Bird’s Rookie Year – Game One vs Rockets

We’re always looking to add to the site here at BSMW, and I am hopeful you enjoy this new feature.  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.  The opportunity to reconnect with the Bird era is always fun, especially during his early years in the league.  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 vs. Rockets

October 12, 1979

Friday night – Boston Garden

The 1979-1980 season began with high hopes for the Celtics.  Fresh off the worst season in team history, the C’s had room for improvement.  They had just finished 29-53 and, with John Havlicek now two years into retirement, pinned their hopes of returning to relevance in the hands of a rookie forward from Indiana State.  The team hired a new coach in Bill Fitch, who became the first “outsider” to be named a Celtics head coach since Red Auerbach was hired twenty-nine years earlier in 1950.  In-between Red and Fitch, all of the head coaches (Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, and Dave Cowens) were all former Celtic players (Russell and Cowens managed to do both as the player-coach, examples of Auerbach’s innovation and willingness to do whatever it took to win).

Fitch, who started his career as a college coach as an assistant at Creighton University in 1956, was not a name that the every-day basketball fan knew, but he had spent nearly the prior decade as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  After winning only 15 games in the team’s expansion season in ’70-’71, Fitch gradually built a basketball culture at the Cleveland Arena.  His Cavs lost fifteen consecutive games in their expansion season, but Fitch slowly turned his team into winners.  After moving into the Richfield Coliseum in 1974, the Cavs finally experienced their break-through moment: the team finished 49-33 in the ’75-’76 season, and advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals… only to fall in six games to the Boston Celtics, who moved on to win their record 13th NBA title.

Charley Rosen, a long-time NBA analyst, discussed Fitch’s maniacal methods:

Back when Bill Fitch coached the Cleveland Cavaliers, his idea of a good time was to schedule 21 consecutive days of double-practices. A one-time Marine drill sergeant, Fitch thoroughly enjoyed the resulting mayhem.

Fitch next installed his Marine work ethic to the Celtics on his road to becoming the NBA’s Coach of the Year.

The team caught on with the city of Boston, as the Celts moved from 14th in league attendance to second overall in ’79-’80.  One player missing from the Celtics, however, was #10 Jo Jo White, whose number now sits in the rafters.  White was dealt to the Golden State Warriors for a future draft pick on January 30, 1979.  That draft pick ended up being University of Arizona forward Larry Demic, but the C’s shipped the pick two weeks later in a deal that netted them Bob McAdoo.  Just to keep your head spinning, McAdoo was traded before training camp to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for two first rounds picks in the 1980 draft — a move considered compensation for the Celtics signing M.L. Carr away from the Pistons.  Those two draft picks from the Pistons were eventually used as trade bait with the Warriors to acquire Robert Parish and another first round pick (used to select, of course, Kevin McHale).  Somehow, the Celtics turned a washed-up Jo Jo White into two Hall of Famers.

The Celtics opened the season with a back-to-back.  Opening night at the Garden was Friday, October 12, and Larry Bird’s first game in the NBA was a sellout.  Bird only played 28 minutes that night against the Houston Rockets (who the Celtics would see in the playoffs later that season; the Rockets, at the time, played in the Eastern Conference) and picked up five fouls, but Bird still found a way to impact the game with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists.  The Celts had an extremely balanced box score, with seven players recording double-digits in points, led by Cedric Maxwell’s 22.

The Rockets were no pushover, featuring 25-year old emerging star Moses Malone.  Houston had some other recognizable names in Rudy Tomjanovich, Robert Reid, Calvin Murphy (the “Pocket Rocket,” who fathered 14 different children from 9 different women, and is also the shortest NBA player – 5’9″ – inducted into the Hall), and Rick Barry.  Though Malone had his way with 16 boards (seven of which were off the offensive glass) and 31 points, the Celtics still won the rebounding battle — 45-36 — as well as the game, 114-106.

Gerald Henderson, who had been drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in June but saw his draft rights renounced in August, also recorded his first points in the NBA for the Celtics.  Future head coach Chris Ford hit the first-ever three-pointer in NBA history (the Celts finished 1-for-3 from international waters, while the Rockets were a little more daring, but finished a miserable 1-for-10).  Coach Fitch also earned his first technical foul of the season, but the bottom line was the Celtics had opened the season with an impressive win and looked forward to the back end of the back-to-back the following night in, of all places, Cleveland.

Refereeing the game?  A 39-year old Dick Bavetta, who is somehow still officiating in the NBA.

Returning members in the fall of ’79:
Tiny Archibald
Don Chaney
Dave Cowens
Chris Ford
Jeff Judkins
Cedric Maxwell
Rick Robey

New additions to the roster:
Larry Bird
M.L. Carr
Eric Fernsten
Gerald Henderson
Pete Maravich (added to roster in January of 1980)

About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.