By now everybody knows about the remarkable turnaround this season of the Boston Celtics, a team that went 32-50 and 29-53 in its last two years. In fact , for most of this season, Boston has had the best record in the 22-team National Basketball Association.
The team's improvement began when the Celtics sole ownership fell to millionaire Harry Mangurian, who bouth out his partner, John Y. Brown (now the governor of Kentucky), last April. Mangurian's business interests include a nationwide chain of retail furniture stores and vast real estate holdings.
While the team's two previous owners continued to employ Red Auerbach as general manager (the architect of Boston's 11 world titles in 13 years), they listened to him about as often as most teenagers listen to their parents.
The result was a team that became top heavy with all-stars, giant egos, tissue-paper defense, and so much one-on- one basketball that four players always seemed to be standing around doing nothing.
His powers restored, Auerbach got rid of the Celtics misfits; used more than free agent M. L. Carr of Detroit, and brought in Bill Fitch to coach.
Fitch, who formerly ran the Cleveland Cavaliers and has more socko one- liners than Bob Hope, is an Auerbach- type person -- devoted to fundamentals, a run-pass offense, tough defense, and a lot of discipline.
"When I quit the Cavaliers at the end of last season, I had three NBA jobs offered me, including the one in Boston," Fitch told me. "I went with the Celtics because basically, when it comes to basketball, Auerbach and I are a lot alike.
"Now I didn't expect that we'de agree on everything, but I was sure that our thinking would never be very far apart,c Bill continued. "I also knew that Red would never trade for a player I didn't want to get rid of anybody that I wanted to keep. And to me that was very important.
Asked when he felt the Celtics started to do the things he wanted them to do Fitch replied:
"I figured coming out of training camp that we had the potential to be a good team because we seemed to fit together. Dave Cowens had regained a lot of his old intensity at center; Bird and Carr were both blending in well; and Nate Archibald was doing things, especially on offense, that he hadn't done since missing a whole season with a leg injury.
"The problem is you never know what the rest of the league is going to be like until the season actually starts," Bill continued. "For example, we have a tough rival in our division in the Philadelphia 76ers. In fact, Philadelphia is so strong that any team that meets them in the playoffs probably isn't going to beat them twice in a row."
While the media has given Bird the lion's share of the credit for the Celtics improvement, and he has been a spectacular passer for a rookie, Cowens has contributed at least as much.
Earlier in the season Chris Ford and Archibald were playing about 40 minutes apiece in the backcourt; Carr had become the team's sixth man in the mold of John Havlicek, and Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell was scoring a lot of quick points.
"So far we've had a great season, but basically we have to play smart basketball every night to win, and frankly we don't have much depth, particularly in the backcourt," Fitch explained.
"On nights when Archibald isn't scoring, we can't go to the guards on our bench and know ahead of time that they're going to give us the points we need," Bill continued. "We don't have much scoring power behind Cowens, either, and a lot of times we pay for that.
"Every time you lose, as far as I'm concerned, it better be a lesson that you can profit from later on. Sometimes we play dumb and often we don't listen. For example, when you see your playmaker call the '1 play' and everybody on the floor with him runs the '2 play' it can drive a coach crazy."
Without actually saying so, I doubt if Fitch thinks the Celtics (with their present personnel) are anywhere near they best-balanced team in the NBA. And they could be even more vulnerable in the playoffs because of their lack of depth.
And while Bill will not admit whether Boston is interested in getting Pete Maravich from Utah to bolster its backcourt, he is very open about saying that New York has the best rookie this year in center Bill Cartwright. Bird, by the way, agrees.
Although the Celtics will give it their best shot in the playoffs, assuming they make them, the best thing they have to look forward to is the first-round draft pick they acquired from the Detroit Pistons. Look for them to take a center.