Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 38 vs. the Warriors

Celtics (28-9) vs. Warriors (12-25)
December 29, 1979
Oakland Coliseum Arena

The Celtics connected with old friend Jo Jo White on December 29, 1979 for the third game in three days against the NBA’s trio of Californian clubs.  After defeating the Clippers but dropping a contest to the Lakers, the C’s deafeated the Warriors, 104-88, to go 2-1 on the West Coast swing and improved to .500 four games into their six-game road trip.

Golden State, offering a line up featuring the likes of White, Robert Parish, John Lucas, and Clifford Ray, peaked in October with a 7-5 record in their first dozen games.  They then sputtered, losing 20 of the next 25 games, entering the contest with Boston.  (The Warriors held another connection to the Green: Golden State drafted Purdue University guard Jerry Sichting with the 82nd pick of the 1979 draft, though he was cut in October.)  While White’s tenure in Oakland had been a disappointment (Bob Ryan noted in the Globe that the Warriors were desperately seeking to move the 33 year old guard), his two-time championship tenure in Boston came to an end after he and player-coach Dave Cowens had a dispute over White’s future with the team.

“Nothing surprises me any more,” White said in a January 31, 1979 story from the Associated Press.  “Boston is my home but the way things were going, I guess I couldn’t stay.  This is my 10th season, and part of me will be left here.  I’ve made a lot of friends, and if I had to be traded I wanted to go a team with people who get along.  I hope that’s the case with Golden State.”

“It’s no secret that Jo Jo has been unhappy here for the past two years,” said Red Auerbach, “and we hope this move will be beneficial to him.”

White’s points-per-game total dropped to 17.2 PPG for his career, but his playoff numbers remained untouched at 21.5 (with his 33-point performance against the Phoenix Suns in triple overtime in the 1976 NBA Finals forever etched into the minds of Celtics fans).  Similar to Walt Frazier earlier in the 79-80 season, White ended his career with the Kansas City Kings the following year.  For the stars of the 1970s, including Dave Cowens, it was becoming abundantly clear around that times in the Association were a-changin’.

Bob Ryan also provided extension coverage to White’s departure from the Celtics.

… being a Celtic, and, specifically, being a part of the Celtic mystique, meant a lot to Jo Jo White.  In fact, being a part of the Celtics family and being able to come in and exchange quips with Red Auerbach and being able to identify oneself as a “Celtic” probably meant more to Jo Jo White than to any Celtic in the modern (i.e. post-Russell) era.  Circumstances dictated that he leave, but leaving Boston was far from painless.

That Jo Jo White did not become a lifetime Celtic is the product of many factors, both personal and professional.  The prevailing oversimplification is that he was simply incompatible with Nate Archibald, that one of them had to go, and that White was a more marketable commodity.  This is true, but it hardly tells the full story.

“There were a lot of things,” White explains, “and it goes way back.  It seems like everything happens at the same time.  It became difficult to play, difficult to have a proper role, not knowing when I would play or how I would be used.

****

It was never the same for White after he developed heel trouble.  First there was a continuing contract hassle with former owner Irv Levin.  He has little use for either Levin or John Y. Brown, and he feels that Auerbach has been unfairly victimized by meddling owners.  What Jo Jo perceived to be the fabric of the team was being ripped apart, almost daily.  Worsening physical condition problems (the heel would eventually require major surgery), compounded by important personal problems (culminating in a divorce involving three small children) mixed in with the daily professional problems being shared by everyone, and Jo Jo found himself yearning for the less tempestuous days of yore.

He signed a three-year contract this past summer, but from then on things deteriorated.  He did not relate well to Satch Sanders as coach, nor vice-versa, and when Satch was deposed, Jo Jo did not view the ascension of Cowens very kindly.

“What displeased me,” he says, “was the way it was done.  We (Cowens and himself) were both captains.  I learned he had been named coach at practice.  I thought at least I might have been given a call to see what I thought.”

He would prove to be of little use to Cowens, whose presence as coach White clearly resented.  Eventually, Cowens determined that he could not coach the others with Jo Jo around to question him.

 

Though White was part of the Celtics’ past, Robert Parish was in their future.  Parish was supported by Clifford Ray in his journey to becoming one of the greatest Celtics of all time.  Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff profiled the Chief in a 1991 cover story.

Yet as a Warrior, when his heart was truly in the game, Parish was nonetheless blamed for his team’s struggles, and it led him to consider retiring. “I didn’t need the aggravation,” he says.

Enter Clifford Ray, the veteran center who was finishing up his career with Golden State. Ray had scars from 11 knee operations and a championship ring, won with the Warriors in ’75, that conferred credibility on everything he said. Bearded and with the same faintly arthritic bearing that has become the Chiefs signature, he even looked the part of the wise elder. Ray took Parish aside to counsel him; and Parish was a grateful pupil. Today, they agree their most valuable discussion went something like this:

Parish: “You know, if I had your drive, I could be great.”

Ray: “You can get that drive.”

Parish: “Oh, I’m kind of lazy.”

Ray: “You’re not lazy. You’ve just never had a purpose.”

Parish: “I don’t understand.”

Ray: “A center’s got to look at one thing—the outcome of the game. Did we win? Win often enough, and people will say you’re the reason why. You’re always going to have stars, you’re always going to have colorful players. But you can’t win without someone who rebounds and plays defense and brings people together.”

Parish: “But I’m not as vocal as you are.”

Ray: “You can be a leader without being vocal.”

Though Parish encountered some initial issues in Boston (In the crucible of his first Boston training camp, a fortnight that would mark the difference between early retirement and likely Hall of Fame enshrinement, Parish was mercilessly ridden by coach Bill Fitch. “No matter what I did, it wasn’t enough,” Parish says. “Not that I was in the best shape. But I was his whipping boy, along with Cedric Maxwell. All you heard was ‘Parish and Maxwell’ all through training camp. It was like being in an echo chamber.”), Parish learned an enormous amount from Ray during his time in Oakland.

While the Boston sports media market scrambled after Bob Lobel shocked the airwaves by moving from WBZ Radio to Channel 4, as reported by Jack Craig in the Globe’s SporTView, the Celtics and Larry Bird were having an affect on the NBA that was not going unnoticed.

How much is CBS relying on Larry Bird? 

The first three Sunday games may involve the Celtics at the Garden, Jan. 13 vs. LA and Magic Johnson, Jan. 20 vs. Seattle and Jan. 27 vs. San Diego if Billl Walton has returned.  All the games are almost assured of being sellouts and thus on Ch. 7 … Three Celtics games on Ch. 4 this season achieved a 10 rating, compared to a six average for Bruin games on Ch. 38.  A few years ago those numbers regularly were reversed.

As for the game itself, the two teams played to a standstill at halftime.  The Celtics pulled away in the third, and in typical Bird fashion, went for the dagger early in the fourth.  Parish led all scorers with 28 points, but a balanced attack  from the C’s — one that included M.L. Carr and Rick Robey combining for 34 points — and Boston’s ability to force GSW into turning over the ball made the difference.  Bird was again spectacular, finishing the night with 16 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists (and very quietly limiting his turnovers).  Robey led the Celtics with 18 points.

 

 [The lack of corporate nature, evident by the fact that the Celtics were only televised a handful times during the year, also became evident when viewing the names of the NBA stadiums, with Golden State's Oakland Coliseum Arena serving as a prime example.]

Since the game was played past deadline on Saturday night, Bob Ryan provided further commentary about the win in the 12/30/79 edition of the Globe.

It was evident at halftime (47-47) that the game would be won with a spurt of some kind, and so it was as a seven-point blitz in one 37-second span that turned things around.

When Robert Parish (28 points on 11-for-19 shooting) laid in a back-door lob pass with 8:28 remaining, the Warriors, who had trailed by nine points (75-66) a minute earlier, had pulled to 75-70.  But Carr swished a three-pointer 13 seconds later to trigger the big spurt.

Chris Ford hit another 3-pointer, treating a sellout crowd of 13,257 to the 19th game in the last 20 he had hit a basket from international waters.  The win marked the Celtics’ 29th victory of the season, matching the season total from the previous season.  Though the Celtics had their share of doubters earlier in the season, Bob Ryan noted, people were beginning to look at this team in a new light.

Hey, Elvin Hayes, what have you to say now?

Way back before the 10th game of the season, [Bullets forward] Hayes sneered at the idea that the Celtics were back.  “Come and see me when they win 29,” was his appraisal of the Boston entry.  And now they have Saturday night’s 104-88 victory over the sad Golden State Warriors was indeed Boston’s 29th of the new season, and it was accomplished before the halfway point in the season.  Hell, it was accomplished before New Year’s Day.

“We all knew we’d win 29,” said Fitch.  “What I would like to remember is that we won our last game of ’79.  Our next goal is to win our last game of the entire season.  Then I’ll be happy.”

Bob Ryan summed up the transition from the 1970s — which saw the Celtics win 68 games in a season and capture their first (and then second) championship in the post-Bill Russell era — to the great unknown of the 1980s.

The “Old Celtics” laid the foundation of local basketball interest.  The “New Celtics” of the ‘70s provided the framework.  And now the “Modern Celtics” of Bill Fitch and Larry Bird are actively building the roof of Boston’s Great Hoop Mansion.  For basketball fans, these are truly the best of times.

Ryan foreshadowed it, but as great as the Celtics were in the 70s, the C’s in the 1980s were about to reach a popularity level never before imagined in a town so devoted to the Boston Bruins.

The Celtics returned to action against Moses Malone’s Houston Rockets (fresh off a victory over Philadelphia) at the Summit on January 2, 1980.

 

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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.