Last Hurrah For the Storied Boston Garden

Sixty-six years of history -- and 16 NBA championship banners -- hang in the air

AS Boston prepares to turn from basketball to the wrecking ball at the historic Boston Garden, the Celtics don't seem to want to let their season go. Neither do the fans.

Instead of a grand farewell, the Celtics are leaving somewhat ingloriously. They ended their regular season play with a 35-47 record, and just managed to slip into the National Basketball Association playoffs. The Orlando Magic have the edge in the first round, two games to one in a best-of-five series. The Celtics now prepare for what may be their Garden finale tonight. Barring a comeback, they won't play another home game here.

Built in 1928, the aging structure with its obstructed-view seats has been host to political rallies, concerts, and sports events (the National Hockey League Bruins are a co-tenant). The Garden will be torn down and replaced by a modern arena being completed next door.

Many sports legends joke that there must be a leprechaun in the Garden who plays tricks on visiting teams. What else could explain the fact that the heat could be on in their locker room when it was 90 degrees F. on the playing floor? Why else would there be no hot water for their showers?

But former Celtics player Bob Cousy, whose retired No. 14 hangs from the Boston Garden rafters along with 16 basketball championship banners, says it isn't so. ''There's no question that the locker rooms were dingy, dirty, too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer,'' he says. ''But ours were the same way. They [other teams' players] implied we had plush locker rooms with all the amenities -- that we enjoyed these luxuries while subjecting the opponents to all these indignities. Those were the conditions, and they were the same for all of us.''

Is he happy to see the Garden go? ''I'm well aware we need a new facility,'' Cousy says. ''We're the only major market that doesn't have a spanking new facility. But if I had a magic wand I could wave, I'd wish for it to stay up for another 20 years ... I have too many emotional ties. I enjoy it the way it is.''

But many others are just as happy to leave it behind. Rudy (Spider) Edwards, sporting his familiar fedora and wide smile, has been the maintenance supervisor at the Garden for 30 years. ''I think getting a new arena is marvelous,'' says Mr. Edwards, who doesn't recall missing a single game. ''We haven't had an all-star game here for years.'' The last NHL all-star game here was in 1971; the NBA last had an all-star game in the Garden in 1964.

Edwards's favorite memory in the Garden is from 1982 when the Philadelphia 76ers played the Celtics in the playoffs. When it was clear that the 76ers were going to win the series, ''Approximately 20,000 fans stood up and cheered for the 76ers to beat Los Angeles,'' Edwards says.

Edwards is in charge of caring for the famous parquet floor -- all the creaks and soft spots, all 264 panels and 988 bolts and screws of it. The flooring will move with the Celtics to the new Fleet Center (Fleet Bank bought the naming rights) next fall.

''I'm leaving with a lot of mixed emotions,'' says Andy Carroll. He has collected tickets and ushered at the Garden for the past 35 years. ''But I'm looking forward to moving to a new building with air conditioning,'' he says, nodding and smiling at each fan clicking through the turnstile. ''But I also have so many memories here -- like the night the lights went out when the Boston Bruins were playing the Edmonton Oilers. We had to evacuate the building -- get everybody out of here in the dark. And we did it, too -- everybody kept his composure.''

And the fans kept showing their appreciation for the Garden this night. Banners hung from the uppermost railings: ''Thanks for the memories.'' People crowded around the edge of the parquet trying to shoot a last photo of the banners hanging from the rafters, or their favorite players on the floor.

The Bruins, with five championship banners, stand to play the last game in the old arena. They begin a series against the New Jersey Devils in the hockey playoffs this weekend.

Shirley Hamblen has been attending Celtics games for the past 20 years. ''My heart is breaking,'' she says, with a tear running down her cheek. ''I have so many wonderful memories.''

Dan Gaylord from Cape Cod has held the same front-row seats since 1970. ''I hate to see it close,'' Mr. Gaylord says. ''We're right down here with the players where everything is happening -- we're a part of everything here.''

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