Today’s guest column is from Mike Passanisi.
It took an editorial by a respected journalist to get the city to recognize the Celtics’ incredible accomplishment.
On May 6, 1969, the team, a collection of aging stars with a few new additions like Bailey Howell and Emmette Bryant, shocked the hoop world by winning their 11th title in 13 years.
After finishing fourth during the regular season, the Celts had overcome the Sixers, Knicks, and finally the Lakers in seven games capped by an exciting 108-106 victory. Longtime Celtic fans all remember Don Nelson’s shot that bounced off the front and back rims before dropping in. They also remember that Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had put balloons into the ceiling of the Forum ready to be released after a Laker victory. Also, the USC band was ready to march onto the court playing “Happy Days are Here Again”. A bitterly disappointed Jerry West said “we’re still the better team, but you have to give them credit for winning it.”
In the Boston Globe, the announcement of the Celts’ victory in a game that did not get over until 1:00 AM Boston time (TV didn’t dictate starting times in those days) did not even make the day’s headline. It only appeared as a “kicker” at the top of page 1 of the morning paper “Celtics Beat LA for 11th title, 108-106”. An accomplishment that had never been achieved in pro sports and probably never will again did not even merit a regular headline.
At the time, one of the most popular and respected journalists was a Globe columnist named Jerry Nason. His style was understated and rather old-fashioned (he used to write prediction poetry for local college football games), but he was not afraid to speak out. In a column entitled “Yes Boston, They’re Your Celtics”, Nason called attention to the team’s incredible achievement over 12 seasons and praised the late owner Walter Brown, who kept the team afloat in the early years.
Then, gently, he prodded the city.
Since the advent of the Celtics era, the Canadiens have captured 9 Stanley Cups, the Yankees 7 AL pennants, the Green Bay Packers 5 football titles. The Celtics have been finalists in 12 “World Series” and the town has never invited ’em to a party. That used to bug Walter, and it continues to bug me. The closest Boston ever came toward enshrining the Celtics was one year when they rounded up a few of the guys who were still hanging around and got ’em into the Marathon. They rode in open cars all the way from Coolidge Corner to Exeter Street, three miles-big deal..
Garden officials confirmed that Nason was correct.
Nason and the Globe apparently had some influence with city officials. And so, two days later, there was a parade. It went from the Common to City Hall Plaza. It drew about 3,000 people. Bill Russell, not surprisingly, failed to attend. Mayor Kevin White proclaimed it “Boston Celtics Day” and retiring Celtic Sam Jones was presented with a rocking chair. This was all that happened, and the newspapers began following the Red Sox into a disappointing season that ended with manager Dick Williams getting fired.
Let’s jump ahead 17 years to 1986, 25 years ago last month. The Celts had defeated the Houston Rockets, 114-97, to cop their third title in 5 years. The reaction in Boston was, shall we say, a bit different. On the left side of the front page of the next day’s Globe was a headline, not much smaller than the regular headline on the right side. It read “Celtics Crowning Glory”. An article by Bob Ryan (who else?), spoke of the Houston Rockets as an “unwary couple pulled over on the highway for going 3 miles an hour over the speed limit by a burly Georgia cop with the mirrored sunglasses”. He continued : “It wasn’t their day. The cop’s name was Bird. The bailiff’s name was Bird. The judge’s name was Bird. And the executioner’s name was-guess what?- Bird.” Ryan went on to say :”Welcome to Bird country, boys, and while you’re at it, why don’t you congratulate your Celtics on the occasion of their 16th NBA championship? “The front page also showed huge photos of Larry getting doused with champagne and fans celebrating outside the Garden. The headlines on articles for the next couple of days tell the story. “Off the Rim and Into Clover”. “From Head to Toe, Fans are Green with Pride”. “Playoff Effort Puts Bird into Drivers Seat”.”A Garden Hangover.”
The parade two days later was somewhat bigger than that of 1969. About 2000 times bigger. That headline proclaimed “Boston Roars Its Tribute”. But the most interesting column was one authored by the great Leigh Montville. It talked about and Irish kid and four Italian kids from East Boston, all students at Boston Latin. They were playing hookey, like many Bostonians that day. It is significant, however, that they were not African-American kids from, say, Brighton or Dorchester High.
In the 1980’s the issue of racism and the Celtics which had always been simmering, appeared again. The ’86 team captured Boston, it was said, because of the racial makeup of the team. There were big men Bird, Kevin McHale, and Bill Walton-all white. African-Americans were certainly part of the picture. Coach KC Jones was black, and Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson played big parts in the title. But it was true that the racial makeup of the Celts was close to 50-50 at a time when most teams were largely black. There were stories that in parts of Dorchester, Laker jerseys were outselling Celtic ones by a wide margin.
Race was definitely an issue. You can’t talk about Boston in the 70’s and 80’s without facing it. The busing crisis brought it to a head, but it had been there all along. However, the issue is not so much that the ’86 Celtics had more white players than the ’69 team, though it did. The issue is more one of symbolism. In 1969, the coach and symbol was Bill Russell. His image was one of an angry black man. He refused to sign autographs. He was way ahead of his time in criticizing the white power structure, both in sports and society as a whole. In ’69, Boston could not fully accept a team with this symbol. A parade couldn’t even draw 5000 fans.
In 1986, the symbol was a blond superstar with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and a bit of a wise mouth. He seemed to be an everyman, though he earned millions of dollars. At an earlier rally on live TV, he shocked a few people when, seeing a sign, he made a comment about what Houston’s Moses Malone really ate. Though he was neither Irish nor from Boston, people saw some of the team’s mascot-the leprechaun-in Larry Bird.
Ironically, a week after the’86 celebration, Jerry Nason passed away at the age of 77. Few people remember the editorial back in ’69. The parade he inspired was a small one, but that doesn’t matter. It showed that he cared.
Mike Passanisi is a semiretired former high school teacher and freelance writer. Over the years, he has written for New England Baseball Journal, Patriots Football Weekly, Manchester Union Leader, and a number of blogs, including BSMW. He is a member of the Sports Hall of Fame at Pope John High, where he worked for many years as SID. He is also a regular contributor to the blog Fenway West. He and wife live in Medford.
You can contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org