When I woke up in Brooklyn on the morning of June 9, 1978, all I had planned to do was go to work. I didn’t know I’d also end up going to the NBA Draft.
I also wasn’t aware that the Celtics would be drafting Larry Bird that day.
The last thing I didn’t know: I was about to become the first Celtics fan in the world to know who the Celtics picked. But that’s exactly what happened, and I swear on Banner 18 that this story is 100% true.
Despite being born and raised in Brooklyn, I was not a fan of either the New York Knicks or the then-New Jersey Nets in 1978. Nope, I was a Celtics fan from the time I began following the NBA in the fall of 1965. That life-altering choice was thanks to my (to this day) best friend, Joe LoSchiavo, who had read a Sports Illustrated article about Boston’s original Sixth Man, Frank Ramsey.
Joe decided he liked Ramsey, and so became a Celtics fan. If my best buddy was going to root for Boston, then I was, too. And it paid off immediately: the Celts won the 1966 title, which was Red Auerbach’s last banner before retiring from coaching. Joe and I were hooked for life.
A few years later, after graduating from Boston University (yep, I chose a Boston school), I was back living in Brooklyn and working in the corporate communications department of a major insurance company in midtown Manhattan. Arriving at my cubicle, I said good morning to my office neighbor, Neil Shalin.
Neil’s reply: “Why don’t we go to the NBA Draft today?”
This suggestion was puzzling, because the event was not open to the public. Many years later, the NBA began allowing spectators; now they sell tickets at $42 a pop and also offer VIP experiences. But in 1978, the draft wasn’t even televised.
Understand, however, Neil was one of the smartest, wittiest people I’ve ever known. He knew more information about more topics than any three Jeopardy contestants combined. Sports were a huge part of his life, which included roles scouting college players for the Sixers, handling public relations for the Roller Derby and for the New York Nets in their early ABA years, and later authoring several books about baseball.
So when Neil made his suggestion about the draft, he’d already figured out how we’d get in. “We’ll pose as basketball writers.”
That would be mission impossible today without credentials, but it was entirely doable in the much less security-conscious late ‘70’s. When lunchtime approached, Neil grabbed his reporter’s notebook, I borrowed a 35mm camera from our department’s equipment room, and we made our way some two dozen city blocks north to The Plaza Hotel.
The draft was about to begin when we arrived at the ballroom where all 22 teams were represented. Neil told the woman at the check-in table we were from the entirely non-existent “Basketball Weekly.” She waved us right in.
We did our best to blend in with the media members — Neil taking notes while I snapped random photos. When teams began to announce their selections, the top five choices were all in the room: Mychal Thompson went #1 to the Portland Trailblazers; Phil Ford went to the Kansas City Kings; Rick Robey became an Indiana Pacer; Micheal Ray Richardson was taken by the New York Knicks; and pick #5 was Purvis Short to the Golden State Warriors.
The Celtics were up next, holding pick #6, and suddenly the door was open for Boston to get the guy that could’ve and should’ve gone #1.
Bird was coming off a college season where he averaged 30 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and was a First Team All-American. The main reason he wasn’t a lock for top pick: he was draft-eligible under rules at that time, but he still had one year of college eligibility remaining – and he had pledged to use it. The NBA team that chose Bird would need to wait a full season for him, and then sign him before the next draft, or lose him and have nothing.
Think about it, though. The Indiana Pacers passed on drafting ultimately the greatest Hoosier to ever lace up sneakers. The Knicks didn’t grab the guy who would’ve become New York’s hottest ticket. All five teams had their reasons, but they surely came to regret not thinking big.
In approaching this decision, Red Auerbach had one key advantage: the Celtics also possessed the eighth pick, received from Los Angeles in a trade the previous season. Boston used that pick to get Freeman Williams, so no matter what happened with Bird, Red got a player (two-time national scoring leader in college) to help immediately. In a twist, Williams was later traded before ever wearing a Celtics uniform, but never forget that the headline here is the Lakers helped the Celtics draft Larry Bird!
Now, back in the ballroom, it was time. I heard the words, “the Boston Celtics select Larry Bird from Indiana State!”
Neil and I, the impostors, were the only fans who heard the announcement first-hand (and Neil was a Knicks fan). Everyone else in the room worked for the league, the teams, or the news media. Besides having no live TV coverage, there was no satellite radio network, no cell phone in every pocket, no websites to be updated. ESPN was a year away, Twitter three decades hence. The only line of communication was the conference phone call connecting the ballroom with the twenty-two front offices in their home cities.
Other fans around the U.S. would not know until they perhaps heard a radio news report, or watched their local evening news. Newspaper coverage, even in afternoon editions (yes, publishing multiple times per day was a thing then), would be several hours away. For at least a brief period, Neil and I were the only Celtics fans who knew and we got the hell out of there because we were already very late getting back from lunch.
Of course, we know the rest. Larry played his final college season, leading Indiana State to a 33-0 record and the championship game before falling to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. The coolest thing, though, was having a future Celtic to root for throughout the tournament.
Then Bird obviously signed before the one-year deadline, won Rookie of the Year for leading Boston to 61 wins after 29 the season before, and in his second year the Celtics raised a banner. Red had done it again.
Looking back on that day in the hotel ballroom, we knew Larry was probably the best player in that draft, and it was clear we’d witnessed a special moment in Celtics history. We just didn’t know right then that he would become Larry Legend. In hindsight, that draft was one of Boston sports’ all-time greatest moments, and I had the good fortune to see it happen.