  I just remember that it was a good childhood, a good school with good kids, and not a whole lot of problems.  It was primarily an academically-minded school.  I just have very good memories of my time there.


 

CELTIC-NATION
In 1981, you were selected to the McDonald's All-America Team.  What did this mean to you then, and what does it mean to you now?

MARK ACRES
It was an honor.  Being chosen for that puts you in about the top twenty-five players or so in the entire country.  It was very special to be selected, even though a few were left off that probably should have been there.  I still cherish it today – I still have my McDonald’s All-America ring, and some booklets from the games.

CELTIC-NATION
You played collegiate basketball at Oral Roberts.  What was it like playing for your father, Dick Acres?

MARK ACRES
It was a pretty natural transition, since he’d been my basketball coach pretty much my whole life.  So that part was easy.  I was used to his system, and the way that he coached.  I knew what he expected out of me both on and off the court as well.  It was a great experience.


 

CELTIC-NATION
You were a four-time All America selection.  Which season was the most satisfying for you, and why?

MARK ACRES
Probably my junior year.  We went to the NCAAs, which was only the second time in school history – I think it’s still only the second time that that has happened.  So that was probably my most rewarding season.



 

CELTIC-NATION
Playing well during the NCAA Tournament always draws attention.  What was it like for you to excel against players such as Joe Kleine of Arkansas and Keith Lee of Memphis State?

MARK ACRES
I played them both my junior and senior year, and it was always an honor to match up with the top talent that was out there.  It was always good to see how you stacked up against the best players in the country.
 


 

CELTIC-NATION
You were drafted in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks, but decided to play two seasons in Europe first.  From both a cultural and athletic standpoint, what was this experience like?

MARK ACRES
My first year in Europe was not a very pleasant one.  I was homesick, and I missed my family, and it just seemed like I was missing a whole lot back here in the United States.  But I eventually got used to it and learned what to expect, and it became a lot easier for me the second time around.  I really enjoyed it that second season.  Actually, if I had time I wish I could get back to Europe every year.

CELTIC-NATION
Signing with the Celtics presented an interesting problem – you were able to learn from Hall-of-Fame talent like Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton, but you also had to compete with them for playing time.  Please take me back to your first training camp.  With Walton and McHale injured, did you like your chances of making the team?

MARK ACRES
Yes I did – I liked my chances very much.  And that was one of the reasons I left Dallas to play in Europe, because they had my rights for two years.  They had three first round draft picks in 1985, and they selected three big men with them.  It quickly became a numbers game there, and I really didn’t see myself fitting into that equation.  With the Boston Celtics there was a real opportunity, and it was the first time that I’d been able to stick it out and make it through all of the camps, including veteran camp.  I’d never went to veteran camp in Dallas.  I’d always left early to go to Europe.  So it was an exciting challenge.  It was also a physical and mental drain, because you’d just go out and play, play, play.  You just kept going.  And as a young player trying to make the team, you just want to do your best and try not to leave anything off the court.


 

CELTIC-NATION
The Celtics played the McDonald's Tournament in Madrid, Spain.  What memories stand out about that trip after all these years?

MARK ACRES
Well that was still when no foreign team had beaten a team comprised of NBA players.  And when you have that, there is always a lot of pressure on your shoulders.  It doesn’t matter whether the game is considered a preseason matchup or not, you feel as though you have a standard to uphold when you step out on that court.  You want to do your best, and you want to make sure that you’re not the ones who end up being the answer to a trivia question [laughs].  We went in there, and there was good competition.  We had to play hard to win.  We did win.  I just remember getting police escorts to the arena and to the hotel.  It was almost a rock star atmosphere.  It was quite a show.
 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Larry Bird averaged a career-high 29.9 points-per-game during the 1987-88 season.  What was it like trying to guard him in practice?

MARK ACRES
Always a challenge [laughs].  He was a fantastic scorer, and a great basketball player.  It was always a challenge to see if you could get a hand on the ball, or deny him a pass, or just keep the ball out of his hand.  Larry was an unbelievable player.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
The 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals produced one of the most memorable games in NBA history – the shootout between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins.  Please take me back that series in general, and that game in particular.

MARK ACRES
The series in general came down to Game 6 in Atlanta, with the Hawks up 3-2 and having a chance to close us out on their home floor.  It didn’t happen.  We played big in a hostile environment, and we were able to steal the game and even the series.  That put the make-or-break game back in Boston.  Larry was talking quite a bit after Game 6.  He said, ‘The Hawks had their chance and they blew it.  They had their chance to close us out and they choked.  Now we’re going back to the Boston Garden and we’re going to show them how to close out a series.’  It was all over the news.  And then we went back to Boston for Game 7, and he and Wilkins were just going at it.  That one half was just unbelievable.  Basket-for-basket, shot-for-shot, those two guys just couldn’t miss.  It was almost like they were playing one-on-one at  the local playground, and there was no one else on the court.  It was unbelievable.  After the game I walked up to Larry and asked, ‘Is that the greatest half of basketball you’ve ever played in your life?’  He just looked at me and smiled, and then he simply said ‘Yep.’

 CELTIC-NATION
Please share some of your thoughts and memories on the late Reggie Lewis.

MARK ACRES
Reggie Lewis hadn’t quite come into his prime yet, while I was there.  But he was a very good talent even then.  You could see that he had All-Star potential.  He was a quiet, well-mannered guy, and a lot of fun to be around.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Danny Ainge was your teammate, and now he oversees the reconstruction of the Boston Celtics.  Please tell me a little about Danny.

MARK ACRES
Danny just kept everybody loose.  He was a good guy to have on the team.  Unless you were playing with him, he was a player that everybody loved to hate.  He was getting booed wherever he went, and he just absolutely loved it.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Everyone, it seems, has a favorite Red Auerbach story.  Do you have one that stands out?

MARK ACRES
Before you could even see him, you could smell him [laughs].  You always knew when he was around because of all that cigar smoke.  I found that kind of interesting.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Please tell me about the Mark Acres Basketball Camp.

MARK ACRES
The Mark Acres Basketball Camp is currently in its sixth year, I believe, and we usually have between 150-200 kids every summer.  We basically teach the fundamentals, and we let them play.

 CELTIC-NATION
In 2003 you were inducted into the Oral Roberts Athletic Hall of Fame.  What does this mean to you?

MARK ACRES
It’s special.  For the school to recognize my accomplishments means a lot.  It’s always nice to be recognized.  Being a chosen athlete of my era is always something I can cherish.  Down the road I can reflect, pat myself on the back, and know that my efforts were not in vain.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Of your time spent with the Boston Celtics, do you have a fond memory or an amusing story that stands out most?

MARK ACRES
Yes – it goes back to that story about Larry Bird and the shootout with Dominique Wilkins.  After the game, he came into the locker room, and the place was very festive.  We’re going to the Eastern Conference Finals, so there is a lot of celebrating going on.  Larry said to Bill Walton, ‘Hey, Bill, I bet you thought that you were the best white boy to ever play this game.’  And Larry just looked at him as if to say, ‘Well, might have been once, when your feet were able to hold you up, but you aren’t anymore.’  And as hard as it might be to believe, Bill was actually speechless.  We all lost it.  We were doubled over laughing so hard, because Larry had finally gotten Bill’s goat.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Let's talk life after basketball.  What have you been up to in the years since retiring from the NBA?

MARK ACRES
I went back to school and got my Masters, and now I’m teaching at Casimir Middle School in Torrance, California.

 




 

CELTIC-NATION
Final Question:  You’ve achieved great success in your life.  You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA.  If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?

MARK ACRES
Never quit – you’re never beat until you quit.

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