When I woke up in Brooklyn on the morning of June 9, 1978, my only intention was to go to work. Little did I know that I would end up going to the NBA Draft as well.
I also wasn’t aware that the Celtics would call up Larry Bird that day.
The last thing I didn’t know was I was about to become the first Celtics fan in the world to know who the Celtics picked. But that’s exactly what happened, and I swear on Banner 18 that this story is 100% true.
Although I was born and raised in Brooklyn, I wasn’t a fan of either the New York Knicks in 1978 or the then-New Jersey Nets. No, I’ve been a Celtics fan since I started following the NBA in the fall of 1965. That life-changing decision was thanks to my best friend (to date) Joe LoSchiavo, who read a Sports Illustrated article about Frank Ramsey, Boston’s original sixth man.
Joe decided he liked Ramsey and so became a Celtics fan. If my best mate wanted to cheer for Boston, then so did I. And it paid off immediately: The Celts won the title in 1966, which was Red Auerbach’s last banner before retiring from coaching. Joe and I have been addicts for life.
A few years later, after graduating from Boston University (yes, I chose to go to school in Boston), I was back living in Brooklyn and working in the corporate communications department of a large insurance company in Midtown Manhattan. When I got to my cabin, I said good morning to my office neighbor Neil Shalin.
Neil’s response: “Why don’t we go to the NBA Draft today?”
This suggestion was puzzling as the event was not open to the public. Many years later, the NBA began allowing spectators; Now they sell tickets for $42 each and also offer VIP experiences. But in 1978 the draft was not even televised.
Do understand, however, that Neil was one of the smartest and most witty people I have ever known. He knew more information on more subjects than all three Danger participants together. Sports were a big part of his life, including scouting college players for the Sixers, doing public relations for roller derby and the New York Nets in their early ABA years, and later authoring several books on baseball.
So by the time Neil made his draft proposal, he had already figured out how we were going to get in. “We pretend to be basketball writers.”
That would be impossible today without references, but it was entirely doable in the much less safety-conscious late 70’s. As lunchtime approached, Neil grabbed his reporter’s notebook, I borrowed a 35mm camera from our department’s equipment room, and we set off about two dozen blocks north to The Plaza Hotel.
The draft was just beginning when we got to the ballroom, where all 22 teams were represented. Neil told the woman at the check-in desk that we were from the totally non-existent Basketball Weekly. She waved us right in.
We did our best to mingle with the media – Neil took notes while I snapped random photos. As the teams began to announce their picks, the top five contenders were in the air: Mychal Thompson finished #1 to the Portland Trailblazers; Phil Ford went to the Sacramento Kings; Rick Robey became Indiana Pacer; Micheal Ray Richardson was acquired by the New York Knicks; and pick #5 was Purvis Short for the Golden State Warriors.
The Celtics were next up, holding pick #6, and suddenly Boston had the door open to pick the guy who could and should have gone at #1.
Bird came off a college season in which he averaged 30 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and was a First Team All-American. The main reason he wasn’t a top pick: He was draft-eligible under the rules at the time, but he had one year of college eligibility left — and he’d promised to use it. The NBA team that chose Bird would have to wait an entire season for him and then sign it before the next draft or lose it and have nothing.
But think about it. That Indiana Pacers pass on to ultimately design the greatest hoosier to ever lace up sneakers. That curtsy didn’t catch the guy who would have been New York’s hottest ticket. All five teams had their reasons, but they certainly regretted not thinking big.
Red Auerbach had a decisive advantage in this decision: The Celtics also had the eighth pick they had received in a trade from Los Angeles the previous season. Boston used that election to get Freeman Williams, so no matter what happened to Bird, Red got a player (two-time national scorer-leader in college) to help immediately. In a twist, Williams was later traded before ever wearing a Celtics uniform, but never forget the headline is here the lakers helped the Celtics draft Larry Bird!
Now, back in the ballroom, it was time. I heard the words, “The Boston Celtics select Larry Bird from the state of Indiana!”
Neil and I, the imposters, were the only fans to hear the announcement firsthand (and Neil was a Knicks fan). Everyone else in the room worked for the league, the teams, or the news media. Aside from no live TV coverage, there was no satellite radio network, no cell phone in everyone’s pocket, no websites to update. ESPN was a year away, Twitter three decades. The only line of communication was the conference call that connected the ballroom to the twenty-two front offices in their hometowns.
Other fans in the US wouldn’t know until they maybe heard a radio news report or watched their local evening news. Newspaper coverage, even in the afternoon editions (yes, there were multiple publications a day back then), would last several hours. For a short time at least, Neil and I were the only Celtics fans to know about it and we fucking got away with coming back from lunch late.
Of course we know the rest. Larry was in his final collegiate season, leading Indiana State to a 33-0 record and to the championship game before losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. The coolest thing though was having a future Celtic to cheer for throughout the tournament.
Then Bird apparently signed before the one-year deadline, became Rookie of the Year for leading Boston to 61 wins from 29 the previous season, and in his sophomore year the Celtics hoisted a banner. Red had done it again.
As we reflected back on that day in the hotel ballroom, we knew Larry was probably the best player of the draft and it was clear that we had witnessed a special moment in Celtics history. We just didn’t know at the time that he would become one Larry legend. In hindsight, that draft was one of the sport’s greatest moments in Boston ever, and I was fortunate to be able to witness it.