By Sterling Pingree
Last week began an idea, one to construct the Mount Rushmore of each of the Boston teams. Last week, I metaphorically carved Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz onto the Red Sox edition. This week I tackle those boys in green, the 17-time flag winners of the NBA: The Boston Celtics.
The idea behind this practice is to deem who I think the four greatest players are in each team’s history. Players who made the greatest contribution to that particular franchise; these are the names and faces that come to mind when you think of that team. I look for balance to make sure that each era is represented or as close to each era as possible.
With the Red Sox, Williams and Yaz were locks to make the list and the Celtics follow that trend, it’s after the first two names that things get pretty interesting.
Bill Russell is the greatest winner in the history of sports. His claimant to this throne is undeniable and one that I make without any exhaustion or consternation. Russell won two collegiate national championships while playing for the power house, San Francisco Dons and a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics. This is before he even joined the Celtics, where all he did was win 11 championships in 13 season, winning the last two as the player/coach of the team. The last part of that statement is what I feel gets most overlooked in his career of impeccable achievement. Bill Russell won two NBA championships as a player/coach. Only one other player/coach won a championship and that was Buddy Jeanette with the Baltimore Bullets in 1947. By the way, he technically won that in the American Basketball League. So in the NBA as we know it, there is only one person who ever won a championship as a player/coach and that’s Bill Russell, who did it twice. Russell was unequivocally ahead of his time defensively, in starting the fast break and will forever be on the shortest of lists for greatest rebounders in the sport’s history. Russell showed that a player whose primary asset wasn’t scoring, could still be not only a productive player, but have a overwhelming impact on the game.
Larry Joe Bird has to not only make this monument, but I want him to reside right next to Russell. Because perhaps there are no two players from different eras that played for the same franchise that I would have loved to see play together more than numbers 6 and 33. Bird was perhaps the best passing forward we’ve ever seen, which would match up perfectly with Russell’s ability to grab rebounds and immediately turn defense into offense. I also firmly believe that Bird’s ability to make the players around him better, (trademark all basketball analysts) could have unlocked offensive potential we never got to fully explore with Russell.
This is a bold statement, but there isn’t another basketball player, whose career highlights I enjoy watching more than Larry Bird. Jordan’s highlights are incredible, Magic was endlessly entertaining and Lebron is just a force but I’ll take Bird. Why? Because Bird’s highlights are like nothing else we have ever seen before or since. Clips of Bird throwing baseball passes, diving into the third row after loose balls, shooting from behind the backboard, head fakes, ball fakes, jump stops and incredible passes all look different coming from the 6’-9” Bird. Not to mention that he was one of the greatest shooters we’ve ever seen, especially from the forward position. His trash talk and bravado when coupled with his blue collar demeanor and work ethic make him into the kind of legend that doesn’t come around too often.
John Havlicek played 16-years for the Boston Celtics and was an NBA All-Star in 13 of those seasons while also being named All-NBA 11 times. What sealed this spot for “Hondo” in my mind is the fact that he won eight championships. Which at first glance you could say: “Big deal, the team won 11 titles in 13 seasons, there are a lot of Celtics from that era that won a couple handfuls of rings.” You could say that and you would be absolutely correct, Sam Jones has 10 rings and Havlicek’s eight titles ties him for third most all-time with Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders and KC Jones. But we must take a closer look at the timeline in which Havlicek won those eight rings. Hondo won six rings with the Russell Celtics in the 60’s, first as a 6th man off the bench and then eventually becoming co-star. When Russell retired after the 1969 Finals, it became Havlicek’s team and one that was going through transition. With Havlicek as its backbone, the Celtics rebounded to win titles in 1974 and 1976. Havlicek retired after the 1978 season and once said that if he had known how good Larry Bird was going to be as a rookie in 1979, he would have stayed around a little longer. We are left only to imagine what this would have been like.
This final spot is perhaps the hardest that I will face in my continuing journey to construct a four person Mount Rushmore for each Boston team. I, as always, welcomed discussion on social media. There was a lot of love for Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, some for Bob Cousy, absolutely not enough for Dave Cowens, and predictably there was enough mentions of Paul Pierce to cover a train pulling into North Station in only 12 point font. In the end, I decided on none of these names.
In 2007, the Celtics were, unknowingly at the time, wrapping up one of the greatest runs of futility we’ve ever seen in Boston sports. Since Bird’s retirement in 1992 and McHale and Parish’s after him, the team was led by names like Dee Brown, Dana Barros and Acie Earl. After this 16-year run, where the closest the Celtics came to their 17th championship was an Eastern Conference Finals loss in 2002 vs New Jersey, (The Celtics lost to New Jersey in 2002, it feels weird to say now that they’re called Brooklyn) the 2008 championship was appreciated more than a lot of titles we’ve been blessed with in this area.
It is with this in mind that the final place on my Celtics Mount Rushmore must go to Kevin Garnett. In my estimation, Garnett had the greatest impact on that championship team. I know that Pierce won the finals MVP that year and that Ray Allen was probably a better scorer, but Garnett brought more to the table in a short amount of time than almost any other Celtic who is not on this list. The Celtics went from the worst record in the NBA winning only 24 games in 2006-07 to winning 66 the next year. They improved by 42 wins in a single season! That doesn’t just happen with an influx of talent, you have to change the entire climate of a team to make an improvement like that and the maniacal, cult of personality that wore #5 for the Celtics had more to do with that transformation than anybody. Pierce was a great player, one of the best in team history, but he alone or with Ray Allen couldn’t have raised the team to the best record in the NBA in one season and kept the team amongst the NBA’s elite for six straight seasons. If KG doesn’t finally accept a trade out of Minnesota, the Celtics, led by Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins are better, but I certainly don’t think they would have been a title contender. People forget that in the 2008 playoffs, the Celtics went 7 games with Atlanta in the first round and 7 with Lebron and the Cavs in the second round. I don’t think, if that team didn’t have Garnett, that they even would have even gotten to the finals in 2008, let alone won the title.
Garnett goes down as one of the best players in the late 90’s and decade of the 2000’s and rightfully so. KG was a rebounding machine, a knock down shooter from 15-feet while almost forgetting that he was the defensive player of the year in 2007-08. (He also finished 3rd in the MVP voting behind Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul.) Kevin Garnett only played 6 seasons in Boston, but boy did he make them count.
Let the debate begin. I don’t know if I have the best four Celtics of all-time, but I don’t think you’d find four that were more intense, more passionate or had more success than this group.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.