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These Are Not Larry Bird’s Celtics. And That’s Just Fine.


When Bill Walton revived and concluded his N.B.A. career with the Boston Celtics, he devised a plan on game nights to beat the city’s notoriously gridlocked traffic: He rode the subway to work.

Picture a towering, unmistakable redhead, 6-foot-11, boarding the T, as it is known in Boston, at the Harvard station. Walton lived nearby during the Celtics’ 1985-86 championship season, and in 1986-87, when they lost in the N.B.A. finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Red Line to the Green Line to the old Garden,” he said. “And with a packed car of crazed fans banging on the walls and ceiling, rocking the car, chanting, ‘Here we go Celtics, here we go!’ ”

In a recent telephone interview, Walton added that after six injury-plagued years with the dysfunctional and Donald Sterling-owned Clippers of San Diego and Los Angeles, those rides were neither scary nor a culture shock for a West Coast native.

“It was heaven,” he said.

To that end, when the N.B.A. finals return to Boston for the first time since 2010 — with the aforementioned Golden State Warriors hitting town for Game 3 Wednesday night — it will be the league’s version of strolling the somewhat gentrified but still old neighborhood, making the nostalgic rounds of where it grew up.

It wasn’t until years after the Bill Russell-era Celtics won 11 titles from 1957 through 1969 that professional basketball became a hot ticket in Boston, or anywhere in the United States, much less a sexy global sell. But it was largely at North Station, that nexus of unwieldy urban design, that the N.B.A. progressed from crawl to walk.

For a generation of sports journalists too young to have covered the Celtics’ patriarch Red Auerbach’s lighting of victory cigars from his coaching perch, the 1980s Bird-era Celtics were our introduction to live Celtics lore.

In chairs fit for third-graders along the baselines, we watched the Lakers and Celtics dramatically raise the league’s profile through the lens of the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Bird. Reporters from out of town slept in a new chain hotel at Copley Square, awakened by earsplitting alarms one early June morning that we swore were the devious work of Auerbach — because the Lakers stayed there, too.

We cringed as jubilant fans rushed the court after the Celtics won Game 7 of the 1984 finals and wondered if Bird and company — not to mention the Lakers — would get out alive. We risked being suffocated or crushed in horribly ventilated visitors’ locker rooms that were no match for the growing news media mob.

There is always temptation to overstate comparisons to champions of yore, especially when remembering that the Celtics have won exactly one championship since 1986. But some have pointed out that the rugged point guard Marcus Smart evokes memories of K.C. Jones and Bird’s 1980s running mate, Dennis Johnson (retired No. 3). And while Tatum may never be Bird in the collective mind of the Boston masses, he, at 24, appears destined to have his number, 0, join Robert Parish’s 00 in the rafters.

After all, it took one title, in 2008, for Kevin Garnett (retired No. 5) and Paul Pierce (34) to make it.

The current center, Robert Williams III, is no Russell (retired No. 6), but he, at 24, is a genuine, homegrown rim protector. Horford, who plays in the image of the 1970s glue guy Paul Silas, was reacquired last off-season, the kind of canny team-building addition the Celtics were known for across four decades of winning multiple titles.

Having lost the one premier player they signed, Gordon Hayward, to free agency in 2020, and Kyrie Irving, the best player they traded for, also to free agency, in 2019, these Celtics were more or less put together no differently from any Auerbach team. Danny Ainge, the former general manager, did the heavy lifting with much help from the Nets, whose draft picks heisted in a 2013 trade for the fading Pierce and Garnett brought Tatum and his co-star, Jaylen Brown.

So, too, are the current Warriors constructed without the benefit of a boutique free agent, after the 2019 departure of Kevin Durant. This series is a welcome variation on the theme of willful stars determining competitive balance, a wielding of leverage that has turned off some fans and that some people have come to see as harmful to the league.

These Celtics of course play in the same 3-point shooting universe that’s been stylistically expanded by Golden State’s Stephen Curry more than anyone, another trend found objectionable by many older fans. And TD Garden is no different from other N.B.A. arenas with upgraded culinary delights and the standard in-game experience of floor-show gimmickry and nonstop noise that once made Auerbach’s head and cigar explode.

Walton would rather remember the fans reaching a frenzied state on their own, en route on the Green Line. From his home in San Diego, he said, “Knowing Boston, I’m pretty sure nothing has changed.”

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