The 1990s are often remembered as the dark ages for Boston Celtics basketball. That may be true if you look at the decade as a whole. Early retirements, tragic deaths, and poor front office decisions plagued the Celts in the latter portion of the decade.
Here are a few of those moments...
The year 1989 brought the much-anticipated return of Larry Bird from double foot surgery. Bird struggled mightily in the first half of the season, even sparking some teammates to publicly question The Legend’s shot selection. KC Jones had left the bench for the front office the previous season, making way for Jimmy Rogers to take over the coaching reigns.
The usually tight-lipped Celtics locker room spilled out complaints about offensive strategy, personnel issues, and player minutes, to mention just a few. It goes without saying that the ever-popular KC Jones had may have left Rogers shoes that were too big to fill.
So, what moments stand out from 1990?
Well, despite Larry Bird’s abysmal start, he rallied after the All-Star break to finish the season matching his career average of 24.3 points per game. Bird also notched averages of 47 FGP, 6 RPG and 5 APG. Not bad for a player about whom Sports Illustrated had questioned “what’s wrong with Larry?” Along the way, Larry had six 40-point games, one 50-point game, 10 triple doubles and 3 whopper nights of 40+ points and 15 rebounds.
Bird definitely was the word in the early months of 1990, but unfortunately the Celtics lost to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs on the hallowed parquet.
People tend to be a little taken aback when I tell them that the ‘90-’91 season was my favorite of the Bird era. Sure, ‘84, ‘85, ‘86 and ‘87 were remarkable seasons for both Bird and his teammates, but the early dominance and late adversity gave the 1991 season character.
Following the tumultuously disappointing ‘89-’90 season, the Boston Celtics knew they needed an overhaul in their front office as much as they did on the parquet. Red Auerbach was now semi-retired, Jan Volk was released as GM, and Dave Gavitt was brought in to reboot the team. The retooling started by releasing Jim Paxson (a dude I never regretted seeing go) and, in a stunning turn of events, releasing the aged Dennis Johnson after 2 championships and 4 NBA Finals appearances in his tenure in green. Jimmy Rogers was let go, and longtime assistant Chris Ford was promoted to head coach. The Cs drafted Dee Brown and won litigation against Il Messaggero, recalling Brian Shaw. Kevin McHale went back to sixth man, Larry Bird was shifted to the Power Forward, and Reggie Lewis rounded out the starting 5 at the three. Suddenly the Cs had young, athletic legs to compliment their legendary Big Three.
Immediately out of the gate the Celtics ran off to a 20-5 record (tops in the Eastern Conference) and looked to be back to a championship-contending squad until injuries struck again.
Bird missed 22 games with his infamous recurring back troubles. In February, Kevin McHale landed awkwardly on his ankle during a game against the Seattle Super Sonics, forcing him to miss 14 games and wear a cumbersome brace for the rest of the season. Robert Parish, the most resilient of the original Big Three, played on two injured ankles throughout the second half of the season and into the playoffs.
The playoffs offered Celtics fans an iconic deciding fifth game vs the Indiana Pacers. Who can forget Larry Bird coming back into the game after breaking his cheek bone at the end of the second half? I can still hear Marv Albert proclaiming, “And here comes Larry Bird...”
Game 5 vs Chuck Person, Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers turned out to be one of the top moments of the Bird era. Following the Cs’ game 4 loss in Indianapolis, Larry predicted a game 5 victory, and The Legend willed his Celts to victory.
Next up were Boston’s conference rivals, the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. Never truly recovering from the physical nature of the Pacers series, the Cs lost to the Pistons in Detroit in 6 games.
Bummer. Had the Celtics continued their hot start, avoided injuries and entered the post-season healthy, ‘90-’91 very well could’ve been the final stanza of the Bird vs. Magic saga.
Larry-Legend’s last. Reggie Lewis becomes the Celtics’ next super star to carry the team through the post-Bird era.
A shell of himself, hampered by a brutally obvious back brace and poor shooting percentages, Bird became more of a point-forward and distributor. Playing in only 45 games, the Boston Garden chants of Larrrrrry-Larrrrrry were replaced by Regggggggie-Regggggie.
Bird did still provide a legendary throwback performance on March 15, 1992, scoring 49 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists, 4 steals and an unlikely heave from 3-point land to force overtime at the buzzer. I remember this game like it was yesterday. It was Larry’s last stand, torturing Jerome Kersey (as usual), and the Portland Trailblazers prompted more taunts from the Chicago Bulls that the Blazers lacked mental toughness.
With Larry Bird retired and working in player development, the team had officially been handed over to Reggie Lewis. Robert Parish continued to be productive, but Kevin McHale had seen his minutes reduced to just 23 per game, 8 minutes fewer than his career average. McHale had fallen to the lowest position on the Celts depth chart since his rookie season.
McHale did have one vintage Saturday afternoon in May. During game 2 of the first round against the Charlotte Hornets, Kevin McHale put on a vintage display of low-post genius. With Larry Bird watching in the stands, McHale displayed just about every legendary low-post move in his ancient arsenal. I can still see Larry Legend pointing at McHale from the stands as Kevin hopped in the hot tub time machine. Scoring 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting with 10 rebounds and a block, “The Black Hole” was back for one last classic playoff extravaganza.
Boston lost that series on an Alonzo Mourning buzzer beater in game 4. McHale retired shortly after. In 1994, Robert Parish would leave the Celtics, winning a fourth title (the only member of the Big Three to win four) in a significant role with the Chicago Bulls.
On January 19, 1998, The Big Three were reunited at the newly built Fleet Center one last time in a ceremony honoring their storied careers.
Though the 1990s were the dark days of the Boston Celtics, the early part of the decade offered memorable moments in the closing chapters of one of the greatest story books in NBA history.
Hopefully these recollections educated some and reminded others.