Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 36 vs. the Clippers

Celtics (27-8) vs. Clippers (19-20)
December 27, 1979
San Diego Sports Arena

In the midst of a six game road trip, the Celtics played three straight games in consecutive days against the NBA’s three teams from California.  They opened with the same team — the Clippers — that the current Celtics are playing on the road tonight.  The 1979-80 Clippers team had prepared to be a contender by making a major splash and signing Bill Walton away from Portland, altering the landscape in the Association.  Unfortunately for the Clippers, Walton would only play in 14 games, and this contest with the Celtics was not among them.  The first meeting between Bill Walton and Larry Bird would have to wait, but Bird still led the Celtics with 27 points in a 118-97 win in front of a sellout crowd at the San Diego Sports Arena.

Bill Walton SI Cover

The C’s came out swinging with 30 points in the opening quarter.  In a trend the Celtics hoped would continue, Dave Cowens broke out of his extended shooting slump by hitting 13-of-20 from the field and scored 18 first-half points.  In typical Cowens fashion, he added 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals.  The Celtics, behind Bird, were quickly becoming the best passing unit in the Association.  In his Globe recap, Bob Ryan detailed the win:

The majority of the crowd was already headed home when this game ended, however, because the fast-breaking Celtics had demonstrated their best ball movement while expanding a 62-59 lead into margins of 26 at 101-75, 103-77 and 105-79.  Cowens (27 points) connected on 13 of his first 20 shots, many on his patented fast-break trailers, and he had sufficient scoring help from the likes of Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell.

World B. Free (like M.L. Carr, another product of the Guilford College Quaker basketball program) poured in 28 as San Diego’s high scorer.  The Clippers also received 12 points off 4-of-12 shooting from Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant, who never found the time to instill the idea of shot selection into the head of his son.  The Clippers, as Ryan wrote, were unable to find any consistency on offense.

The Clippers began the game by launching shots from Chula Vista and beyond, and they weren’t hitting… With the Clippers not hitting, the Celtics were able to get their own running game started, and if they had taken better care of the basketball in the second quarter, they might have led by upwards of 16 or so at the half.  The fast breaks were there, but the Celtics all too often failed to take advantage of the opportunities.  Still, they scored 11 on the break in the first quarter (starting off when Chris Ford connected from the left corner on his first three-point attempt) and they added 10 more in the second quarter, with a few of the baskets coming on the secondary break.

Joe Bryant

Speaking of Chris Ford, who hit two more 3-pointers, he had unofficially become the NBA’s 3-point king.  He had hit a three in 17 of his past 18 games, prompting these words of praise from the Globe’s Leigh Montville:

He is one of the few settlers in the far-away, recently discovered exotic area of his game.  He lives – get this – beyond the normal boundaries.  The photographers from the ‘National Geographic’ track him down.  The chroniclers from Guinness take a whack at tabulating his increasing book-of-records statistics.  The questioners approach him with wonder in their voices.

What is it like, living way out there?  Is it lonely?  Is it scary?  Is it a hard life?  How have you adjusted so quickly?  Can you live, OUT THERE, forever?

“I like it,” Chris Ford calmly replies.  “I feel comfortable out there.  I think most guys in this game can live out there.  If you can play the game for a living, I think you can live out there.  I really do.”

Chris Ford

As only Bob Ryan could write it, The amazing, astounding, stupendous, improbable Chris Ford three-point saga rolls on.  The NBA, and Boston in particular, were excited about the possibilities of this new 3-point shot.  Little did the basketball world know that one shot could completely alter the way the game was played.

Is there no end to all of this?, penned Montville.  He wonders.  There was a stretch, early in this season when he had trouble just making layups, but now he seemingly can make anything.  The farther away, the better.  He flops into his favorite spot in the far corner, floppy mustache, floppy man, and the stalwart guarding him has to follow (opening all sorts of possibilities for the Celtics’ inside game), and it doesn’t matter what the situation is, he seems to fire and hit and talk about it later, his press conference spilling over into the lockers of others, more widely-known stars.

“You’ve got to hit that three-pointer to get the pub,” forward M.L. Carr says as the writers overrun his pace.  “Me, I’m just getting to the airport early, because I know when Chris gets there he’s going to buy all the newspapers.”

“It’s just become a high-percentage shot for me,” Chris Ford says with a shrug.

It all so simple, isn’t it?

The wheat crop grows.  The cattle become fat.  The house even has running water.  Once again civilization triumphs and a wilderness, an unchartered territory, suddenly feels like home.

The win marked the eighth in the Celtics’ past nine games.  The next night marked a game against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Great Western Forum.  Unlike Walton’s DNP-injury, Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson were set to play their first professional game against one another.  The previous time the two tangled was when Johnson’s Michigan State defeated Bird’s Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA national championship game on March 26.  Bob Ryan added in his Sunday Notes column that tickets — even the poorly located ones — were going for top dollar, some even as high as $54.

 

12_27_79

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.

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