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 (2-0) vs. Cavaliers (1-2)
Wednesday, October 17
In only the first week of the season, this matchup already featured two teams moving in completely opposite directions. The Cavaliers, who languished near the bottom of the standings all season, came into Boston already under .500, while the Celtics were poised to make a statement to the league, but it wasn’t just the two teams that were moving in counter directions. The game also pitted two of the NBA’s most recognizable superstars in Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Larry Bird. Though Bird was only in the third game of his career, this marked the final game of Frazier’s storied career.
Just ten years earlier, Frazier emerged as an undisputed superstar, leading the Knicks to their first ever NBA championship in a seven game series against the Lakers. In that seventh game, even with a hobbled Willis Reed at center only scoring four points for New York, Frazier delivered a Broadway performance that still rates as one of the finest game 7s ever: 36 points, 19 assists, and 7 rebounds. “Willis provided the inspiration,” said Frazier in this NBA FIlms clip, “and in a way, I provided the devastation.”
The ties between Frazier and the Celtics also ran deep. In 1969, Frazier and his Knicks threatened to unceremoniously end the Bill Russell era and usher in a new dominant team in the East. Russell’s Celtics had other plans, stealing home court in the Eastern Conference Finals and then taking the series, finishing off the Knicks at the Boston Garden in six games. When the Celtics briefly dipped into a tailspin after Russell’s retirement, the Knicks did take claim of the East: they won the title in ‘70, lost in a rematch to the Lakers in 1972, and then won the rubber match against LA in 1973 (for those who are curious, Milwaukee swept Baltimore in the ’71 Finals… don’t hold your breath waiting for that series to show up on ESPN Classic). On their way to the ’73 title, the Knicks knocked off the 68-win Celtics – to this day, 68 wins are still the most wins the C’s have ever had in a regular season – in a seven game series with the finale at the Boston Garden.
[For what it’s worth, the series win was somewhat tainted after John Havlicek separated his shoulder in the third game of the ECF. Here’s an excerpt from John Underwood’s feature on Havlicek in Sports Illustrated from October of 1974:
Shy, self-disciplining (he punishes himself for athletic failures by running great distances or denying himself Cokes), a noncomplainer. He played hurt, and still does. In a 1973 semifinal series with the Knicks he played three games with a partially separated shoulder, his right arm virtually useless at his side… “I don’t think you should mind a little pain if you’re paid to play,” he says.]
Back to Frazier: he was the MVP of the National Invitational Tournament in 1967 for Southern Illinois in a day when the NIT still meant something in collegiate basketball.
Just a week later after the NIT was held at MSG, Frazier was selected fifth by the Knicks in the NBA draft. The draft also featured Earl Monroe (#2), Pat Riley (#7), and Phil Jackson (#17, accompanied in his photo by Bill Fitch and Jimmy Rodgers). The first overall selection was Providence College’s own Jimmy Walker.
The relationship between Frazier, the New York media, and the fans deteriorated by 1978, and Knicks coach Willis Reed (sound familiar?) traded Frazier to the Cavs as compensation for free agent Jim Cleamons (who went onto to success coaching with Phil Jackson). The man who engineered the deal? Cavs GM/coach Bill Fitch.
The way things have worked out delights Fitch. “In my opinion Frazier is one of the five best guards ever to play the game,” he says. “The worst that can happen is that Frazier will never beat me again. He is perfect for our game, which is a setup offense and team defense, the way the Knicks were. I have no doubts about him. You look at a classic Rolls-Royce with lots of miles on it and you know it doesn’t want to be put away in a garage. He’s my Rolls-Royce, and I think you’ll see him rolling with the best for a longtime yet.”
Though he had some good moments during the ’78-’79 campaign, including an impressive win in his homecoming at MSG over the Knicks, Frazier fell out of favor after Fitch departed Cleveland. He would ultimately be waived on October 19 after registering a DNP in the 10/18 against San Antonio. The last time Frazier ever stepped into an NBA game occurred on this very night in 1979.
As for the game itself, the Celtics started off slowly, trailing by 8 at the half. The most worrisome part of the night was Cleveland’s Mike Mitchell having his way in the post with Cedric Maxwell. Mitchell scored 24 of his game-high 34 points in the game’s first 17 minutes while also holding Maxwell scoreless in the opening half (Max, to his credit, finished with 11 points and 11 boards in only 24 minutes).
The signature hallmark of so many talented Celtics teams reappeared in the third quarter, as the C’s – and Bird – took the life out of the opponent. Bird and M.L. Carr scored eight points apiece in the third, and the Celts outscored the Cavs by 37 points in the second half for a 127-108 final. Seven Celtics finished in double-digits, with Dave Cowens leading the way with 21. Played in front of only 7,335 fans, the game was finished in just under two hours. Frazier finished the game with 4 points, 4 assists, and 1 steal in 11 minutes. The Cavs were moving one way, and the Celtics, thankfully, were headed in a much different direction.
And, as Larry Bird’s career was just beginning, Walt Frazier’s was complete.