Even if the Celtics were still their normal winning selves, this would have been a winter of discontent in New England. The Boston Garden, that beloved old dump of an arena that opened in 1928, will be torn down after this season, its role as home of the Bruins and the Celtics to be performed by the luxurious new Shawmut Center next door. Alas for Celtic fans, their team has already turned to rubble, with a 16-26 record at week's end. And on Jan. 25 Boston hit a low when the hapless Clippers came into the Garden and humiliated the Celtics 107-98. It was Boston's sixth consecutive loss. "I don't know about rock bottom," said Eric Montross, the Celtics' rookie center, assessing that defeat. "I'm sure there are things that are worse. But this is pretty low." Two nights later Boston ended its losing streak with a 117-91 win over the Warriors behind the 31 points of another rookie, guard Greg Minor. But that was only a temporary reprieve for a franchise that hasn't plumbed these depths since the 1978-79 team finished 29-53. The next season, of course, Larry Bird arrived.
Even before Bird retired in 1992, Boston, which has won 16 NBA championships, was on the slide. To be fair, of course, the Celtics have also suffered an uncommon amount of tragedy—the deaths of forward Len Bias, their No. 1 draft pick in '86, and Reggie Lewis, the All-Star forward who succumbed to a heart ailment in '93. Even so, Dave Gavitt, who was hired in '90 to replace the sainted Red Auerbach and run Boston's basketball operations, turned out to be such a flop that many Celtic fans weren't exactly displeased when he announced on Jan. 7 that he's leaving to become president of the NCAA Foundation. Among Gavitt's gaffes: trading point guard Brian Shaw to the Heat for Sherman Douglas; drafting shooting guard Jon Barry No. 1 in '92 and then trading him to the Bucks for another nonimpact player, forward Alaa Abdelnaby; letting center Robert Parish become a free agent when the Sonics were willing to give up a player or draft pick to obtain him; and making Iowa center Acie Earl Boston's No. 1 draft choice in '93 (passing on Chris Mills, who was taken by the Cleveland Cavaliers three spots later).
Gavitt's successor, former Celtic player M.L. Carr, has tried to cobble together a team built around fading stars rather than younger players. Is anybody really surprised that forward Dominique Wilkins (19.4 average through Sunday), a free-agent acquisition, has lost a lot of his old scoring prowess and has little conception of traditional Celtic unselfishness? Or that centre Pervis Ellison a player with a history of fragility, also signed as a free agent, has been hobbled by injuries and had missed 22 games at week's end? In fact, Boston's most solid player has been Montross, who through Sunday was averaging 10.1 points and 7.8 rebounds and seemed to have a better understanding of what it means to be a Celtic than any of the veterans. "He's very tough," Carr says. "He's got the toughness of Larry Bird."
Bird's still tough, even in retirement. The day after the debacle against the Clippers, Bird, now a special assistant in the Celtics' front office, attended practice. He didn't like it a bit when no player hung around afterward for extra shooting. "I guess they're all hitting their shots," said Bird sarcastically.
Mason Builds His Case
Knick forward Anthony Mason has been showcasing himself so relentlessly and effectively that any day now, surely, he'll pop up on the Home Shopping Network. The muscular 6'7" Mason had a highly publicized run-in with New York coach Pat Riley at the end of last season. The bone of contention was Mason's belief that he deserved more playing time. But that was smoothed over, and Mason was a stalwart for the Knicks, especially defensively, in the playoffs. During the offseason New York offered Mason a three-year, $8.25 million contract extension. Mason turned it down and will become a free agent after this season.
Mason averaged 9.0 points and 5.8 rebounds in four games he started when power forward Charles Oakley was bothered by a dislocated toe on his right foot early this season. After Oakley opted for surgery on Dec. 27, Riley started rookie Monty Williams and kept Mason coming in off the bench, mostly because of Mason's masonry when he shot the ball. The surprising result was that New York won 15 of its first 17 games after Oakley's injury. One of the main reasons was Mason. With the help of Knick assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy, who has worked with him in extra practice sessions, Mason no longer lays bricks when he shoots from beyond five feet. The upshot: Since Oakley went down, Mason—a career 7.6 point scorer and sub-50% shooter before this season—has averaged 9.8 points and 10.4 rebounds through Sunday but, more significant, regularly made more than half his field goal attempts. "When opponents see you hit one or two shots," Mason said, "they'll start running out to you. Another blessing I have is that I can handle the ball. If they charge me, I can go around them. And I can find that open man when I penetrate." To top it off, Mason has developed a spin move.
So whither Mason? All that's certain is that his value has gone up. And that Mason and Riley still have their moments. In a 104-95 win over Miami on Jan. 22—a game in which Mason had 24 points and 12 rebounds—Riley took his team to task after a 15-2 Heat run. One of his main targets, though Riley later denied it, was Mason. "He told me he didn't see a spark," Mason said, "and he was right. So I got ticked off, and I started to play better." Said Riley, "When he gets riled up. he plays better and harder."
Nuggets of Wisdom
Dan Issel, who surprised everyone in the NBA by resigning as coach of the Nuggets on Jan. 15, shakes his head about the lackadaisical attitude of some of his former charges. But center Dikembe Mutombo is a notable exception. "He works his tail oft every time he steps on the court, whether it's a game or practice," Issel said wistfully. After Issel's departure, Denver lost six of its first seven games under interim coach (and former Issel assistant) Gene Littles. Asked what the Nuggets need, Issel said, "There are two ways to get players to respect you: hug 'em or kick 'em in the tail. I was a hugger, and maybe what they need now is a tail-kicker."
Line of the Week
Hornet forward Larry Johnson last Friday against the Knicks: 15-22 FG, 3-5 FT, 39 points. Johnson's career-high point total (which included six three-pointers on eight attempts) was the most persuasive-evidence yet that he is virtually all the way back from crippling disk problems.
Around the Rim
Bull general manager Jerry Krause wasn't pleased with an NBC report that Chicago assistant coach Jim Cleamons will be the first head coach of the Toronto Raptors, who begin play next season. "I gave them a week to hire him last summer," Krause said, "and I said if they didn't then, they couldn't talk to him again until next July 1."... At week's end notoriously vocal first-year Trail Blazer coach P.J. Carlesimo had not yet picked up an NBA technical foul.
Auerbach (left) and Carr signed Wilkins, though he rarely played like a Celtic.
In his drive toward free agency and a new contract, Mason has lifted his game considerably.