Second-best Celtics team ever?

That’s what Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan says in today’s tour de force: his ranking of the top 10 Celtics teams of all time. He places this year’s winners right behind the fabulous 1985-’86 team.

Ryan’s list is sure to be controversial. Given that the Celtics have won 17 championships, it seems odd that he’d pick three losers among his top 10 — including the 1972-’73 squad, his only entry from the Dave Cowens era. Also, even at my advanced age, I’ll have to take his word for it on the great Bill Russell teams.

But this, kids, is why it’s important that papers like the Globe retain some institutional memory as they desperately seek to downsize their way to profitability. No one else in Boston could have written this piece. Good thing Ryan didn’t take the buyout.

22 thoughts on “Second-best Celtics team ever?

  1. mike_b1

    Dan, Ryan was born in 1946. That means, when the Celtics won their first championship, he was all of 11. So much for institutional memory. Do we really need someone who saw Babe Ruth hit to know he was a phenomenal baseball player?That Ryan is some kind of basketball savant is a canard. It is shocking to me that when Jackson put Kobe on Rondo, none of the local basketball scribes knew enough to recall Jackson did a similar thing to a Larry Bird coached Pacers team in the playoffs years ago, putting Scottie Pippen on the smaller Mark Jackson (hell, Mark Jackson didn’t even remember that, and he had plenty of opportunity to, since he was calling the Finals). And none of them recognized the obvious counter move: Pierce or Allen. (Heck, I was surprised Doc figured that one out. Didn’t think he had it in him.)I can forward to you several email exchanges I’ve had with Ryan over basketball matters, in which 1) he demonstrates a shocking tendency to simply repeat what he’s been told, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and 2) where, when presented with the counter-argument, he gets incredibly defensive and blames his work on his editors.His national standing owes more to good timing than talent.

  2. Rick in Duxbury

    Mike,I’ve been reading Ryan since 1967. (He WAS considered a “savant” at “The Heights” actually.) I too have exchanged emails with him but it never occurred to me to save them. You obviously feel deeply about whatever you discussed, (“shocking”)? All I know is that a lot of his professional peers,(and I), think very highly of a guy who, unlike me, gets paid for his opinion. Whatever has your knickers in a twist about Ryan, it sounds like more than basketball.

  3. mike_b1

    Nah, it’s basketball. And Ryan being respected by his sportswriting peers is flimsy, at best. It’s like the Republicans nominating Bob Dole. Sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote for the best of a bad bunch.Quick: Name one bit of true analysis (not he said, she said reporterisms) Ryan provided during the Finals.

  4. Ben

    Why does Shaughnessey get the front page for an event like this when Ryan has been there longer, has more of a national reputation and is their hoops go to guy?

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Ben: I am sure that Globe editors would tell you Shaughnessy is better at placing these events in a broader cultural context for casual fans and even non-fans.I disagree, but that’s the argument.

  6. O-FISH-L

    Who needs the institutional memory of Bob Ryan when you have Kevin Cullen (chaneling Mike Barnicle) to “remember” that in Boston’s black neighborhoods in the 1980’s, there was supposedly open rebellion against the Celtics, to the point where “loads of kids” donned the purple and gold of the Lakers, in protest of those championship Celtic teams being too white? My offer, first made May 31, still stands Dan. $100 to the charity of your choice if you can provide any documentation that Cullen’s claims are true. In fact, I’ll extend the offer into the autumn so you can have one or more of your students research it when classes resume.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: I don’t have time to research it. But I know it to be true, and I knew it before Cullen wrote it. The Celtics were unpopular with African-Americans across the country because they had three white stars.Even at the time, there was commentary about how unfair that was, given the Celtics’ progressive racial history in the 1960s.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    On the other hand … here’s the top of a Bob Ryan column from Oct. 26, 1985. I think this qualifies for the $100, Fish, since you say that “any documentation” will do. Here we go:RACE IS NO ISSUESure, it’s odd. There hasn’t been a team this white since the 1969-70 Warriors (30-52, since I knew you’d be asking). They’re already sold out, so they didn’t keep Rick Carlisle instead of David Thirdkill to sell tickets. K.C. made the judgment on a basketball basis, and K.C., lest you forget, is black. You’re going to hear a lot about it, and people on the outside are going to be attaching motivation to a management that doesn’t have to apologize to anybody for its racial policies. The Celtics had the first black player, the first black coach and were one of the first two teams, along with the Philadelphia 76ers, to start an all- black five (Sanders, Naulls, Russell, Jones and Jones vs. Walker, Jackson, Chamberlain, Greer and Jones). Red Auerbach faithfully roomed blacks with whites. The record is unassailable.I’m not stupid. I realize that a lot of fans cheer extra hard when a Larry Bird puts a move on a black guy or when a Kevin McHale blocks a brother’s shot. On the flip side, I’m well aware that the Celtics are not the preferred team of many local blacks, and that strikes me as being equally prejudiced.The fact is that the Celtics are simply trying to construct a winning team. Bird being white is an undeniable financial asset, yes, but that has nothing to do with the presence of a Scott Wedman, Danny Ainge, Jerry Sichting or Greg Kite. And what rational person could question the addition of Bill Walton? How people react to the Celtics is something nobody can control. But people must be made to understand that management saw neither black nor white while constructing this team. Management i s only interested in Ws, as in wins.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Also — Time Magazine did a story in late 1985 on the unusual number of white players the Celtics had that year. However, there is no suggestion that this made them unpopular with black fans. But that’s just for starters.More here, from The Root:[T]he Celtics have been a pariah for most of black America that pays attention to the NBA, and that’s much of black America. And now, the Celtics are again in the NBA Finals, with a chance to win their 17th championship tonight at home against the Lakers. Their home court, TD Banknorth Garden, will be filled to capacity. It will be loud. It will be intense.And there will be a lot of black people wearing Celtic green.Trust me, this is new.This was published by ESPN.com last December:Let’s just say it: To fans who came of age during the NBA’s glory days of the 1980s, the Celtics have long been considered a “white team.” They were Larry Bird’s team when Magic Johnson and the Lakers were the other choice. The Celtics were the squad that had Danny Ainge, Kevin McHale, Jerry Sichting, Greg Kite, Bill Walton, Scott Wedman and Rick Carlisle on the roster long after the league had taken on a darker complexion. It didn’t help that they were representing Boston, which had a long-standing reputation — fueled in part by stories Bill Russell told — of being an unfriendly location for African-Americans.Add it all up and you had no love for the Celtics.More, more more:Growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was taught by my elders to root against the Boston Celtics, and not because they used to stomp my beloved New York Knicks on a regular basis. My ingrained dislike of the franchise — one mirrored no doubt by legions of Black fans across the country — stemmed from what the Boston Celtics represented.To put it bluntly, they were seen as a “white team” based in a city known for its tortured relationship with Black athletes.Fish, I’ll have to think about where I want you to send that $100. I hope you agree that I’ve earned it.

  10. mike_b1

    Dan, that Ryan column from 1985 is hilarious. Carlisle was on the team because he was Larry’s drinking buddy, not because of his talent. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Ryan goes to great lengths to spin it. No surprise there: He has long been a mouthpiece for Celtic management. P.S. Are you sure about that column date? Thirdkill played 49 games for the Celtics in the 1985-86 season. (Maybe they cut him, then brought him back.)

  11. O-FISH-L

    Yawn. Not even close Dan, but good effort nonetheless. Still waiting for any documentation [preferably a news story from the past, not opinion from the present] confirming Cullen’s claim that, “In 1987, when the Celtics last played for the NBA championship, loads of kids in the city’s African-American neighborhoods wore Lakers jerseys.” Cullen’s claim that “loads of” BOSTON black kids were rooting against a hometown championship and wearing the gear of the opposing team, due to race, is a quantum leap from anything cited above. Ryan’s piece, while still coming nowhere near what Cullen claimed, comes the closest, with the obvious exception that “not the preferred team of many local blacks” in October is hardly the equivalent of openly rooting against them during the finals in June.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: Given the voluminous documentation I’ve presented, I can only conclude that you’ve already decided not to donate the $100. Too bad. I thought you were on the level.The question is not “Did black kids in Boston wear Lakers jerseys?”, which will probably never be proved. The question is “Did black kids in Boston (and elsewhere) hate the Celtics?”

  13. mike_b1

    Dan, what you’re asking can’t be proved either, at least not in any scientific sense. As I’ve shown elsewhere, memory and observation — despite Twain’s timeless assessment — are generally wrong. My guess is, the question is wrong, too. It probably comes down to black kids identifying with Magic Johnson, Kareem and others of similar backgrounds and ethnicities, versus any specific dislike for those of different ethnicities. The result may be the same — black kids wearing Laker jerseys — but the reasons for it completely different.

  14. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: All I’m trying to do is win Fish’s bet. I would say that I’ve done so, in rather spectacular fashion.

  15. Steve

    Boston Globe, 6/4/87, page 1:Blacks Split on Backing the Celtics by Gregory Witcher and Jonathan Kaufman As Boston girds for Game 2 of its rematch against Los Angeles for the NBA championship, tickets to the Boston Garden are sold out, television ratings are skyrocketing and support for the Celtics is reaching a fever pitch.But among one group, at least, the cheering is divided: Many black basketball fans are rooting for the Lakers.“I like the black team of course,” said Gedeon Frantz, an 18-year-old senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, standing outside the school with several buddies during a noon lunch break. “They give us a good show. It’s not like I’ve got something against white people. It’s just that when the Lakers are playing, they make me feel more comfortable. They show us how black people have power over the basketball.”Clyde Freeman, 18, pivoting for a fast break on a basketball court in Roxbury, agreed.”I like the Lakers,” said Freeman. “They’re a predominantly black team, they’re accomplished and I like to see blacks excel. The whites get too much acclaim, too much fame.”On playgrounds and on street corners where black teen-agers play and talk basketball, and in discussions with black adults, a strong sense of ambivalence emerges about supporting the Celtics, a team that many blacks feel is top-heavy with white players. The Lakers, by contrast, feature black superstars such as Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.It is the same ambivalence, many of the blacks interviewed said, that dampens their support of the Red Sox and affects their view of Boston as a whole.”One of the ways blacks play out their anger is not rooting for sports teams,” said Andrew Jones, a television producer and one of the organizers of the movement to have Roxbury, Mattapan and sections of Dorchester secede from Boston. “It’s a way of protest. . . . When you talk about Celtics tradition, for black people that raises the hackles on the backs of our necks. For us, Celtics tradition is the exclusion of black players.” …Page 1 news story. Pay up, fish.

  16. o-fish-l

    Gedeon Frantz and Clyde Freeman are hardly “loads of kids”, and the piece cited does nothing to support the outrageous claim that in the infancy of officially licensed NBA apparel being available to the public, there was somehow loads of it going around Boston’s most impoverished neighborhoods.That said, on 06-01-08 at 10:25 PM, I wrote: “Dan, $100 to the charity of your choice if you can provide me with evidence of a widespread effort, no, scratch that, ANY EFFORT by 1980’s Boston blacks to root against the Celtics, or wear jerseys for the Lakers, because the Celtics were too white, or anything along those lines.”Steve has minimally exceeded what I asked for, but unfortunately the deal was with only Dan. Sorry.

  17. o-fish-l

    Steve, I’m kidding on not paying up. I’m a man of my word. What is your charity? I will send a money order to Dan at NU so he can verify authenticity, and I will send an unsealed, stamped envelope addresed to the charity so Dan can forward it along. Well done.

  18. Dan Kennedy

    Steve and Fish: I appreciate your taking the high road, so I’ll do the same. Let’s make it the Jimmy Fund, since it’s something we all support, and you don’t need to launder the check through me. Your word is good enough.

  19. O-FISH-L

    Steve and Dan, you two went far too easy on me. Visions of far left charities were dancing in my head the last few hours, making it tough to digest dinner. The Jimmy Fund it is (insert sigh of relief here.) Dan, I insist on at least sending you a copy of the check. “doveryai, no proveryai”, as RWR once said.

  20. Greg

    I’m a white male who grew up an avid Boston Red Sox fan. While being passionate about the team, I was also articulate on management’s racism. With that as a backdrop, I became a Celtics fan much later, just in time for the 1980s.I’ve had many black friends throughout my adulthood. I was proud of the Celtics in the early 1980s and was able to recite all the firsts (first black player, first black coach, first black starting five) but by 1986 that was a ‘tired’ line. I was embarrassed by the racial composition of the 1986 Celtics. I did not think that the personnel decisions in 1986 were basketball based. I don’t want to single out players and denigrate anyone’s talent, but I’d take the 2008 bench over the 1986 bench anytime. I felt that the decisions made were parallel to the decisions that at one point left the Red Sox with one black player, Jim Rice, at a time when there were many African American baseball players in major league baseball. I think ownership was playing to the perceived sentiments of the town. Those of you who deny there was racial polarization in the 1986 Celtics/Lakers Finals were simply not aware of it, but it was there. I experienced it.I was not a fan of Danny Ainge as a player, but have consistently been a fan of him as general manager. Unwittingly or not, he rectified a racial perception of Boston that was based on reality. I suspect he did so knowingly, though I also suspect he’d deny it. Part of his legacy is that he was also smart enough to retain Doc Rivers at a time when it was unpopular, and Doc is now a coach of champions.For those of you who think that race needs to stay out of the game, it’s not always about the game. It’s also how you play the game. This year’Celtics championship is more significant than most of us will ever realize.

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