In Sports Illustrated late last week, LeBron James announced he was going home. What success LeBron will have going back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers remains to be seen, but there are comparable precedents. So here I am to help examine previous, notable examples of star players going home… or at least back to the team that first drafted them. And you’ll notice, LeBron is one of the few to have won a title in his pit stop before returning home.
Old and Beat Up – Returning to Your First NBA Team as an Old Man
Bob Dandridge – Won a Title Before Going Back!
Drafted 45th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 Draft, Bob Dandridge went on to become a 3x All-Star with the Bucks from 1969-70 to 1976-77. During this period he averaged 18.8 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, 48.8% FG and 77.1% FT for the Bucks. The superb small forward was hailed as a defensive stopper and efficient offensive scorer helping Milwaukee to a title in 1971 and another Finals appearance in 1974. In 1977, Dandridge became one of the first star players to change teams via free agency signing with the Washington Bullets. During his first season there, the Greyhound led Washington to an NBA title and helped push them back to the Finals the next season in 1979. At age 34, Dandridge returned to the Bucks in November 1981 but played a mere 11 games before being waived.
Regular Season Record: 348-440
Regular Season Win Percentage: 44.1%
Playoff Appearances: 4
Playoff Series Wins: 3
Playoff Record: 16-21
For the first time in generations, the Celtics were veering into rudderless territory. The untimely deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis derailed any smooth succession plan from the Bird-McHale-Parish core of the 1980s. With barely any worthwhile talent on their roster, Boston couldn’t swindle or fleece another team of their draft picks. Boston therefore decided the quickest road back to contention would come through deliberately losing as many games as possible. The prize, should they win the 1997 Draft Lottery, would be Tim Duncan.
With such a lucrative payoff, the Celtics were full-steam ahead for losing in 1996-97. They didn’t just secure the worst record in the NBA that season, Boston absolutely shattered the franchise record for losses and lowest win percentage. Their 67 losses easily eclipsed the previous record of 50 losses in 1978. The .183 win percentage was an abysmal depth below the previous record of .293 waaaay back in 1950.
The team’s leading scorer and rebounder was rookie forward Antoine Walker. The versatile shimmy machine would be one of the only two players to make a serious impact for Boston during this decade. The other, unfortunately, was not Tim Duncan. Despite the losing, Boston fell to the 3rd slot and watched the San Antonio Spurs dance off with Duncan.
Dejected, Boston selected Chauncey Billups with their pick. The point guard would go on to a superb career, but Boston gave up on him 51 games into the 1997-98 season. Billups was traded, in essence, for veteran Kenny Anderson. That was a curious trade then and now for a team that was clearly years away from any legitimate contention. But for some reason, coach and personnel head Rick Pitino couldn’t discern the true, sorry state of the franchise.
In any event, Boston did finish with 36 wins in the 1997-98 season as Walker became an All-Star. Despite not tanking that season, Boston nonetheless found their second impact player in the 1998 Draft. Paul Pierce fell into their lap at the 10th pic. Suddenly, Boston had some hope for the future.
But over the next two seasons, Boston continued to mire in mediocrity under Pitino. Finally, in an act of mercy, Pitino stepped down as coach a third of the way through the 2000-01 season. Jim O’Brien took over as coach and guided Boston to a 24-24 record during his truncated tenure that season.
By this time, Pierce and Walker formed a formidably potent one-two duo. Together they averaged 50 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 8.5 assists a game. However, the rest of the roster was atrocious. A lot of players who were decent at their very best.
Yet, somehow, the combined power of Pierce and Walker catapulted Boston to 49 wins in the 2001-02 season. It was their best regular season campaign in a decade. In the playoffs, the achieved success not seen since 1988 by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Their opponent was the New Jersey Nets.
The highwater mark of the season – and of this era – came in Game 3 of the series. Tied 1-1, the Celtics found themselves down by 21 points entering the fourth quarter. From that point forward, Paul Pierce carried the Celtics on his back as Boston scored 41 points in the final period to win the game 94-90. Now up 2-1 in the series, Boston promptly lost the next three games. Considering where they were just a season before, it was a helluva triumph.
The triumph proved paper-thin, however.
Another bone-headed trade earlier that season crippled the Celtics. Promising rookie Joe Johnson was dealt to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for veterans Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. Boston foolishly became enamored with the idea these two players could give them a potent core for immediate contention.
When the dust settled, Delk and Rogers played a grand total of 116 games for Boston and Joe Johnson has famously played in seven all-star games.
The Celtics steadily declined to 44 wins in 2003 and then 36 wins in 2004. A brief bounce came in 2005 when they won 45 games, but in the 2006 season they fell right back down to 33 wins.
By that time, Paul Pierce was a lonely, lonely man. Walker had been traded just prior to the 2003-04 season to Dallas for a poo-poo platter of flotsam: Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, and Jiri Welsch plus a 2004 1st rounder that became the best part of the deal, Delonte West. The team’s leading players, besides Pierce, in 2006 were Ricky Davis, Wally Szczerbiak, and Mark Blount. Not exactly a murder’s row of talent.
In this rubble were buried some young gems. The aforementioned West, defensive swingman Tony Allen, the scowling Kendrick Perkins, and the offensively gifted Al Jefferson. However, they were young gems and Pierce was 28 years old in the absolute heart of his prime. He averaged 27 points that season and nearly 7 rebounds and 5 assists a game.
How long would he put up with putting up Herculean numbers for a team headed into a clear rebuild? Boston was again at a crossroads similar to where they were a decade before.
At least this time they did have a player of Pierce’s caliber to perhaps trade away and stock up on draft picks. Or maybe they should stick with Pierce and cross their fingers that another star would fall to them in the draft? Better yet, maybe they should repeat the 1996-97 season and deliberately lose in order to improve the odds of winning the lottery.
Whatever the decision, Boston unmistakeably found itself in a malaise heretofore unthinkable to the likes of Auerbach and Russel, Bird and Havlicek.
C – Tony Battie (1999-’04) – 336 Games
6.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 0.6 SPG, 51.7% FG, 68.7% FT
F – Paul Pierce (1999-’06) – 605 Games
23.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 44.0% FG, 35.7% 3PT, 79.0% FT
F – Antoine Walker (1996-’03, 2005) – 552 Games
20.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 41.3% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 66.2% FT
F – Eric Williams (1996-’04) – 398 Games
9.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 42.1% FG, 73.1% FT
G – Kenny Anderson (1997-’02) – 241 Games
11.3 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 43.5% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 78.9% FT
F – Walter McCarty (1997-’05) – 494 Games
5.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 39.5% FG, 34.9% 3PT, 71.1% FT
G – Dana Barros (1996-’00) – 227 Games
9.1 PPG, 3.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 45.3% FG, 40.6% 3PT, 86.1% FT
Regular Season Record: 465-355
Regular Season Win Percentage: 56.7%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 7
Playoff Record: 37-40
Fresh off three titles in six seasons, the Boston Celtics looked to further cement their hold as the best franchise in the history of the NBA heading into the 1986 Draft. Even though their 1985-86 team had won an incredible 67 games, the Celtics were perched at the top of the draft with the #2 pick thanks to a bone-headed trade by the Seattle SuperSonics. With that pick, Boston selected the athletic and supremely-gifted Len Bias.
Sadly, Bias would be dead from a drug overdose within a couple of days and Boston’s long-term success was severely impaired.
As for immediate effects, Boston seemingly showed no signs of trouble. Their Big 3 of Parish, McHale, and Bird continued to hum along. In fact, McHale submitted his best season in 1986-87. Larry Bird had just won the three previous MVP awards. Parish was his usual, highly-reliable self. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge continued to ably man the backcourt.
The problem was the bench. It was razor-thin and old by this point. Scott Wedman lasted just six games. Bill Walton just 10. Other legends like Jerry Sichting, Fred Roberts, and Greg Kite were left as the backups. This is where the absence of Bias truly and immediately felt by Boston.
The Celtics still managed 59 wins in 1987, but in the playoffs they ran up against two remarkably formidable foes. One was a time-honored adversary: the Milwaukee Bucks. These Bucks had swept Boston in 1983 and now in ’87 they pushed Boston to seven games in the semi-finals. Surviving the Game 7 by the hair of their chin (119-113 thanks to a fourth quarter surge) the Celtics moved on to face the Detroit Pistons. Larry Bird’s steal and pass underneath to Dennis Johnson barely gave Boston a Game 5 victory (108-107) and provided a 3-2 series lead. Without that moment, Boston likely would have lost the series. As it stood, they still nearly lost the series. In Game 7, Bird played every minute and dropped 37/9/9 to thwart Detroit 117 to 114.
In the Finals, the Celtics faced the Lakers for the third time in four years. The Lakers, thanks to Magic Johnson’s baby hook in Game 4, secured the series in six games. This proved to be Boston’s last best hope for a title for the next two decades.
Injuries and age began to ravage the Celtics. McHale, who broken his foot in March 1987, delayed surgery until after the season. Playing on the foot gave Boston its shot at another title that season, but definitely altered the rest of McHale’s career. Bone spurs, a bad back, and torn Achilles combined to mar the rest of Bird’s career. In the 1988-89 season, Larry Legend played in just six games.
Naturally, the indestructible Robert Parish chugged along without problem.
To be sure, Boston was still a team to contend with every season, but they were no longer a title contender. Especially after the 1987-88 season. After Bird famously dueled Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the semi-finals, Boston moved on to the ECF to again face Detroit. The Celtics put up a valiant fight as five of the six contests were decided by less than six points, but their depleted bench was too big of a weakness. The Pistons played eight players more than 20 minutes a game, meanwhile Boston only played their starters more than that. Indeed, four of their starters averaged over 40 minutes a game. Hell, four of their starters were over age 30.
In 1989, with Bird sidelined most of the season, Boston discovered a taste of youth within their midst.
Reggie Lewis made the most of Bird’s absence. The second-year forward who couldn’t get off the bench his rookie season blossomed with 18.5 PPG in the 1988-89 season. Rookie Brian Shaw also saw an uptick (8.5 PPG, 6 APG) after Ainge was traded to the Sacramento Kings. The youngsters barely allowed Boston a winning record (42-40) and were cleanly swept by the Pistons in the first round, but Boston was in for a mini-Renaissance in the early 1990s that’s often forgot.
Bird’s return in 1990 pushed Boston back up to 52 wins. The fearsome four Boston trotted out made them a frisky playoff foe for anyone.
Bird – 24 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 7.5 APG
McHale – 21 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2 BPG
Lewis – 17 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3 APG
Parish – 16 PPG, 10 RPG
The problem remained the bench. And with Dennis Johnson gassed on his last legs, the back court was a sieve as well. In the opening round against the New York Knicks, Boston was absolutely stunned by the sequence of events that unfolded.
The Celtics took the first two games of the best-of-five series in convincing fashion: a 116-105 Game 1 victory and an absolute 157-128 beatdown in Game 2. Then the Knicks proceeded to win the next three games to knock Boston out of the playoffs. Patrick Ewing was particularly monstrous in ruining the Celtics with 32 points a game on 57% shooting. In Game 5, Ewing provided the dagger with a desperation turnaround three-pointer.
In 1991, the Celtics finally had a coherent team again with an actual bench. The team stormed out to a 29-4 start, finished the year with 56 wins, and garnered the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Gamble, Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, and Ed Pinckney weren’t all-stars nor all-timers but they were decent and good pieces to relieve the strain on Boston’s core. The balance Boston found is exemplified by six players averaging between 14 and 20 PPG that season.
The good fortune didn’t last into the next season as the roster went into flux with trades and injury, but still Boston managed 51 wins.
And here’s the crazy thing: Boston was within easy reach of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals both seasons. They probably would have lost to the Chicago Bulls once there, but that’s better the results we know Boston received.
As it stands, the Celtics lost to the hated Pistons one last time in 1991. The six-game series ended with a nail-biting 117-113 Detroit victory in overtime in the final game. In 1992, the Celtics were even more heart-broken in a 4-3 series loss to the Cavaliers in the ECSF.
The 1992-93 season was the end of an era for Boston. Bird was now retired. McHale was clearly right behind him as he struggled throughout the year. Even Parish was beginning to crack at the tender age of 39. The continued excellence of Reggie Lewis kept Boston afloat with 48 wins. Shockingly, even he was lost during the playoffs due to a heart condition that ultimately killed him later that summer.
From that horrific moment, Boston truly washed into the tides of despair.
Parish made his official exit after the 1993-94 season as the Celtics won just 32 games. 35 and 33 wins followed in 1995 and 1996, respectively. There was certainly some talent in the rubble: Rick Fox, Dee Brown, and the delightful post player Dino Radja. However, they weren’t enough on their own to reconstruct a dynasty.
Boston had flirted with such miserable points before: the post-Hondo malaise in 1978 and ’79, the brief post-Russell collapse in 1970, the soul-searching 1956 season.
This time was distinctly different, however. Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, and Bill Russell weren’t walking through the door to relieve Boston of the pain. Their only hope in the new NBA landscape of draft lotteries was to crash, burn, and hope for ping pong balls to bounce in their favor for a #1 pick.
With a superb college center in Tim Duncan soon up for grabs. Boston gutted the roster and hoped for another touch of Celtic Luck.
C -Robert Parish (1986-’94) – 626 Games
15.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 0.7 SPG, 55.8% FG, 73.7% FT
F – Reggie Lewis (1987-’93) – 450 Games
17.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 48.8% FG, 82.4% FT
F – Larry Bird (1986-’92) – 336 Games
24.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 49.5% FG, 38.9% 3PT, 91.6% FT
F – Kevin McHale (1986-’93) – 496 Games
19.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.6 BPG, 56.1% FG, 83.4% FT
G – Dennis Johnson (1986-’90) – 303 Games
10.8 PPG, 7.1 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 43.8% FG, 83.9% FT
G – Dee Brown (1990-’96) – 414 Games
12.3 PPG. 4.3 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 45.2% FG, 33.5% 3PT, 83.3% FT
F/C – Dino Radja (1993-’96) – 199 Games
17.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 50.4% FG, 73.6% FT
F – Kevin Gamble (1988-’94) – 436 Games
11.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 51.8% FG, 81.6% FT
Piqued by Jacob Greenberg’s post on black NBA coaches being “hired last, fired first”, I was curious on just how often NBA champions are led by black coaches.
So, looking at the NBA’s 65-year history, the deck is stacked in favor of white coaches. For starters, a black coach wasn’t hired until 1966. Thereafter it was slooooow for the league to fully embrace the idea of black coaches. But a larger look across the whole coaching spectrum lies in the future. For now let’s just stick to the championship cream of the crop.
Right off the bat, it’s important to acknowledge that over half (34) of the league’s 65 titles have been won by just five coaches: Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Greg Popovich, Pat Riley, and John Kundla. Among the remaining titles, eight coaches received two each. The last remaining 15 titles were won by 15 different coaches.
Flipping the racial light switch creates an even more preponderant hoarding of titles into a small, collective group. In other words, the vast majority of NBA titles have been won by white coaches.
22 white coaches have won 86% of the NBA’s championships, unsurprising given the fact that the Big 5 coaches seen above were all white. Meanwhile only five black coaches have won a total of seven NBA titles. And kudos to Erik Spoelstra for giving Asians a place in the discussion with his two titles.
Lastly, I’d like to take a look at when black coaches were winning these titles and did they have previous NBA playing experience. For the first topic, it’s quite clear the NBA has actually been quite horrible over the last two decades. Again, kudos Spoelstra for keeping this decade from lily whiteness, so far.
As for the second parameter still begging my interest: what’s the breakdown on playing experience for these title-winning coaches?
Clearly, it pays to be an ex-NBA player to winning NBA coaching titles. But not having pro experience isn’t that much of a handicap for white coaches. For blacks? It’s a death sentence. Notice that 0%. Not a single NBA title has been won by a black coach with no prior playing experience.
So what does any of this mean? It means that the upper echelons of NBA coaching – at least when it comes to winning titles – remains starkly white. And there is a sound counter-argument that there just aren’t that many titles to go around, so maybe this is a bad measurement.
To somewhat deflect that critique – but not to dismiss it – let’s include the runner-up coach in the Finals in the discussion. Only nine times in NBA history has the coach on the opposing sideline been African-American. So, from 130 possible chances to be the winner or runner-up coach, just 16 times has a black head coach been in that position.
And only once… ONCE… has a black man simultaneously occupied both spots. That would be the 1975 NBA Finals when Al Attles’s Golden State Warriors defeated KC Jones’s Washington Bullets.
What’s worrisome, though, is that the pool of runner-up coaches is extremely similar to championship coaches. And with the exception of Mike Brown, all of these coaches spent lengthy time as NBA players.
For a league that had its first black coach in 1966 and has been majority-black since the same period, this isn’t exactly a sterling track record on having black coaches ascend to the top of the profession. What’s striking is that we don’t find it the least bit odd or notable that year-after-year in a sport so heavily filled with black athletes that white men continue to lead and instruct them at disproportionate levels. Hard to imagine a similar scenario ever playing out with the racial roles reversed.
I suppose that’s the ultimate “so what?” of this story.
Regular Season Record: 539-281
Regular Season Win Percentage: 65.7%
Playoff Appearances: 8
Playoff Series Wins: 18
Playoff Record: 74-42
Capturing two titles in the previous three seasons, while also making every Conference Finals since 1972, the Boston Celtics entered the 1976-77 season on an incredibly high note. However, high notes don’t play on forever.
John Havlicek, at age 36, was somehow still averaging 18/5/5. Jo Jo White submitted one of his best seasons with 20 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds a game. Those two venerable Celtics proved to be the only rocks on a team clearly in decline. Dave Cowens and Charlie Scott each missed nearly half the season. The frontcourt of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe didn’t exactly replace the leadership and intelligence of the dearly departed Paul Silas. Add it all up and Boston finished with just 44 wins.
In the playoffs, White provided his final great run for Boston. His 31 PPG dropped the San Antonio Spurs in the 1st Round. In the semi-finals, Boston faced off against old nemesis Philadelphia now led by Julius Erving. Thanks to White’s 40 points in Game 6, Boston forced a Game 7, which they narrowly lost. In due time, the Celtics would engage in numerous battles with Erving’s 76ers. But, in due time.
That series marked the end of Boston’s 1970s squads as any sort of contender. The 1977-78 Celtics won only 32 games in missing the playoffs. The highlight of the season was John Havlicek’s raucous retirement ceremony. With such a crummy team on the court, why not get excited remembering the eight titles Hondo had helped Boston win?
With Havlicek retired, the complete razing of Boston was underway. White was traded midway through the 1978-79 season. Big names with underwhelming game were trotted out: Marvin Barnes, Billy Knight, Dave Bing, Ernie DiGregario, Bob McAdoo, etc. Boston limped to the finish of that season with 29 wins as Cowens became the last player-coach in NBA history.
From this turmoil, Boston – again – was assembling the bits for a new contender. Cedric Maxwell was drafted in 1977 and by his second season averaged 20 and 10 while leading the NBA in FG%. Nate “Tiny” Archibald was acquired cheaply as he recovered from Achilles and foot injuries. And most stealthily, the Celtics exploited a loophole in 1978 to draft Larry Bird.
The loophole? NBA draftees at the time became if they explicitly declared for the draft or automatically four years after their high school class graduated. At least that was Red Auerbach’s argument. Bird was still in college, but due to sitting out a season while transferring schools, he had still reached four years past his HS graduating class.
Boston had to wait until the 1979-80 season to get Bird, but he was worth the wait winning Rookie of the Year.
The lineup of Bird, Cowens, Maxwell, and Archibald stormed to the best record in the NBA with 61 wins. A quick sweep of Houston deceived the Celtics. In the Conference Finals, Dr. J’s 76ers smacked down the Celtics in 5 games. Boston was clearly to be reckoned with once again, but would need a little more seasoning and a little more talent.
The seasoning would naturally come. The talent arrived through one of the great swindles in NBA history. Why write about it when there’s an awesome video breakdown of the silliness…
So, even though Cowens finally retired, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish joining the Celtics fray made them a legitimate title contender for years to come. Indeed, in 1980-81, they again finished with the league’s best record (62-20). However, the Sixers also finished with 62 wins. The showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals produced one of the greatest series ever played.
Game 1 was decided by a single point in favor of Philly. Games 2 and 3 had double-digit victories by each side. Then came the deluge of Maalox moments. Philadelphia won Game 4 and took a 3-1 series lead. Boston won the three next games to amazingly win the series. If you recall, Boston had done the same thing back in 1968 to Philadelphia. For the 1981 edition of this comeback, the final three Boston victories were decided by 5 points total.
The Finals against the 40-win Houston Rockets – who had moved to the Western Conference – proved more difficult than first imagined thanks to the burly Moses Malone. Nonetheless, the Celtics dispatched Houston in six games and claimed their first title since 1976.
In the 1981-82 season, Boston again finished with the league’s best record (63-19) and again faced the 76ers in the Conference Finals. And again the series went seven games. Again in a 3-1 series hole, Boston nearly made up the difference one more time, but the Sixers stopped the rally in a 120-106 Game 7 win in Boston.
The next year, Boston somewhat stumbled to 56 wins and were swept in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks. That 1983 season saw the demise of the first incarnation of Bird’s Celtics. Archibald, who had missed half of the 1982 ECF, was just too old and broken down to be effective anymore. Also, coach Bill Fitch with an insanely intense style had worn out his welcome.
With a new coach in KC Jones and some back court help arriving in the form of 2nd-year man Danny Ainge and a trade for Dennis Johnson, Boston looked to regain its championship form in 1984.
New Era, Old Foes
Oh did the Celtics ever regain their mojo.
They finished far and away the best team in the NBA in 1984 with 62 wins. The hated Sixers after winning the title in 1983 finished with just 52 wins and finally seemed no longer a threat to Boston. Indeed, the Celtics made easy work of the Eastern playoffs. Only the heroics of Bernard King, who single-handedly forced Boston into a 7-game semi-final series, gave them any trouble. But King’s personal exploits couldn’t stymie the Celtics’ great team.
Moving on tot he Finals, Boston faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time since 1969. After taking a Game 3 pounding, 137-104, Larry Bird disparaged his team with unflattering remarks. Regrouping and galvanized, they came out in Game 4 in what might be the greatest game ever played.
Famous for Kevin McHale’s clothesline foul of Kurt Rambis, the contest itself stands as a hallmark of pressure-filled playoff basketball. Lakers star Magic Johnson eventually wilted under the pressure as Boston annoyed and intimidated Los Angeles. The Celtics pulled the game out in overtime, 129-125. Eventually going seven games, the Celtics demonstrably handled the Lakers 111-102 in the final game to win another championship thanks to Maxwell’s 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Boston looked to repeat as NBA champs in the 1984-85 season. With a sterling 63 wins they looked even better than the year before. A brief tussle with the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals did give Boston a taste of a foe who would be more troublesome in the years to come. The Celtics then had their swansong confrontation with the 76ers in the ECF. The Celtics proved far superior defeating Philly 4-1.
The Finals rematch of Celtics-Lakers and Magic-Bird opened with a dramatic 148-114 victory for the Boston. Scott Wedman came off of Boston’s bench and drilled all 11 of his field goals for 26 points. That great omen proved false for the Celtics. Magic and the Lakers proved more resilient than the previous year and wound up winning the series 4-games-to-2 despite lacking home court advantage.
For the 1985-86 season, Boston decided to shake things up. They traded longtime forward and 1981 Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Bill Walton. Walton had hardly played over the previous half-decade due to foot injuries, but his passing skills and post presence would push McHale into the starting lineup while making himself the NBA’s premier 6th Man.
The gambit worked and the ’86 Celtics cruised to the NBA title. During the regular season they finished with 67 wins and probably could have won more if they had the desire to. They won 12 of their 13 playoff games in the Eastern Conference. The only bump in the road proved to be the Houston Rockets in the Finals. Their combination of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson could contend with Boston’s enormous frontcourt, but the Celtics held a decisive edge at guard and it was there that the balance was fully swung. The Celtics celebrated a 4-2 series victory over the Rockets and their third title in six years.
As this latest Celtics decade came to a close, Boston could fondly look back on a spectacular rebuild from the Hondo-Cowens-White Era to the Bird-McHale-Parish Era. The latest Big 3 had not only delivered three titles, but also routinely garnered the NBA’s best regular season record. Amazingly, Boston was in a position to begin rebuilding before their current era of success was even close to being finished.
In 1984, the Celtics had traded Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics for a future first round pick. Well, the pick was due in 1986 and as (Celtic) luck would have it, the Sonics wound up with the #2 overall pick. Boston took possession of that draft pick. On draft night, June 17, 1986, the Boston Celtics looked to solidify their NBA hold for the rest of the 1980s and extend the dynasty into the 1990s with the selection of Len Bias.
C -Robert Parish (1980-’86) – 480 Games
18.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 0.8 SPG, 54.6% FG, 72.3% FT
F – Cedric Maxwell (1977-’85) – 607 Games
13.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 55.9% FG, 78.3% FT
F – Larry Bird (1979-’86) – 561 Games
23.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 49.6% FG, 35.9% 3PT, 86.9% FT
F – Kevin McHale (1980-’86) – 475 Games
16.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 55.3% FG, 75.2% FT
G – Tiny Archibald (1978-’83) – 363 Games
12.5 PPG, 7.1 APG, 0.9 SPG, 46.9% FG, 79.0% FT
G – Dennis Johnson (1983-’86) – 238 Games
14.8 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 45.2% FG, 84.1% FT
G – Danny Ainge (1981-’86) – 359Games
9.0 PPG, 3.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 49.2% FG, 84.7% FT
C – Dave Cowens (1976-’80) – 261 Games
16.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 46.9% FG, 81.8% FT
At a stocky 6’2″ and 200 lbs., Warren Jabali was one of the hardest players to guard and control in the ABA. Born Warren Armstrong, his changed surname means “the Rock” in Swahili and frankly it couldn’t have described him better. The name change occured toward the end of his career, but all throughout his life, Jabali exhibited an intensity on the court and off the court that often made people wary.
He was known as a merciless defender and averaged 2 steals per game in his career. His coaches wouldn’t hesitate to through him on any opposing guard or forward, no matter their height. If Jabali was on the court, you basically had the other teams best offensive guard and/or forward dutifully harassed
Despite his own short height, Jabali would fly in with reckless abandon to snare rebounds. Capturing the board, he would sprint down court and loved to throw down left-handed dunks – despite being right-handed. In the halfcourt setting, Jabali was absolutely too strong for opposing guards to contain and absolutely too fast and short for forwards to have any hope of slowing him down.
Jabali put his unqiue blend of talent and personality to immediate use in the ABA during his rookie season with the Oakland Oaks. Stacked with Rick Barry, Doug Moe, and Larry Brown, Jabali emerged as perhaps the team’s best player. That title was without dispute once Barry was lost to a knee injury early in the season. Averaging 21.5 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 assists, Jabali was named the ABA’s Rookie of the Year and lead Oakland to a 60-18 record – best in the ABA.
In the playoffs, Jabali was outstanding. Averaging 29 points and 13 rebounds for the playoffs (and 33 points in the Finals), the 6’2″ guard led the Oaks to the ABA title and was easily named the MVP of the playoffs.
A sensational follow up season was in store for Warren as the Oaks moved to Washington, DC, and became the Capitols. He upped his production to averages of 23 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He was named to the first of his four All-Star games. But his season was cut short and his career altered by a knee injury.
Returning in the 1970-71 season with the Indiana Pacers, Jabali’s limitless versatility was perhaps overused. Indiana had won the 1970 ABA title, so clearly had a solid core in place with Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, and Freddie Lewis. Jabali was basically designated as a Swiss Army Knife sliding up and down the lineup plugging holes instead of having a firm role.
After that lone season in Indy, Jabali was picked up by the Floridians forming a dynamic backcourt with the equally short Mack Calvin. Jabali returned to his All-Star form with averages of 20 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. He also added a new wrinkle to his game: the three-point shot. His outside shooting had always been his biggest weakness, but in 1972 he led the ABA in three-pointers attempted while finishing fifth in percentage by nailing 36% of his downtown attempts.
Jabali was again on the move for the 1972-73 season. Landing with the Denver Rockets, Jabali’s unbounded athleticism was becoming a thing of the past. His rebounds fell to just 5 a game, but he still managed 17 points and 6.5 assists. Also, we finally get a glimpse at his steals totals since the ABA began tracking the stat this season. Warren swiped 2.1 per game.
In any event, 1973 proved Jabali’s last great season. At the All-Star Game, he secured MVP honors. But by the playoffs Rockets coach Alex Hannum had cooled on Jabali, drastically cutting his playing time.
What may have been Jabali’s undoing in pro basketball was his personality, the reaction others had to it, and his reaction to the reaction. No one in their right mind picked a fight with Jabali. During his vaunted rookie season, the firebrand stomped on an opponent and received a 15-game suspension.
More than that though, he was considered a radical black nationalist. After all, he had given up his born name of Armstrong for Jabali when he converted to Islam. Indeed, his outspoken beliefs made ABA management fearful of retaining him. In the 1974 season, Denver put Jabali on the waiver wire and no ABA team picked up the rest of that season.
A return to the ABA came in 1974-75 season for Warren with the San Diego Conquistadors, but he averaged an underwhelming (for himself) 12 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals a game. After those 62 games with the Qs, Jabali was done as a professional ball player.
Jabali explained his politics and seemingly aloof nature, but not many people in pro basketball wanted to take the time out – then or now – to fully grapple with the issues he saw swirling in sport and American society. In his later years, Jabali more keenly focused the rage he felt toward the injustices and became a devoted community organizer.
Even though his basketball career was spectacular, one wishes he had the same time and space to replicate his latter life solemn focus on to the court. Instead, injuries and personality curtailed the murky yet still amazing career of Warren Jabali.
Years Played: 1968-1975
Playoff MVP (1969)
Rookie of the Year (1969)
All-ABA 1st Team (1973)
4x All-Star (1970, 1972-’74)
All-Star Game MVP (1973)