When Bill Walton revived and ended his NBA career with the Boston Celtics, he devised a game-night plan to break the city’s notoriously congested traffic: He rode the subway to work.
Imagine a towering, distinctive redhead, 6ft 11, boarding the T, as it’s known in Boston, at Harvard Station. Walton lived nearby during the Celtics’ 1985-86 championship season and in 1986-87 when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
“Red line to Green line to the old garden,” he said. “And with a packed car full of crazy fans banging on the walls and ceiling, rocking the car and chanting ‘Here we go Celtics, here we go!’ ”
In a recent phone interview, Walton added that after six injury-plagued years with the dysfunctional and Donald Sterling-owned Clippers in San Diego and Los Angeles, those rides were neither scary nor culture shock for a West Coast native.
“It was heavenly,” he said.
The old Boston Garden was replaced by today’s TD Garden in 1995. But the busy commuter hub of North Station remains, reached by T-cars rattling through tunnels old enough for archaeological digs.
So there’s the famous parquet floor with some remnants of the original garden: the now 23 retired jersey banners, a slew of red-faced ushers with Southie accents and ticket scalpers hiding in plain sight on Causeway Street.
“The new location didn’t have the sightlines and overhang of the second row where we called the games and in some ways had a better view than from the sidelines,” said Marv Albert, the Hall of Famer who made his radio debut – Knicks at Celtics, January 27, 1963 – was in Boston, where he came on for Marty Glickman at the age of 21.
He added, “The TD Garden isn’t a very glamorous arena like the Warriors built in San Francisco. And with the setting and the history of the Celtics, there’s still an old feeling.”
When the NBA Finals returns to Boston for the first time since 2010 — with the aforementioned Golden State Warriors coming to town for Game 3 on Wednesday night — it will be the league’s version, slightly gentrified but still strolling old neighborhood and makes the nostalgic rounds of where it grew up.
It wasn’t until years after the Bill Russell-era Celtics won 11 titles from 1957 to 1969 that professional basketball became a hot ticket in Boston or anywhere else in the United States, let alone an attractive global seller. But it was largely at North Station, that hub of the city’s unwieldy design, that the NBA went from crawling to running.
It’s been a tough few years, the losses to the retired number Celtics painful and profound for those who remain of Boston’s unrivaled dynastic period. John Havlicek, No. 17, died 2019; KC Jones (25) and Tom Heinsohn (15) died in 2020; Sam Jones (24) in 2021; Jo Jo White (10), a 1970s star in two title teams, in 2018.
Still, Dan Shaughnessy, the venerable Boston Globe columnist, recently checked with Bob Cousy (#14), who told him, “Having this happen at the age of 93 is really a special moment.” He meant the 22nd championship series of the Celtics, of which they’ve won 17, which is deadlocked with the Lakers franchise, which originated in Minneapolis.
While Shaughnessy wasn’t an awesome rookie, he was nonetheless moved by the trophy presentation after the Celtics’ narrow escape from Miami in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. There was Cedric Maxwell, a Celtics broadcaster and retired No. 31, presenting the Conference Championship trophy named after Cousy to veteran forward Al Horford. Maxwell then presented the new Conference Most Valuable Player trophy, named after Larry Bird, to rising Celtics star Jayson Tatum.
“Where else do you get that from?” Shaughnessy said before answering his question. “The Yankees in baseball.”
For a generation of sportswriters too young to cover the lighting of Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach’s victory cigars from his coaching seat, the Bird-era Celtics of the 1980s were our introduction to live Celtic history.
From chairs fit for third-graders at the baselines, we watched as the Lakers and Celtics dramatically raised the league’s profile through the lens of the Magic Johnson-Bird rivalry. Reporters from out of town were sleeping at a new chain hotel in Copley Square and were woken up early one June morning by deafening alarms that we swore were Auerbach’s underhanded work — because the Lakers were staying there, too.
We winced as cheering fans rushed onto the pitch after the Celtics won Game 7 of the 1984 finals, wondering if Bird and company – let alone the Lakers – would make it out alive. We risked suffocating or being crushed in the dreadfully ventilated visitor locker rooms, unable to cope with the growing news media mob.
We walked out, exhausted from the building’s stifling late spring humidity, dodging the occasional rat, still thinking there wasn’t anywhere else we’d rather be.
Regardless of Walton’s memories of everyone aboard the clinking T, those Celtics didn’t represent all of Boston. Fortunate enough to get Bird (No. 33 retired) in the college draft and cleverly traded the rights to Kevin McHale (32), but also by filling their bench with white fringe players, the Celtics were perceived as the respected holdout in a league increasingly dominated by African American talent. Black neighborhoods in Boston favored their rivals, Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers or Johnson’s Lakers.
But the Celtics, whose main talent has been predominantly Black for years, have played 100 percent at home this season. Boston fan bases may find this team of bruised defenders more relatable and united than ever – although players of color might argue it’s just mega-partisan and not post-racial.
There’s always a temptation to exaggerate comparisons to past champions, especially considering the Celtics have won exactly one championship since 1986. However, some have pointed out that sturdy point guard Marcus Smart evokes memories of KC Jones and Bird’s 1980s running mate Dennis Johnson (retired No. 3). And while Tatum may never be Bird in the collective consciousness of the Boston masses, at 24 he seems destined to take his No. 0 to Robert Parish’s 00 in the rafters.
After all, it took a title for Kevin Garnett (retired No. 5) and Paul Pierce (34) to make it in 2008.
Current center, Robert Williams III, is no Russell (retired No. 6), but at 24 he is a real homegrown rim protector. Horford, who is modeled after 1970s glue man Paul Silas, was recaptured last offseason, the kind of sly team-building addition the Celtics were known for in four decades of winning multiple titles.
After losing the one Premier player they signed, Gordon Hayward, to free agency in 2020, and Kyrie Irving, the best player they traded for, also to free agency, in 2019, these Celtics were put together more or less no differently than any Auerbach team. Danny Ainge, the former general manager, did the heavy lifting with plenty of help from the Nets, whose 2013 draft picks were stolen in a trade for the waning Pierce, bringing in Garnett Tatum and his co-star Jaylen Brown.
That’s how the current Warriors are being built after Kevin Durant’s departure in 2019 without the benefit of a boutique free agent. This series is a welcome twist on the theme of idiosyncratic stars setting the competitive balance, a leverage that has turned off some fans and that some people see as detrimental to the league.
These Celtics, of course, play in the same 3-point shooting universe, which more than any other has been stylistically expanded by Golden State’s Stephen Curry, another trend found uncomfortable by many older fans. And TD Garden is no different than other NBA arenas with upgraded culinary delights and the standard in-game experience of floor show gimmicks and non-stop noise that once made Auerbach’s head and cigar explode.
Walton would rather remember the fans who went insane of their own accord while walking the Green Line. Speaking from his home in San Diego, he said, “Knowing Boston, I’m pretty sure nothing has changed.”