When I wrote up my 10 favorite Celtics of my lifetime, part of the idea was to start a conversation. Mission accomplished! One thing I didn’t expect was the amount of people who asked where Bill Russell, John Havlicek or Bob Cousy were and why they weren’t on the list. My history with the Celtics started in the early-80s, so I never saw any of those guys play. If this was a list of best Celtics of all-time, they’d all feature prominently. I promise!
Despite explaining this was of my lifetime, a handful of folks weren’t satisfied. So, I called in the best reinforcement I could: My dad.
Irving Smith (who I affectionately call Big Guy, but most others call Smitty) was around for just about all of the Celtics history. He actually saw Russell and Cousy play. So, to sate those who want the legends on a list, I asked him to tell me his 10 favorite Celtics of his lifetime.
A couple of clarifying points here:
· My dad doesn’t really care for the NBA of today. He pretty much stopped watching at the end of the Larry Bird era. Like a lot of the old-timers, he likes to say “I like watching basketball. Not whatever this is.”
So, you won’t see Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett here. He wasn’t really watching then.
· The initial thoughts about the players are my dad’s and are in italics. I added a little color from stories he’s told me and my friends over the years. Many stories, many times!
With all that said, here are Irv Smith’s 10 favorite Celtics of his lifetime:
1. Bob Cousy: Ballhandler, playmaker, shooter. Dad has told me about Cousy’s legendary peripheral vision and the length of his arms and hands more time than I can remember. When I was a kid, I was told to work on my dribbling, because dad knew I wasn’t going to be very tall despite an early growth spurt. The player he pointed me to? Cousy.
2. Bill Russell: Defense. Was he really only 6’9? Hook shot, rebounding, ran the floor. I remember the first time I blocked a shot, dad said “Like Russell!” and I was crestfallen to not get a Robert Parish or Kevin McHale comp instead. I eventually figured out why that Russell comp meant so much more.
To this day, on the rare occasion I get dad to watch part of a game with me, he hates when a defender sends a shot into the stands. He much prefers the Russell-style of controlling the ball.
3. Jim Loscutoff: What is not to love? Red’s enforcer. Like most Boston fans in the 1980s, I hated Bill Laimbeer. Unlike most, I respected Laimbeer’s ability to play his role perfectly. His job was to agitate and protect his guys.
The reason I probably had that respect was that I grew up on stories about Loscutoff. Dad loved to tell us how Red Auerbach would sit next to Loscutoff on the bench and would say “They’re beating the hell out of Russell out there. Look at how much they are beating up on Cousy.” And then he’d send in Loscutoff. No specific orders to knock some guys around, but with a clear understanding of what his coach expected.
4. Tommy Heinsohn: Would have shot threes if they had them. For people my age and younger, Tommy Heinsohn is the cranky homer on Celtics broadcasts. For people dad’s age, Heinsohn was a scoring machine with a pretty jumper first. He was a coach second. And then a broadcaster third. Heinsohn was also a local legend because he starred collegiately at Holy Cross, like Bob Cousy before him. Anyone my age has been regaled with tales of the Crusaders dominance when Heinsohn and Cousy played there. Heinsohn is truly a Celtics and New England legend.
5. Larry Bird: Last good pure ball player. Did it all, worked hard. I already covered Bird in my list. But you can clearly see how dad feels about today’s players by his first line to describe Bird!
6. Kevin McHale: Tougher than he looked, played hard. The “tougher than he looked” line comes from years of Bird questioning McHale because that was how he got the best out of the big man. I talked in my piece about McHale being a low-post idol of mine when I was one of the big kids. The reason? Dad had me study McHale and how you score inside.
7. John Havlicek: Hey, he stole the ball. Two things come to mind when I think about John Havlicek. First is that there was a period when I played that I was told I was going to be my team’s sixth man. I was not happy at all about being taken out of the starting lineup. I was on a team with my best friends in the world, we were all in the same grade and had grown up together as teammates. I remember complaining about it to my dad. His response? “Sixth man was good enough for John Havlicek, it’s good enough for you.”
The second is the below clip. We’ve all seen this play a million times. Every single time he sees or hears the call from Johnny Most (who dad and everyone his age had in their lives forever), it brings a smile to his face.
8. Sam Jones: Good shooter. This one is dad understating things some. He used to regularly tell us “Don’t forget about Sam Jones” when discussing those great Celtics teams. Also, one of my uncles (I don’t remember which one) used to talk about how Cousy and Russell and Havlicek got the headlines, but it was Jones who did a lot of the scoring.
9. K.C. Jones: Complemented Cousy at guard, part of fast break team. Nothing makes dad happier in basketball than a bucket where the ball never touches the floor. Same with almost everyone his age. That’s because they grew up watching Boston fastbreak teams to death. K.C. Jones was the defensive stopper for years in the backcourt and would get out and run with the best of them. He also coached arguably the best team of all-time: the 1986 Celtics.
10. Robert Parish: Center for a long time. Another understatement! Parish played for 21 seasons and was 43 years old when he retired in 1997. I remember my dad enjoying Parish because he had some Russell in him. He would try and control his blocked shots, so the Celtics could get possession. I also remember hearing “Bird and McHale and the guards do the scoring, but watch Parish. He can score when they need him to. And he always rebounds and defends.”
There you have it. Smitty’s top-10 favorite Celtics of his lifetime! Hopefully this appeases those who wanted to see some of the legends on the list. Had we expanded this to any Celtics-related person, there is no doubt Red Auerbach would have ranked highly, along with the aforementioned Johnny Most. Dad loves both of them as much as any of the players.
We’ll be back with another 10 Takeaways next week that focuses on this current version of the Celtics with 10 Takeaways: Roster decisions before next season.