Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Business Class


Jack McCallum is a fixed star in the firmament of great basketball writers. He’s one of a chosen few that can actually be called a Hall of Famer. With all due respect to McCallum’s season-long courtside seat to the “:07 Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns in 2005-’06, the longtime Sports Illustrated scribe never had a more dramatic story than the 1990-’91 Boston Celtics. McCallum’s chronicle of that season became “Unfinished Business,” an essential text for any hoops scholar.

The Celtics provided plenty of grist for the narrative. The franchise’s holy trinity of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were nearing the end of their careers but weren’t exactly ready for the pasture. Head coach Chris Ford wanted to exploit the athleticism of young players like Dee Brown, Brian Shaw and Reggie Lewis and push the pace. The older players balked, and Ford was placed in an unenviable position because he had been a teammate of the Big Three just a few seasons before. Red Auerbach was still an overweening presence, puffing his ubiquitous cigar in “No Smoking” areas and loudly proclaiming his opinions. The backdrop for the story was the Boston Garden, one of the holy sites in the NBA that had become almost unusable because of its decrepit state.

All the drama of that season is encapsulated in the Celtics’ 135-132 victory in double overtime against the Chicago Bulls on March 31, 1991. The banged-up Celtics were trying to get patched up enough to make another run in the postseason. The ascendant Bulls were on a mission to be the team of the 1990s. Chicago had won the last two match-ups in the season by an average margin of 25 points.

There is a subtext of sadness to “Unfinished Business” that McCallum never could have anticipated. He got to witness the season that Lewis firmly established himself as the next great Celtics player. Lewis went to become an all-star for the first time in 1991-’92. Then on July 27, 1993, he would collapse after shooting baskets and die because of an enlarged heart.

This game could have been Lewis’ finest work, despite some missed free throws late in the second overtime. He had been torched by Michael Jordan in the teams’ meetings earlier in the season. Lewis came out determined not to let that happen again, rabidly chasing Jordan around screens and hounding the Bulls superstar whenever he got the ball. This was Jordan about to enter his prime, and Lewis blocked two of his shots in the first quarter. Jordan seemed almost frazzled, and shot 3 of 11 in the first half for seven points. Of course, Jordan finished with 37 points, but he needed 37 shots to get there. Lewis had four blocks for the game. Jordan often hung in the air on double-clutches to avoid the athletic defender, causing several misses, including on a three-pointer in the waning seconds of double overtime.

Lewis also flashed his still-developing offensive game, including a nascent outside shot. He drained a long jumper at the end of the first quarter that seemed to spur his confidence. Lewis’ biggest shot came when he calmly drilled a game-tying three-pointer with 19.4 seconds remaining in regulation. It was Lewis’ first three-pointer of the season and only the eighth in his four seasons.

Lewis finished with 25 points. The young Celtics made it look like the future was in good hands, with Brown adding 21 points in 25 minutes and Shaw contributing 11 points and 15 assists. Even “Easy” Ed Pinckney, often criticized for his lack of emotion, looked good around the basket and showed great instincts on a three-point play and a nifty assist to McHale.

But the Celtics still needed the elder statesmen to finish the job. McHale was playing for the first time in 16 days because of an ankle injury and had 10 points and six rebounds despite the rust. Parish made three big baskets in the first overtime.

Then there was one Larry Joe Bird. Bothered by back problems all season, Bird was ready to ramp it up for the playoffs. He played an absurd 52 minutes and dropped in 34 points to go along with 15 rebounds and eight assists. Bird took 36 shots but finally found the rhythm in the second overtime when he scored nine points. He hit two straight step-back jumpers and then a three-point play against the defense of Horace Grant, nine years younger than Bird.

The Celtics didn’t seem dead yet with the victory over the Bulls. But Bird’s back eventually gave out and he was limited as Boston lost to the Detroit Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

McCallum’s book caught the Celtics at the dramatic stretch where the future was hanging in the balance. Unfortunately for Boston fans, Bird’s back was never the same, McHale lasted two more seasons, Lewis tragically was lost, and the young core of Brown, Shaw and Pinckney never reached the next level. The Celtics stopped playing in the Boston Garden in 1995, and the building was demolished in 1997.

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