He drops a title but takes it in stride

By , Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Who led the Boston Celtics in scoring last season? Before answering, remember that Dave Cowens and Nate Archibald had off years, Larry Bird was still in college, and John Havlicek had retired.

For the first and possibly last time, Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell became the team's top scorer, a distinction that should ensure his niche in Boston sports trivia if nothing else.

This season the angular, 6 ft. 8 in. forward yielded his role of "chief offensive threat" to Bird, the estimable rookie with the golden shooting touch and 21.3-point average. Cedric's 16.9 clip still makes him a valuable contributor, even if a slightly overlooked one.

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Relinquishng some of the scoring duties to Bird, the talk of the town, has not bothered Maxwell a bit. "If you're a professional, you have to adapt," he says, "so that's what I've done. Now Larry's got my old 'power forward' spot and I play 'small forward.' We work in tandem, and he's such a great passer he sets me up [for shots] a lot."

Another reason Maxwell has had no qualms about his redefined responsibilities is the team's record. The Celtics turned in the National Basketball Association's best regular-season record this season, whereas a year ago they finished with a 29-53 mark, among the worst in the franchise's 33-year history.

Maxwell has seen fewer minutes on the court under new Coach Bill Fitch, but enjoyed them considerably more. "At about the same time last year I was burnt out," he indicates. With better bench strength -- M. L. Carr, Rick Robey, Pete Maravich, and Gerald Henderson -- Boston has kept starters like Maxwell well rested for the playoffs. Entering Sunday's third game, the Celtics held a 2-0 lead over Houston in their best-of-seven conference semifinal series.

Though this is Boston's first time in the playoffs since Maxwell turned pro three years ago, he is certainly no stranger to pressure- cooker basketball. As a collegian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC), he put the 49 ers on the map, taking them to the National Invitation Tournament final as a junior and to the NCAA Final Four a year later.

A gangling former violinist who barely made his Kinston, N.C., high school team, Cedric was little sought by college recruiters, ignored actually by North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, and Wake Forest, four neighboring institutions belonging to the basketball- happy Atlantic Cost Conference.

As a senior, he captured the public's fancy much the way Michigan State's Earvin (Magic) Johnson did last year. The nickname "Cornbread" no doubt helped in this regard.

One naturally imagines that the nickname stems from a bottomless appetite for cornbread. Not really.

"It came from the movie 'Cornbread, Earl and Me,'" he explains. "Jamaal Wilkes [of the Los Angeles Lakers] played the basketball player, and everybody told me I looked and played like him." Today the nickname is often shortened to just "Bread," yet his teammates tend to call him "Max."

As the Cinderella team of the 1977 NCAA tourney, UNCC knocked off No. 1 -ranked Michigan to reach the Final Four. Even though the 49ers were beaten by eventual champion Marquette on a last-second basketball in the semifinals, the even helped to showcase Maxwell's considerable talents. Fans were particularly impressed by his ability to dribble the ball upcourt against a pressing defense. Coach Lee Rose, unrestrained in his praise, called his do-everything center "the best player, pound for pound, in the country."

A thin-looking 205-pounder, Maxwell was made the Celtics first-round draft pick. After averaging 7.3 points as a rookie, he more than doubled his scoring output last year, undermining any motion that he was too spindly to be effective in the NBA.

Amazing as it seems, MAxwell makes virtually all his baskets inside, a clever feat, considering how heavier opponents muscle him around the hoop. He admits to taking plenty of "punishment," yet he continues to sliver in for high-percentage shots, sometimes using a deadly, from-the-hip jump hook.

Last year he led the league with a .584 shooting percentage. This season LA's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar turned in a .604 mark, but Maxwell still was more accurate at .609. In dueling for the title, the rivals became the first players besides Wilt Chamberlain to shoot over .600 from the field in a season.

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