clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Celtics opened pre-season abroad in 1988 at 2nd McDonald's Open by reigning in Spain

New, comments

Boston to start pre-season overseas again this fall, years after C's became 1st NBA team to compete abroad in a FIBA event against same Real Madrid club

Getty Images/Getty Images

With apologies to George Bernard Shaw, twenty-seven years ago Larry Legend and company rained buckets in Spain on the country's main court to win the first McDonald's Open tournament held overseas, plainly.

And now the Celtics are returning to the scene for another pre-season outing in October.

So with Boston opening its 2015 pre-season overseas with a game at Real Madrid, it seems a good time to recount how the fabled Larry Bird-era Celtics competed in the second McDonald's Open at Spain, in the same arena they will play in this fall.

The 1988 Mickey D's tournament was held just after the Bird Celtics peaked amid the looming end to the Cold War, four years before the Original Dream Team took the Olympics by storm, ironically also in Spain.

The trip took a toll on an aging Celtic team that had lost five months earlier in the 1988 conference finals to Detroit, forcing perennial power Boston to miss the NBA championship series for the first time in five seasons.

In 1987, Milwaukee hosted and won the inaugural McDonald's Open event, with Buck forward Terry Cummings earning tourney MVP honors before the home fans over European pro competition.

The following autumn, the Celtics journeyed to Madrid, Spain to play two games and bring their brand of selfless team basketball live to the European fans who admired them.

It was the first time ever an NBA team played abroad in a FIBA-sanctioned event, and fittingly the franchise two years removed from its record 16th NBA title was tabbed as the league's overseas representative.

Not only did Boston boast seven more crowns than their closest competitor in the Lakers at that time, the traditional power also enjoyed a major world-wide following.

Yet their were ominous overtones lurking for the Celtics as the pre-season prepared to tip off.

After pushing his body to the limit every year for his first nine seasons, eight of which lasted at least until late May/or even mid-June, Larry Bird's frame finally gave out six games into the 1988-89 NBA campaign.

The injuries that he played through year after year had piled up and finally took their toll in a way that even he could not overcome by force of will.

The bad back he incurred in 1985 had made him alter his running style and forced more pressure onto the back of his heels. His hampered movement was evident in the 1988 playoffs, even though he still played well and had the great shootout with Wilkins, but coupled with his non-healed Achilles injury in the 1986-87 regular season (probably causing bone spurs), even Bird was forced to the sideline.

Only such an extremely serious injury could have kept him from playing the game he loved and had such drive to compete in and express himself through.

One could see in the 1988 playoffs that his running was strained and not fluid, but he played so well through the first two rounds that few suspected he was so badly hurt. Plus, Larry had been laboring so much the past four years due to back problems it was hard for fans to notice he was running even less well - unless one watched very closely.

Detroit's defense, not his increased immobility, was seen as the reason for a sub-par series (by his standards) in the 4-2 Eastern Finals loss to the younger, aggressive Pistons.

Adding to the steep burden Bird and Boston faced as the constantly in-demand ratings darlings of CBS and fans everywhere, commissioner David Stern signed the Celtics up to compete in the second annual McDonald's Open, a four-team international tournament held in the October 1988 NBA pre-season.

Most of the Celtics were not too happy about making a seven-hour, 3,600-mile plane trip to play abroad in an exhibition tournament with little to gain and much to lose if they somehow were beaten, or even tested.

"I just want to get out of here," said Dennis Johnson, gearing up for his penultimate season, after the games.

McHale, typically never at a loss for words, gave the media the "first no-comment of my life" when asked about the long trip.

Noted stoics Bird and Parish even complained about commissioner Stern making the world's most famous basketball team trek on such a long road trip to Europe before the season-long marathon even started.

The complaints should have been a warning that the green machine was running perilously close to empty. In five of the previous nine NBA seasons, the league's oldest team had been to the NBA Finals, and to the conference finals eight times. As they aged and nursed more and more serious injuries, their off-seasons were increasngly shorter.

But on October 21, 1988 at the Palacio de Deportes in Madrid - where the Celtics will face Real Madrid this October 8 - Boston beat the Yugoslavian National team 113-85 in one semifinal. This was not long before basketball powers Croatia and Serbia, as well as Slovenia, split in a brutal civil war.

Bird tallied 27 points and dealt out four assists in the win, but grabbed only three rebounds (nearly eight below his career average to that time), a sign he was not hustling as much as usual due t the time of season, the trip and his foot/back issues.

Parish scored 20 points and snared 15 boards while McHale added 21 points, four blocks and 11 boards against the overmatched opposition. The Big Three, even if it was over 32 years of age in average, was still the best frontline in the world, and all-time.

And even if oft-injured sixth man Bill Walton was unavailable due to foot problems and would never play another NBA game.

Future Celtic forward Dino Radja scored 15 for the Yugos, anchoring a fine European frontline of their own. Radja would average 17 points and eight rebounds a game in the immediate post-Bird era, but the solid 6-10 forward predictably was not nearly able to fill Larry's immense shoes.

Meanwhile a lithe young southpaw named Toni Kukoc netted 17. Versatile 7-1 center Vlade Divac scored nine points, grabbed eight boards and impressed with his ballhandling, including an elusive behind the back move at the 10-second line on a fine fullcourt foray.

But once they got there and were resigned to playing overseas, the Celtics loosened up and played fairly well after a slow start to overwhelm the talented Yugos.

Incidentally, the happy-go-lucky McHale has Croatian ancestry on his mother's side, which helped carve his deep-set eyes, facial features and dark black hair. His blue-collar background perhaps affected his thankful attitude toward playing basketball.

"My dad was a 5-11 Irish guy and my mom was a 5-6 Yugoslavian, so I don't know how I got to be 6-10," he said 15 years after his retirement. "(Playing basketball) is the best job in the world. My dad was a miner. So I feel blessed."

Two days later in the tournament finals, the Celtics struggled somewhat against the fired-up host team Real Madrid, led by future NBA All-Star and Yugoslavian superstar guard Drazen Petrovic.

In their semifinal win over Scavolini Pesaro (which featured ex-Celtic swingman Darren Daye), the flashy Petrovic fired in 34 points, passed out 10 assists and pulled down eight rebounds.

Five years later he would become the first European to earn all-league honors when he was named third team All-NBA after scoring 22.3 ppg and making 45 percent of his triple tries for the New Jersey Nets.

But later that summer, he was tragically killed in a car wreck near his homeland. But in 1988 he was the best guard in Europe, and one of the best anywhere.

"Drazen was a very, very talented player...(probably) the best player in Europe," said Bird years later in a 2011 ESPN 30 for 30 film called "Once Brothers", a movie that chronicled the deterioration of the close friendship between Vlade Divac and Petrovic due to the war between Croatia and Serbia that split Yugoslavia and their great late 1980s team.

A crowd of 12,000 excited fans packed the Palacio to see the inaugural McDonald's Open finals. The players exchanged gifts of team pennants at midcourt during the starting lineup introductions.

Bird, characteristically wiping off the bottom of his shoes as he waited to be introduced, drew the largest ovation. He met at midcourt with Real Madrid redhead Johnny Rogers, a 6-10 American forward who played collegiately at Stanford and Cal-Irvine and had spent the previous two seasons in the NBA with the Cavaliers and Kings.

Wiping the bottom of his shoes off was a trait learned on the gritty outdoor courts of Indiana, one Bird carried with him to the NBA, and he often repeated the habit before shooting free throws to also dry his hands.

Petrovic put Real Madrid ahead first on a trey, but Ainge hit two straight difficult baseline jumpers. Bird then flipped a pretty no-look driving left-handed pass to Parish for a layup to cap a fast break.

Larry next canned a pull-up 15-footer and a reverse layup, followed by a Parish finger roll. McHale's patented up-and-under move led to a banker and a 14-6 Celt edge.

Yet the highly-motivated hosts stayed close, trailing just 30-24 after the first period. The smaller but quicker RM team gamely hung in there, trailing only 83-77 with less than a minute to go in the third quarter behind hustle, desire for a major upset and good shooting.

But Boston finally flexed its muscles, as if tired of the clingy hosts, and began to pull away. Bird hit two of his four three-pointers and the Celtics outscored pesky RM 28-19 down the stretch to win going away, 111-96. Led by its overall size and big three frontline, Boston out-rebounded Madrid 55-35.

Bird, after scoring 29 points and passing out a dozen assists to go with six rebounds, added to his long list of individual honors by copping the tournament MVP award.

The Chief yanked down 16 rebounds while McHale contributed 15 points and five boards. Petrovic netted 22 points and added six boards with six assists to lead the runners-up.

"They allow some traveling in the NBA," said Bird when comparing the American and international rules, "but here it is legitimate."

But despite providing the new challenge that Larry craved, the added onus of playing overseas in pre-season simply made the long season more arduous for Bird and Boston.

The NBA didn't do Boston any favors either by forcing them to play five games in the first eight days of the season that started less than two weeks later - all against high quality teams.

The Celtics won the opener against eventual division champion New York 122-115 as Bird scored 29 points. But a tired Boston dropped the next four games.

They fell at rival Philadelphia 129-115 the next night despite 27 points and seven assists by Bird. Chicago then came to town and beat Boston 110-104 as Jordan poured in 52 points. A trim, well-conditioned Bird registered 18 points, 10 boards and six assists but it was becoming apparent something was wrong.

Detroit, which would post the league's best record at 63-19 that season en route to the title, was in its prime as they invaded the Garden next.

McHale scored 30 and Bird contributed 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, but no other Celtic starter even tallied double figure points in a 116-107 loss.

Two days later, the cracks widened further at Milwaukee. Bird played just 26 minutes and scored only 12 points in a 108-100 defeat. Three days later on November 15, Boston made its first trip ever to face the new expansion Miami Heat.

In the second quarter after making a fast break layup at Miami, Larry Bird landed funny and came down in serious pain. It would be the last shot of his and Boston's lost season.

After playing through the pain and discomfort for a long time, he didn't really know what it was like to feel healthy as he simply continued to grind his way through game after game, unwilling to give in.

But after a low-scoring 84-65 win over the punchless Heat, Bird found out both Achilles needed to be surgically repaired to have painful bone spurs removed. "I've been living on the edge for two seasons," he admitted in regards to playing with pain, "so it was time to have it done."

In his first nine seasons, he had missed just 27 games total, an average of only three per year, as he played 95.1 games per season including playoffs and excluding exhibitions. He also played 145 of 147 possible playoff games in that nine-year span, making it 856 out of 885 games, the most in the NBA over that duration.

So after just six games and a 2-4 start, his 10th season was already over in mid-November of 1988. It was the first time he had sat out a season since the mid-1970s when he had dropped out of Indiana University, and the first time he had been hurt seriously enough to miss significant playing time since his sophomore season in high school.

It had to be killing him worse than the pain in his heels. A forlorn Bird watched his teammates struggle to a 42-40 record and the eighth/last seed in the East, by far their worst record since 1978-79 - the last year before the arrival of Bird shot Boston back up to the to of the NBA.

Rumor had it that after the successful surgery, Larry would be back after the All-Star break, but it didn't happen. Time wore on with Bird wearing walking boots on both feet. Then he was supposed to be back for the playoffs, but when they tipped off against Detroit, he was still sidelined.

Then it was said he would come back if they somehow beat the Pistons. But Boston barely made the playoffs and was swept by Detroit in the first round without their leader. If ever a tangible proof of Bird's greatness was needed, the Celtic drop-off in his absence was it.

His "down" averages (for him) of 19 points, six rebounds and five assists per game through the first six games in 1988-89 showed he was already hurt. Only one of his rebounds was of the offensive variety.

Throughout the rest of the long season, he was seen in walking boots and casts on both feet, looking glum on the Celtic bench at home games. Larry and the team kept hoping he would come back, but it became apparent that a rush to play in that lost season was an unnecessary risk.

The sight of Bird on the sidelines gave the NBA (and Celtics fans) pause as they realized he wasn't indestructible, and for the first time they had to seriously consider life without Larry.

It's not known whether the pre-season trip overseas exacerbated his Achilles issues, but it surely did not help, even though the Celtics reigned in Spain.


To contact the quizmaster directly, contact Cort Reynolds at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.