Bird’s Rookie Year – Game Eight vs Hawks

Justin Barrasso will be perusing the box scores of the Boston Celtics during the Larry Bird years, starting with Bird’s rookie year in 1979-1980. We’ll be posting the box score as well as some commentary each game day as we re-visit the ’79-’80 season. Enjoy.

Celtics (5-2) vs. Hawks (5-4)
Saturday, October 27, 1979
Omni Coliseum

The Celtics continued their road trip with  Saturday night visit to play Ted Turner’s Atlanta Hawks.  The Celtics were in the fourth game of the six game trip, and with a win, would improve to 3-2 on the road and continue their pursuit of the first place, undefeated – now 8-0 – Philadelphia 76ers (where the C’s would travel on November 10).  As interesting as the Hawks were on the court, they were an even better story off of it.

Owned by Ted Turner and coached by Hubie Brown, the Hawks were one of the NBA’s surprises, coming off a 46-win season and a trip to the Eastern Conference semis.  Hubie Brown really made his mark on the world of professional basketball during his tenure in Atlanta – in both a positive and extremely negative matter.  Per the outstanding Bruce Newman:

The Hawks won only 31 games in Brown’s first year, and in midseason Ted Turner bought the team and subsequently instructed Brown to get rid of all the high-priced talent. What followed may have been Brown’s greatest triumph. Taking a motley assortment of castoffs and no-name players (Brown had recruited a 27-year-old, 5’8″ guard named Charlie Criss from the Eastern League the year before), whose salaries totaled $800,000, Brown pushed and bullied and goaded the Hawks into winning 41 games and making the 1977-78 playoffs, Atlanta’s first postseason appearance since 1972-73.

Brown knew the game of basketball inside and out, but the same could not be said for his boss.

The Hawks raise a Ted Turner banner

Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick captured some of Turner’s issues learning the nuances of the game of basketball:

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On another evening, while Turner was sitting courtside at a Hawks game, Rick Barry came over and congratulated him on the America’s Cup defense. Minutes passed. Then Turner said to a companion, “Gee, wasn’t that amazing of Rick Barry?” More minutes passed. Then Turner said, “Is Rick Barry a forward?”Turner’s ignorance about both baseball and basketball is a matter of public record as well as the basis of many jokes he tells on himself. After two years as owner of the Braves, he thinks he finally knows what a balk is. But much of pro basketball has him stumped.

He is forever calling NBA coaches “managers” and officials “umpires.” Although Turner knows his Hawks are “not too shabby” but rather “strawwwnnnng” (two of the more annoying expressions in the terrific Turner lexicon someone once called “Southern bebop”), he does not seem to know their names or what positions they play. For instance, former Hawk Ron Behagen was always “Ber-hagen” to Turner. When the hulking, 6’7″ forward, John Brown—whose name Turner appears to have less difficulty pronouncing—fouled out of a game, the owner jumped up and yelped, “Golly! Now we’ve got only three guards left.” Later in the same game, after the Hawks were warned for using the illegal zone defense, Turner was bewildered.

“What the hell was that?” he said.

“A zone warning,” he was told.

“Awww for Chrissakes, forget it,” he concluded, angrily giving up.

Turner has no better command of the facts of his own life. “Was I married both times on the same date?” he said recently, repeating a question. “Dee?” he screamed at his secretary. “Do I have the same wedding anniversary twice?”

Turner has little trouble recalling profit and loss statements, sailing results and his favorite passages from literature, but when he tries to remember whether he has three sons and two daughters or is it three daughters and two sons, he often has to resort to prayer. By the same token, Turner seldom negotiates the 30-minute drive into downtown Atlantafrom his modest, magnolia-trimmed home near suburban Marietta without getting hopelessly lost. He has been making this trip for four years. “Someday I know I’ll end up in Tennessee,” he says.

Turner even has taken to scrawling the names of new business associates on his wrist with a Magic Marker so he won’t forget them. Still, last year, while negotiating the contract of rookie guard Rich Laurel, he kept referring to the player as “Rich Little.”

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The previously linked Newman article (which Hubie told SI’s Jack McCallum that Sports Illustrated “ruined his f–ing life”) also shares some incredible quotes from one of the most talented basketball coaches in the history of the league.

Brown says he is weary of the controversies, and yet his honesty—which he frequently wields like a bludgeon—doesn’t prevent him from diving into new skirmishes. He describes former CBS color analyst Bill Russell as “a moron,” and CBS play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton as “a jerk,” after having worked with both when he was out of coaching two seasons ago. Of the coach of the New Jersey Nets, he says, “Stan Albeck is a washerwoman who calls six people every day to find out the latest gossip. A nice man.” And Brown doesn’t stop there. “We’ve got maybe five general managers in the NBA who know anything about basketball,” he says. “The other 18 are stealing their money.”

Michael Gearon, president of the Atlanta Hawks and the man who put Brown on the street in 1981, says, “Is it a coincidence that in every [professional] relationship the guy has ever had, the friendships aren’t there? In fact, it’s almost as if they’re all his mortal enemies. I think Hubie really has a contempt for people.”

If that is so, then it is truly a paradox because Brown’s hard-nosed brand of basketball has made him very popular with fans. “There are NBA coaches who are popular with the players, popular with management, popular with the other coaches,” Fratello says, “but what coach in the league is more popular than Hubie with the people in the stands? There are people there every night just to see him.” Part of his appeal is his ability to turn a word beginning with F into a noun, adjective and direct object all in the same vile sentence. “I’m more offensive in an empty building than one that’s packed,” Brown says. “In a packed building I’m known as colorful.”

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Atlanta Hawks head coach Hubie Brown and young assistant Mike Fratello

In the game, the Celtics jumped out to an early 10-point lead in the first quarter and never allowed the Hawks to gain any early momentum. By the end of three, the Celts were in complete control, leading by 17, before Atlanta tightened up and made the final score a respectable one. The Celtics won, 100-95, to improve to 6-2. Boston hadn’t recorded its sixth win the prior season until December 1, 1978. Though the team wasn’t as balanced as usual with its scoring, Dave Cowens dominated with a 28/11 performance, Cedric Maxwell added 14 and 11 (Cowens and Max combined for a total of 13 boards off the offensive glass), and Larry Bird contributed 24 points and 12 rebounds. Tiny Archibald had a particularly ugly box: 0-7 with four turnovers to his six assists. Those performances, however, are always easier to swallow after a win. Hubie Brown picked up his first technical foul of the year and the Celtics began their second winning streak of the season. They would return to action on Halloween night at the Rutgers Athletic Center against the New Jersey Nets.