Jerry Sichting : THE PRODUCER
The Jerry Sichting Interview
By: Michael D. McClellan | Friday, November 3rd, 2006
He was like any other Indiana schoolboy of the day, a sports junkie spending countless outside hours bouncing between the diamond, the court and the gridiron, always playing some sort of ball, the folklore in his state filled with stories of Knute Rockne and Notre Dame football, and of Bobby Plump and the miracle Milan basketball team that later inspired the movie Hoosiers, his dreams bigger than the outlandish feats of Indiana legends John Wooden and Oscar Robertson, men who would revolutionize the very sport he would come to love above all the rest. He was like the other boys in other ways as well; neither particularly fast, nor especially big, he hardly seemed the sort who would hang in a league boasting the best athletes in the world, much less do so for ten seasons while playing an integral part on arguably the greatest team in the history of the National Basketball Association. Yes, Jerry Lee Sichting was average in many ways – nondescript, by most accounts – but there was also something very special about this gritty guard with heart, smarts and moxie. He was an overachiever cut from his first professional team, filling time by working the floor of a sporting goods store, confident that he could stick if the right opportunity came along. He was a fighter who refused to let a young Bobby Knight submarine his Big Ten aspirations, proving his critics wrong by attending Purdue and earning all-conference honors as a senior. And he was, perhaps above all else, a producer – of points, assists and steals to be certain, but there was far more to him than mere numbers on a page. Sighting was the epitome of all those unselfish, team-first players who ever laced up their sneakers in pursuit of the Indiana dream, his place on the 1985-86 NBA Champion Boston Celtics a product of his dogged determination and perseverance.
Born and raised in Martinsville, Indiana, Sichting began sports at a very early age. Martinsville City Park abutted the family property line, and it wasn’t long before Sichting found himself on the park’s basketball court, hoisting shots in all manner of weather. While the park provided countless hours of entertainment, it also provided the inspiration Sichting needed to excel. He would often play alone, creating imaginary games in his mind, but there were many times when the court would be filled with other boys, many of them connected to Martinsville’s junior high and high school teams. State champions in 1924, 1927 and 1933 – John Wooden was a star on that ’27 title team, as well as the state runner-up teams of ’26 and ’28 – Martinsville High School was a source of immense civic pride for this small town and its neighboring communities. Sichting would go to the games as a pre-teen, and he would play pickup games with many of the team’s players during those hot, lazy days of summer. Soon, he would find himself at the center of the hysteria; Sichting started all four years for Martinsville High, as new head coach Sam Alford built the program around underclassmen, and he also excelled at quarterback on the football team.
Martinsville’s basketball team, on a downswing for nearly a decade, experienced a rebirth of sorts during Sichting’s junior and senior seasons. Faced with the daunting, one-class tournament that had made legends out of Plump and his teammates, Martinsville, a small school in its own right, was able to advance into the later rounds before succumbing to bigger, stronger teams. The city treated the team like stars. The turnaround on the football field was equally dramatic, as Martinsville lost only two regular season games in a three year span. Sichting was talented enough to earn all-state honors while generating cursory interest from Notre Dame and its outgoing head coach, Ara Parseghian. The allure of South Bend was tempting, but Sichting understood that football wasn’t where his athletic future lay. He was going to be a basketball player. Could feel it in his gut. Besides, the Fighting Irish already had a hot, young recruit in a fellow named Joe Montana, so a young Jerry Sichting wisely hung up his cleats and opted to pursue his first love.
His athletic path settled, several major colleges expressed an interest in the tough-as-nails guard with the sweet shooting stroke. It was an impressive list that included Indiana University and its brash head coach, Bobby Knight – at least until the Hoosiers rescinded the scholarship offer, forcing Sichting to look elsewhere. He signed with Purdue, following the footsteps of the great Wooden. Motivated by Indiana’s perceived disrespect, Sichting embraced West Lafayette and proved he belonged in the world of Big Ten basketball, transforming himself into an all-conference standout by the end of his senior season.
The NBA Draft was a completely different animal back then – more rounds, less fanfare – and Sichting’s fourth round selection by Golden State was met with little celebrity outside of Martinsville. He packed his bags and headed west, holding his own in veterans camp but getting the axe after head coach Al Attles settled on a season-opening roster that included guards John Lucas, Phil Smith and former Celtic Jo Jo White. Set adrift, Sichting tried CBA basketball for two days, before returning to Indiana and taking a job in a sporting goods store. He stayed in the game by playing in leagues around Indianapolis, his confidence unbowed, his heart convinced that he could play NBA basketball. The problem: Few NBA executives believed likewise. The 1979-80 season came and went without so much as a phone call, and by the following summer Sichting was wondering whether he would ever get the chance to prove he belonged. That chance would come in the form of open tryouts with the Indiana Pacers, a “Walter Mitty Camp” that promised the public a shot at a roster spot on what was then a floundering franchise. Sichting was hardly in playing shape, but he was impressive enough to earn a spot on the team’s summer league roster – and, in the process, earn an invitation to veterans camp. Almost improbably, he made the team.
The Pacers were decent during the 1980-81 NBA regular season, going 44-38 with a roster that included an aging George McGinnis and an unproven Jerry Sichting. The record was good enough to make the playoffs, where the team fell in the opening round to Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. A year later the Pacers were 35-47, and out of the playoffs entirely. Indiana was positively dreadful during the 1982-83 season, going 20-62, but Sichting was solid as the team’s starting point guard, averaging 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds, and playing well enough to earn a starting nod on occasion. A 26-56 season followed in 1983-84, and a year later the team was 22-60. For Sichting, just making an NBA roster was no longer the priority. He had scrapped and clawed his way into the league, and he had proven himself as a key reserve coming off of the bench. He had also observed the great things happening in Boston, where another Indiana schoolboy was busy setting the world on fire. Larry Bird had transformed the Celtics into perennial championship contenders, winning it all in 1980-81 and again in 1983-84, only to see the hated Los Angeles wrest the crown in 1984-85. The Celtics were loaded with talent, especially with a starting lineup that included Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, but the team sorely lacked depth. Something had to be done if Bird and his mates were to keep pace.
The first move came in the form of a trade – Boston sending forward Cedric Maxwell to the Clippers in exchange for one-time league MVP Bill Walton. Walton had proven himself to be one of the greatest centers in the game, until a spate of foot and ankle injuries threatened his career and reduced him to the role of well-paid spectator. By the summer of 1985, however, Walton was as healthy as he had been in years. He was also hungry to add another championship to the title he had won in Portland. Walton’s arrival in Boston meant that Parish would have a quality backup, a missing ingredient in the team’s effort to repeat the year before. The Celtics’ bench was vastly improved by the acquisition. Still, there were concerns about the guard play. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge were top shelf starters, capable of playing both outside positions, but there was a precipitous drop in talent beyond them. Promising collegian Sam Vincent was drafted out of Michigan State, but a contract holdout, coupled with head coach KC Jones’ lack of faith in rookies, sent the Celtics scrambling in search of veteran talent. They didn’t have to look very far.
“I contacted the Celtics through Chris Ford,” Sichting says. “I was a free agent, and I had always wanted to play for the Boston Celtics. I didn’t know whether the team would be interested, but I thought that it was worth a try. There seemed to be some interest on their part, but then they drafted Sam. I really didn’t think I had a chance at that point.”
Back then, Sichting may have been surprised to know exactly how highly the Celtics valued his services. He shot the ball well, took care of it even better, and made excellent decisions with it in his hands. Boston coveted a veteran with those qualities. The team parted with Quinn Buckner via trade (to the Pacers), and then signed Sichting to an offer sheet. Fifteen days later, he was officially a member of the Boston Celtics.
The roster tweaking paid off handsomely for a Celtic team hell-bent on reclaiming the title. It took a couple of months for the team to click, but by January there was no stopping the Boston juggernaut. The winning seemed to gather momentum with each game, and Sichting, 0-2 in his only other playoff experience, could hardly contain his enthusiasm. He had not only gone from NBA doormat to championship contender, he had joined arguably the greatest collection of basketball talent the game had ever seen. Consider: So good were these Celtics that they won 43 of 49 games in one stretch, many of them by double digits. Home court domination? Try a 40-1 record at the fabled Boston Garden and at Hartford, Connecticut. (Three ‘home’ games were played in Hartford that season.) The Big Three of Bird, McHale and Parish was turning in a season for the ages, D.J. and Danny were playing championship basketball, and the bench – primarily Walton, Sichting and Scott Wedman – was producing one big play after another. The 67-15 record was a league-best that season, and one of the greatest finishes ever. The Celtics, however, had tossed up a better number in 1972-73, finishing 68-14, only to fail in its bid for a championship. In Boston, Sichting quickly learned that it was all about the bottom line. Winning 67 games would mean nothing if the Celtics didn’t win the title.
The 1986 NBA Playoffs began with the Celtics battling the Chicago Bulls and a young Michael Jordan. The hard numbers show a 3-0 Celtics sweep, but the series will be forever remembered for Game 2 in the fabled Boston Garden. That game proved to be Air Jordan’s official coming out party, a 63-point spectacle that pushed his celebrity into the stratosphere. For Sichting, winning the series was all that mattered. He had never been part of a championship team at any level. Jordan could have his points, as long as Sichting could punch his ticket into the second round, and with it a matchup against high-flying Dominique Wilkins and the Atlanta Hawks.
Boston rolled to a 3-0 series lead against the Hawks before stumbling, 106-94, in Atlanta. That loss not only delayed the inevitable, it put the veteran Celtics in a bad mood; the 132-99 Game 5 pounding was the ultimate statement game, one that erased any doubts that Boston might stumble like its 1972-73 counterparts. Sichting, after years of struggling to find success in the NBA, was halfway toward winning the ultimate prize.
“It was an unbelievable ride,” Sichting says. “We were on a roll, and everyone on the team knew that we were the best team in the NBA that year. We were extremely focused on winning the championship, and nothing was going to stop us. If anyone had any doubts, I think we proved our point after that close-out win against Atlanta.”
Milwaukee was next, but proved to be no match in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 4-0 series sweep thrust Boston back onto the world stage, where a rematch with the Lakers seemed a foregone conclusion. Sichting, along with the rest of the Celtics, expected no less. The upstart Houston Rockets, however, had other ideas; led by the twin towers, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets shocked the Lakers, 4-2, to earn its first trip the NBA Finals in five years.
“I think everyone was expecting another Celtics-Lakers Finals,” he says. “We had been gearing up for it from the beginning of the season, and nothing had changed our minds once the playoffs started. But then Houston came out of nowhere and upset Los Angeles. It wasn’t the matchup that we had expected.”
Winning the first two games at home, the Celtics traveled to Houston for three consecutive road games. A 106-104 loss cut the series lead to 2-1, but Boston bounced back with a three point win (106-103) in Game 4, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead. One more game remained to be played in Houston, and it is in this game that Sichting will perhaps forever be best remembered. With 2:20 remaining in the second quarter, and with Houston holding a 34-33 lead, Sampson threw an elbow at Sichting, and then unloaded a right hand on the gritty guard from Martinsville. Chaos ensued, as players from both teams went at it. Bill Walton, D.J., and Greg Kite joined in. The altercation fired up the crowd, juiced up the Rockets, and knocked the Celtics out of synch. The resulting 15-point loss (111-96) was the worst since a December road loss to Portland, and shifted the series back to Boston, 3-2.
“We were fired up after that loss,” Johnson recalls. “We were hopping mad. We were mad at ourselves for losing our composure, and for letting the Rockets win that game. We felt that we were going to wrap it up right then and there, but we lost and had to play one more game. We didn’t mind that too much, though; Game 6 was back home in Boston. We were chomping at the bit to play them again.”
Larry Bird’s zenith may have been reached in that next game. His 29 point, 11 rebound, 12 assist performance was one for the ages, a jaw-dropping virtuoso affair that blew the hinges off a close game and led to a 114-97 Game 6 romp. Boston finally had its 16th championship, and Jerry Sichting, after years of struggling to make his mark, was suddenly on top of the basketball world.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Sichting says. “From a basketball standpoint, I’d never been that excited in my life. I hadn’t been able to win a championship in high school, and I hadn’t won one at Purdue. My situation with the Pacers was different that in Boston because the team was in a complete rebuilding mode. I was a free agent and they had brought in Vern Fleming as the point guard of the future. Once I knew the Celtics were interested, I had the choice of being the backup guard for Boston or Indiana. So at that time it wasn't a hard decision. To be able to win a championship, especially with a special group of guys like that, is something that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
Sichting would play one more full season for the Celtics, and then find himself traded to Portland during the 1987-88 campaign. He would then bounce from Portland to Milwaukee to the expansion Charlotte Hornets franchise, where he would retire during the 1989-90 season at the age of 33. He had grown up idolizing the Pacers of the ABA and the Celtics of the NBA, and he had played for both. And while his time in Boston was brief, Sighting will forever be remembered for his ability to produce when called upon, and for his place on one of the greatest teams of all time.
Celtic Nation is pleased to bring you this interview.
You were born on November 29th, 1956, in Martinsville, Indiana. 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?
The main thing that drew me to basketball was, number one, growing up in Indiana. Number two, my family moved when I was about three years old. The property that the house was on was connected to a park, and the basketball court was about twenty feet from my backyard. I grew up on the basketball court, playing outside whenever the weather permitted, and whenever the weather didn’t permit. That’s kind of what drew me to basketball. And being in a small town in Indiana, back in those days that was a major source of entertainment. Everybody looked up to whoever played on the high school team, and your goal as a kid in grade school and junior high was to make the varsity basketball team. And as you got closer to achieving that goal, then you maybe thought about making the Indiana All-Star Team, which was a huge deal in those days. So that’s how I really go interested in basketball. The guys that played on the varsity team would be over in that park a lot in the summer, and I would just try to do what they did.
You were a four-year starter at Martinsville High School, and played for the legendary Sam Alford. Please tell me about your high school basketball career.
Coach Alford came as I was coming in as a freshman. He really rebuilt the program. There had been some years when Martinsville had had good teams, but it had been fairly inconsistent. In his first couple of years as head coach – especially my freshman year – we struggled a little bit. He decided to go with a youth movement, I guess you would call it, and he played a lot of freshmen and sophomores. We didn’t have a lot of seniors that year. We really took a lot of lumps because we played one of the most difficult schedules in the state. I think we only won five or six games my freshman year. The next year we turned around and had a winning season, and then my last couple of years we consistently ranked in the state, and had a really good experience in terms of how well we did in the regular season. That’s back during the days of the legendary one-class tournament, so we never did make it to the state finals. But we were a good team. We played in this old gym that was built in the 1920s. I tell people that it was almost a high school version of the Boston Garden. It was a big ol’ brick building called Glenn Curtis Gymnasium, and it sat separate from the rest of the school. When it was built, it held more than the population of the town. That’s the same gym that Johnny Wooden played in the ‘20s. They may have played one more season after I graduated from Martinsville High School, and then after that they moved to a new high school. It was an incredible atmosphere – we’d pack it for every home game, and I think we lost one game there my last two years, during my junior year, and it was really quite a home court advantage.
You were an all-state quarterback at Martinsville, and Notre Dame showed interest in you. What led you to choose basketball instead, and what factored into your decision to attend Purdue?
I was always a basketball-first athlete. I liked football, although I didn’t play my freshman year. What drew me to football was the head coach that came in on the football side, maybe a year or two before Alford came in, and he really turned the football program around. The football program in Martinsville had always been horrendous, and we never had a winning football team. The coach was Bill Siderowitz, and my freshmen year the team went 9-1, which really got the whole town in a frenzy. It was as if the community discovered for the first time that there was a sport called football. So coach really did a sales job on me, and talked me into coming out my sophomore year. I was a backup quarterback then, and we finished with another 9-1 season. By the time I was a senior we finished the job and went undefeated. Growing up, I’d always liked football. We basically played whatever sport was in season at the time; like I said, I lived in the park as a kid. The baseball diamond was there, tennis courts…we played pickup football all of the time, tackle football without pads, so I’d always liked playing football. But before Siderowitz, everybody thought our high school program was a joke, so a lot of the good athletes wouldn’t even go out for awhile. But this coach completely turned it around, and my senior year in football is one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had in sports.
I really never gave college football serious consideration. I just played in high school because I liked it, and because we had some really good players on the team. Notre Dame never actually offered me a scholarship, but I could have gone to Purdue or Indiana and played football. My first love was basketball, and quite a few schools showed a lot of interest in me. My coach, Sam Alford, really wanted me to go to Indiana, and I was actually recruited by Indiana. I was giving it serious consideration, but I really hadn’t made my mind up, and Indiana gave the scholarship to another player. It really was a source of motivation for me after that, because I kind of thought that [head coach Bob] Knight didn’t think that I could play in the Big Ten. So it came down to Cincinnati, Louisville and Purdue. I had grown up being a Purdue and an Indiana fan. I remember Rick Mount and those teams of the late sixties and early seventies, and even back to when the Van Arsdales played…I remember watching both of them on TV – this was back when there were only four channels to choose from, but all of the Indiana and Purdue games were televised. So I went to visit Purdue. And like I said, I wanted to play in the Big Ten. So I decided to go there.
You were All-Big Ten following during senior season at Purdue. As one of the best guards in the country, did you feel that you would get the opportunity to play basketball in the NBA?
I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t a high draft choice or anything, and to be honest I thought the NBA was probably an outside shot at best. I just thought I was a fringe player who might need the perfect situation to get there. I had confidence in my ability. One thing that definitely helped me was playing in the Big Ten, because there was so much great competition in those days. In the late seventies, the Big Ten was the best conference in the country, hands down. When you go back and start picking apart the different players that played in the Big Ten, and the length of their careers in the NBA, it’s really quite amazing. I don’t know of any conference since then that’s had that many players play that long in the NBA. Almost every team had an NBA point guard, with the possible exception of Illinois. Quinn Buckner was at Indiana. Kelvin Ransey was at Ohio State. Rickey Green was at Michigan. Magic Johnson was at Michigan State. Wes Matthews was at Wisconsin. Minnesota had Ray Williams and Osborn Lockhart, who played for the Globetrotters. Billy McKinney was at Northwestern. So all of those guys matriculated into the NBA, and those were just the guards. There were a lot of forwards and centers who made it to the NBA as well – Mychal Thompson, Kent Benson, Joe Barry Carroll…all of those guys were in the Big Ten. So that’s what really prepared me, and what gave me the confidence that I could play NBA basketball. I knew that I’d be a bubble-type of player coming out of college, but I knew I had a shot if I just got with the right team.
You were selected in the fourth round of the 1979 NBA Draft, by the Golden State Warriors. Please tell me about that training camp, and also about the two players with past and soon-to-be future ties with the Boston Celtics – Jo Jo White and Robert Parish.
It was an eye-opener. Like any rookie coming into the league, I didn’t know quite what to expect. It’s a huge jump up in talent. Golden State had some older guards that were on guaranteed contracts. A couple of them were kind of on their way out, but they had guaranteed contracts, which was Jo Jo White’s situation. I think that might have been his last year. John Lucas was there. Phil Smith – he might have gotten injured that year, but he was one of the team’s mainstays from that 1975 NBA championship team. I thought I had a good camp; in one of the intra-squad games I had over twenty points, but it’s a numbers game, and there just wasn’t a spot for me there that year. I didn’t get a real good look, or get a lot of opportunities to play in the exhibition games, so I was a little bit frustrated with that. But being on the other end, several years later as a coach, I know how difficult it is when you have to make those last cuts. You know a guy can probably play in the league, but you just don’t have a spot for him. So I understood that it was a numbers game, and that you had to be in the right place at the right time. I liked the Bay Area, and I was really excited about having the chance to play there, but it just didn’t work out in the end.
The Warriors cut you prior to the start of the regular season, and you returned to your native Indiana to work in a sporting goods store. Please take me back to this period in your life – what did you do in the year prior to making it with the Indiana Pacers?
I thought, realistically, that I probably wasn’t going to play professional basketball. The CBA at that time was kind of a loosely ran organization. It wasn’t well-organized. I actually went out to Maine for a couple of days, and I just thought at that point that I wasn’t going to like basketball if I put myself through the CBA lifestyle – getting in a van, and driving up-and-down the east coast and playing games, things like that. And with the guys that were on that team, I just didn’t think I was going to fit in. So I resigned myself to the fact that I had a good college career, came close to making it, and ended up getting a regular job back in Indianapolis.
What I did that year was work the job, and then play in some industrial leagues and some AAU tournaments and stuff like that. I stayed somewhat in shape. The guys that I worked with at the sporting goods company were gym rats themselves. We played several times a week, and then I was in a couple of different leagues, but I wasn’t in the kind of shape that I thought would lead me into the NBA.
Then the Pacers changed coaches, and had a big shakeup in their front office. Jack McKinney was coming in from the Los Angeles Lakers – he had had that bicycle accident the year before, and the Lakers had ended up winning the championship under Paul Westhead. So Jack lost his job, and the Pacers hired him. One of the first things he did was conduct something called a Walter Mitty Camp, which was when the had a bunch of guys come in for open auditions. More than anything, I think it was a way for the team to get Jack familiar with the facilities, and to get him back on the court and see how he reacted following that accident. I remember the tryout – it was nearly a hundred degrees outside, and the humidity was really high. We had our practices at Hinkle Fieldhouse on the Butler University campus. There was no air conditioning. It was supposed to be a two-day tryout, and I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back the second day. I had told Jack that I was in pretty good shape, but I really wasn’t in the shape that I’d told him. Thankfully, they ended only having a one-day camp. They invited me, and a few other guys, to the rookie camp. And from there it was just a series of tryouts. I went through the rookie camp, and they picked five guys from there to go play in the LA summer league. They had a few free agents out there joining us. The Pacers were kind of short on money in those days, and they were trying to do a lot of things on a shoestring budget, so we didn’t even send a full team. I ended up meeting former Laker Walt Hazzard, who was calling himself Mahdi Abdul-Rahman at the time. He coached us, and I had to show him the plays that we were running after I made my way to California. I played in the summer league, and got invited back to veterans camp. So it was basically a series of about four different tryouts that I had to get through in order to make the team.
You played your first five seasons with the Pacers. What was it like to play against those great Celtic teams, and did you ever think that you would one day help lead them to an NBA Championship?
Well, the Celtics were obviously very good in the early ‘80s. I remember those games well – we actually beat them a couple of times at home. What I remember most about those games is that it was almost like playing an away game. There were so many Celtics fans in Indiana because of Larry Bird. We’d go out there for a home game, and we weren’t drawing that well at the time. But when the Celtics were in town, or the Lakers or Philadelphia, we’d usually have pretty good crowds. When we’d play the Celtics, it would seem like half of the gym would be green. So we got pumped up from the fact that we finally had some people watching us play. We usually played pretty well against the Celtics at home, and like I said, we beat them a couple of times. At that point we had a real young team in Indiana, and those were our playoff games. So those were definitely the highlights of our season.
An aging George McGinnis was your teammate those first two seasons in Indy. What was he like?
George is an Indiana legend. I don’t know if there’s a guy to compare him to when he was in high school – I guess it would be somebody like a LeBron James. He was a man among boys. He was just so big and physically mature, and so quick at the same time. Nobody could handle him when he was a young player like that. But he only played a couple of years of college ball at Indiana, and then he went hardship and went to the ABA in the early 70s. He was just a legend at such a young age, because of what he did in high school and later at Indiana. It was fun to play with him. I still keep in touch with George, and give him a phone call or an email once in a while to catch up. Great guy. His career didn’t quite go to the point where he’s going to be a hall of fame player, at least not from what he accomplished as a professional, but he had some very good years in the ABA and also when he first got to Philadelphia. I tell people that I’m probably the only person to play on the same team with both McGinnis and Bird, two of the best players to ever come out of Indiana – probably the two best, with the exception of Oscar Robertson. So that was quite an experience to be able to play with George.
You became a free agent during the summer of ’85. Jan Volk expressed an interest in you, and yet the team went out and selected Sam Vincent from Michigan State. Please take me back to that period in you life, and to the events that led you to sign with the Celtics.
I actually made the first phone call to the Celtics to see if there was any interest. Growing up, my two favorite teams were the Pacers and the Celtics. The Pacers were in the ABA in those days, that the Celtics were the greatest team in NBA history. I followed them in the late 60s, and then on into the 70s when John Havlicek and Dave Cowens were running the show. I just always liked the style of play – I felt that they played basketball the right way. They had just been defeated by the Lakers in ’85, and I was a free agent. With a little bit of encouragement from my wife, I finally picked up the phone. I’ll never forget that. She said, ‘You should just call them. Maybe they have interest, because they definitely want to add outside shooting after losing to the Lakers.’ So, I called Chris Ford, and Jan Volk was calling before you know it. He said that they were definitely interested. It was right before the draft, and he asked me to call him back after the draft. When they picked Sam Vincent in the first round, I decided not to call back. A day or two later, Jan calls me and says, ‘I thought you were going to call’. I said, ‘Well, I thought you got your point guard in Sam Vincent’. He says, ‘Well, we like Sam, but you’re more of a proven commodity right now. We’re still very interested in you’. So that kind of got the ball rolling. I was coming off a stress fracture in ’85, so I went to Boston and had the doctors look at me. I had a couple of interviews, and I went to KC Jones’ basketball camp that summer. I got to sit down and talk with him a little bit, and before you knew it I signed the contract.
Your arrival in Boston coincided with that of the great Bill Walton. What did a healthy and hungry Walton mean to this team in terms of regaining the NBA Championship, and what was your relationship like with the bid red head?
He was the NBA Sixth Man of the Year that year, and he provided a lot of stuff for that team. He was a great passer, a great rebounder, and so intelligent. He was just on a mission that year. He was probably the most focused guy from the first day of camp until the end of the season, because he had gone through so much adversity with his health. I think he knew that this was probably his swan song. He had a couple of years left in him, possibly, and he was finally in a position to be on another great team. I think everybody would tell you that he was just a fantastic teammate.
Larry Bird has been raised to a level of near mythology. What was Larry like as a person, and just how great a player was he during the 1985-86 season?
Well, he was a great player, obviously, and he was the leader of the team. He definitely was all about winning. The hard work that he put in carried over to everyone else on the team. He could do some amazing things on the basketball floor. He had a sixth sense for what was going to happen next – his anticipation and recognition of what was going to happen in the next second or two was really unparalleled. It enabled him to do some things that other people with the same athletic ability wouldn’t be able to come close to doing.
The Celtics were practically unbeatable at home that season. What was it like to play in the Boston Garden, and what was it like to perform in front of those fans?
The Garden was a place like no other, especially in terms of the fans. The just never believed that we were going to lose. There were several times that year when we were down, but I don’t think anybody that sat on our bench, or anybody who was on the court, or anybody who was in the stands, ever thought that we weren’t going to come back and win. It was only a matter of time, and it was only a matter of what the eventual winning margin was going to be. It took us a little while to really jell that year because Walton and myself were new to the team, and there a few tweaks in the lineup and the rotations from the year before. Once we started rolling – I’d say in early January – we went through once stretch, a good three week period, where we were beating teams by an average of over twenty points. We just got to clicking and everybody kind of fell into their roles and knew what everybody else on the team was going to do, night in and night out. We were pretty much untouchable there for a while.
Do you remember meeting Red Auerbach for the first time, and do you have a funny or amusing story that you would like to share?
Red was famous for negotiating directly with his players, but too be honest, I did most of my contract negotiations with Jan Volk. Red was kind of standoffish at first. Looking back, you almost had to win a championship to be accepted. He wanted to wait, I think, to see how I did in the playoffs, and see exactly what this team was going to do. After that, I remember getting a cigar from him when we won the championship. The next year, we had some injuries and some problems, and there was one time when he came into the locker room. He rarely spoke to the team as a group, but he came in once – we were struggling, and had lost several road games in a row – and he came in the locker room, and basically read everybody the riot act, and said that we weren’t playing like the Celtics. It was late ’86, early ’87. He told us that we were retaliating instead of instigating, which was one of his favorite sayings, and he said that nobody really wanted to go out there and fight, except for D.J. and Little Jerry [laughs]. That’s what it called me from then on.
But Red had such a keen eye for the game, and a feel, not only from an X and O standpoint, but for what it took to win. The intangibles, the toughness…he really understood that type of stuff at a level that other coaches didn’t. I think he looked for that in his players, and that’s what made him such a great general manager. He had a knack for making trades and getting deals done. In an era when it seemed so hard to make a trade or do a deal, he always found a way to help his team and make his team better.
You hit a huge shot in the second overtime of that game, breaking a tie at 131 and practically ending the Bulls’ season. What did it mean to you to have the trust of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to take a big shot like that.
That’s why I wanted to come to Boston. I had kind of established myself in the league, but I was on a team that was a few years away from being any kind of contender, or even making the playoffs at that point. It was kind of frustrating, so I knew if I went to a team like Boston I wasn’t going to start. But I’d have a chance to play and perform, and to be on a team that had a chance to do something special. So that’s what attracted me to Boston to begin with. So that’s what I was really looking forward to – I wanted to be in that playoff-type atmosphere that, up until that point, I’d never been in before. I knew I could put the ball in the basket. I wasn’t a great scorer by any stretch of the imagination, but I was a real good shooter. So you just want to put yourself in those situations and see how you respond. That was the exact reason I went to Boston – to be a part of those key playoff games, and those key situations. I wanted to see if I could get the job done. It was more of a question that I had of myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I could stand up to the pressure. There were a few games through the two years that I was there, in the playoffs, that I was able to come in and respond to the challenge. So it was fun. Just to be a part of it. I didn’t want to go there and just sit on the bench and not get any playing time at all, but I understood that Dennis and Danny were going to get the majority of the minutes. In that type of role you just have to be ready – somebody is going to get hurt, or somebody is going to foul out, which is what happened to Dennis in that particular game. You just have to go out and pick up where they left off.
The 1986 NBA Finals will forever be remembered for the altercation between you and Ralph Sampson. Take me back to the incident that turned Sampson into Public Enemy No. 1 – and do you still have one of the signs that reads ‘Sampson is a Sissy’?
Yeah, I had one at one time [laughs]. I don’t know if I still have one in a box at home or what. That was really the beginning of the downfall of Ralph’s career. I never saw him play really well after that, especially in the Boston Garden. The fans were merciless when we came back to Boston for Game 6. Over time, I think that altercation took its toll on him. He was an All-Star caliber player at one point in his career, and it seemed that that tipped him over the hill and he started going down the other way. It was one of those things in the heat of the battle. He kind of lost control, and before you know it you’ve got a bunch of guys out there on the floor and it was really a dangerous scene. You had a few policemen out there trying to break it up, which isn’t good, either. At times it’s best to let the players break it up.
The thing I regret about the whole thing is that it turned the game around. We were actually in the lead when it happened, and had a chance to close them out, 4-1. And then the crowd went absolutely berserk. I think the referees felt the pressure after that happened, and that played a part in it, too. The Rockets gained the momentum after that fight, so that’s the only thing I really regret about it – not necessarily that it happened. Once we got back to Boston we had a practice, and KC had to call it. We went for about a half hour – we were supposed to go through things at three-quarter speed, but everybody was so ticked off that there were fights ready to break out. That’s one of the most intense practices that I’ve every been a part of as a player. KC knew that we were ready to play, so he just cancelled practice at that point. We came back an blew them out in Game 6.
Let’s talk Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals. What was the atmosphere like in the fabled Boston Garden, and what was it like to witness Larry Bird’s performance up close and personal?
Everybody was sky-high to finish it out. We were just upset that we didn’t take care of things in Houston. I remember Game 6 – it was tight into the second quarter, but then we were able to up the lead. In the third quarter the starters just blew the Rockets right off the floor. So, in the fourth quarter KC just kind of bypassed Walton and myself, and most of the fourth quarter was played by the rest of the bench. That was the other regrettable thing – I didn’t get to play a whole lot in that final game [laughs]. But it was such a blowout. As a player, you’re just anxious to get back to the locker room and celebrate, but I wish I could have played a few more minutes in that last game.
After working so hard to climb the mountain, what was it like to finally be a world champion?
It was a dream come true. Actually, when you’re growing up you don’t think that anything like that can actually happen. Sure, you dream about it – every kid does, whether its winning the Super Bowl, or the World Series, or the NBA Finals – but once you’re in the NBA like I was, then you can start to dream about it a little more. And once I joined the Celtics, that was our goal from the first day of training camp. As I mentioned before, they had lost the year before to the Lakers, and there was no question about the goal. This side of a world championship was going to be a bad year. To finally get it done, that was the great part. It was kind of numbing those first couple of days after it happened. And looking back, it was really about the journey of getting to that point – that’s what you remember the most. It was fun. The fans – we had a parade, and they estimate that close to 2 million people attended. It was just incredible.
The sky seemed the limit in the moments after that Game 6, but everything would change just a few short weeks later. Where were you when you heard that Len Bias had died?
I was back in Indiana at that point. I was at my in-laws house. I remember my wife waking me up pretty early in the morning – there was a phone call from Boston. I can’t even remember who exactly it was that called, but I just couldn’t believe it. It just seemed like a bad dream. I started calling other people within the organization, and all of a sudden it’s on the TV and on the radio. That’s when it finally hit me that it was true. Len Bias was going to be a great, great player. The next great Celtic.
Indiana is widely considered the cradle of basketball. In 2002, you were inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, joining such luminaries as Oscar Robertson and your former teammate, Larry Bird. What does this honor mean to you?
It was a great honor. Indiana has long been known for its high school basketball, and the interest and the history and the culture that comes with it is really special. It’s really like no other place. Back when I played high school ball, it was really the tail end of an era. There was no cable TV, no computers, and no video games. There was just so much more focus on high school basketball. It’s really not the same, even now. So I’m glad that I grew up in that special era, and it means the world to be in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
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?
Have a dream, have a goal, and work hard to achieve it. Most people that end up at top are usually blessed with special gifts, whether it is in sports, music, or whatever the occupation might be. For the rest of us, there is no substitute for hard work and dedication.