Jeff Mann waited for nightfall before loading up his rental car outside an Indianapolis hotel. The weight of his clandestine cargo caused the back end to sag nearly to the pavement.
Later that night, on a dark stretch of Pennsylvania highway, he pulled over for a few hours of sleep. He lugged the mysterious boxes into the hotel with him - quietly whisking them to his room and out of sight.
"I was so frazzled," he says now. "If anybody had any idea what I had in those boxes...."
To curious onlookers in hotels and airports who wondered what was inside, Mr. Mann's simple response was: "Pieces of flooring."
What he neglected to mention was that it is perhaps the most hallowed floor in all of sport. For months, Mann has been traveling across America with 5-by-5-foot sections of the Boston Celtics' parquet floor. Twenty-one squares of the famous Tennessee red oak are now up for auction by Sotheby's, and Mann's job has been to hunt down basketball stars of the past and have each sign the spot where his piece of history occurred.
At times, the quest has been tedious, with Mann having to squint at grainy archived footage to discover what happened on which piece of parquet. But it has also gotten him cool drinks and cold stares from his boyhood heroes - and given him a brush with history.
Among the squares that are currently up for auction:
*The center-court section, adorned with the Leprechaun logo, is valued at $101,000.
*The section where Bill Russell blocked a shot against the St. Louis Hawks in the last minute of the 1957 finals, giving the Celtics their first NBA championship. The franchise would win 15 more in the coming years. (The bidding starts at $10,000).
*The section where John Havlicek stole the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1965 Eastern Conference finals. Radio announcer Johnny Most immortalized the moment by croaking: "Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!" (currently listed at $15,000).
*And the spot where Larry Bird made an improbable shot against the Houston Rockets in the 1981 finals. After missing a jumper, he grabbed the rebound with his right hand and switched the ball to his left hand. Teetering out of bounds, he made the shot.
As Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote on Dec. 22, 1999 - the night the floor was retired: "From Beijing to Buenos Aires, and all the Belfasts, Barcelonas, and Boca Ratons in between, people know ... that on those 5-foot by 5-foot slabs the absolute best basketball that has ever been seen on this, or any other planet, has been played. They know that this floor has been trod on by the greatest players and greatest teams and has been the site of the greatest games."
When the FleetCenter, the new home of the Boston Celtics, announced plans to retire the parquet that had been in the now-torn-down Boston Garden for decades, Mann began work.
As the parquet sales manager, it was his job to pore over books of basketball lore, watch old game videos, and study grainy photos. It took two months to pick the most memorable moments, plot exactly where they happened, and track down the players - many of whom had moved out of state.
The last step was to get their autograph on the piece of parquet they made famous.
"I knew all these guys by name. I couldn't believe it was my job to track them down and meet them," he says, eyeing the championship banners and 20 retired numbers hanging in the rafters of the FleetCenter.
Mann was your typical Celtic-obsessed teenager growing up in Boston during the reign of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. He knew all their stats, their tricks, and quirks. But hearing them tell about the game in their own words is something Mann will never forget.
He says meeting Parish was probably the highlight of his autograph hunt. After two extended layovers and one canceled flight, he arrived in North Carolina six hours late. He expected Parish to be angry. Instead, Parish invited him onto the porch where the two had something cold to drink and chatted about his days with the Celtics.
He did not do so well with Bird, who he caught at an Indiana Pacers game. His meager attempt at small talk was met with Bird's famed silence.
While he admits loving meeting his idols, Mann also enjoyed learning about the parquet from some of the earlier stars, like Red Auerbach and Tom Heinsohn. "It was a history lesson come alive," he says.
The floor was built in 1946 for about $10,000. Because of a shortage of materials during Word War II, the floor was put together with scraps of wood from a northern Tennessee forest normally used for building barracks.
The East Boston Lumber Company took the scraps, cut them into 264 pieces and fit them together in an alternating pattern of squares. The new floor is identical to the old - even incorporating a few old pieces.
The telltale design was the main way Mann pinpointed the location of the plays. He counted each panel and used the identifiable marks as guides.
But the pattern of the parquet is not its only unusual feature. Many opponents claimed it gave the Celtics a unique home-court advantage, because it had dead spots. Some players say they used that advantage; others dismiss the notion completely.
"I can absolutely guarantee you that it gave us absolutely no advantage whatsoever," says Celtics legend Bob Cousy. "There were ... a lot of other good reasons why we won so much that had nothing to do with dead spots on the floor."
The "Houdini of the Hardwood" played on the floor in its relatively early years - from 1950 to 1963. The place where he stood on St. Patrick's Day in 1963 and said a tearful farewell to Boston is one of the autographed pieces up for auction. Still, he doesn't dwell on the fabled floor.
"It was a floor that we dribbled a ball on and had some wonderful memories as a result of all that dribbling," he says.
But JoJo White, who graced the hardwood from 1969 to 1979, remembers it differently.
"We pushed a lot of teams defensively to those dead spots on the floor. I would have to venture to say it was very, very instrumental in a lot of the championship rounds," he chuckles.
White says he was in awe the first time he touched the parquet.
"When you ran out onto the floor in the Garden with all the flags and the championships and the hollowed walls and the cracked floor, it was just un-believ-able," he says. "There is no floor like it, not even close."
White's autographed piece of the parquet is also up for auction. In one of the Celtics greatest and wildest postseason wins ever - a triple-overtime win against the Phoenix Suns in the 1976 finals - White scored 33 points and hit seven or his last eight shots. His section is the spot where he he simply got the ball and dribbled the clock out.
The Celtics went on to win their 13th NBA championship, and White was named the NBA final's most valuable player.
It was tales like these that Mann carries with him as he continues to sell off the remainder of the Boston parquet. "I could be stuck behind some desk, thinking about sports all day. But here, it's my job," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society