Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 81 vs. the Cavaliers

Celtics (60-20) vs. Cleveland (36-44)
March 28, 1980
Boston Garden

The Celtics wrapped up a first round bye by clinching the Atlantic Division with a 130-122 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.  With the win, the Celtics reached their combined win total from the past two seasons (61) during the 1979-80 season.  Larry Bird scored 33 points for the Celtics.

Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics

The Celtics registered over 30 points in all four quarters, relying a bit more on their offense than usual with Dave Cowens missing the game after reinjuring his left big toe against the Knicks.  Cleveland had no answers for Boston’s starting five was dominant.  In addition to Bird’s 33 points and 10 rebounds, Cedric Maxwell scored 23 point and ripped down 14 boards, while Rick Robey added 25 and 13.  Tiny Archibald continued his comeback season with 21 points and 12 assists.  Another sellout (the 32nd in 41 home games) at the Garden was treated to a dozen points off the bench from Pete Maravich.  A quote from Philadelphia 76ers general manager Pat Williams, per the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan, put the Celtics season in perspective:

“A year ago, as I recall, the Celtics were marked by turmoil, chaos and confusion.  You had an owner who had just completed a gigantic trade his coach and general manager knew nothing about.  You had an aging NBA center as coach.  You had a malcontent little guard sitting on the bench.  The only bright thing on the horizon was the potential of Larry Bird.  If ever there was a moribund franchise, it was the Celtics.  And for the rest of us, the worst is yet to come, courtesy of the Dick Vitale Sweepstakes.” – Pat Williams, 76er general manager

What more can anyone say?  Last year, after one watched the Celtics, any team looked good.  This year, practically no team does.  Bill Fitch and his dozen players have accomplished the single greatest turnaround in the 34-year history of the National Basketball Assn.  Should they win the championship, it will be permissible to discuss only the 1969 Mets (who, incidentally, finished next-to-last, and not last, the year before) in the same breath when the cocktail conversation turns to Great Sports Resurrections.

The win provided the Celtics a few extra perks.  With the league’s best record, home court throughout the playoffs was guaranteed.  The first round bye allowed the Celtics some time to heal from some lingering injuries while preparing for the winner of the Houston Rockets-San Antonio Spurs best-of-three mini-series, and the C’s would only have to see Philadelphia or Atlanta, but not both, on their quest to the NBA Finals.  Pete Maravich, who became the final ingredient to this season’s success, dribbled out the clock in, Ryan described, Globetrotter fashion before spiking the ball as the ball buzzer sounded.  Ryan detailed the final moments of the game for the Globe:

The dramatic ending sent the crowd out onto Causeway street in ecstasy, for the Celts had watched a 14-point lead dwindle to four (114-110) with 4:24 to play.  The momentum was clearly with the looser Cleveland team.

It was a time for the Celtics to act like champions, and that’s exactly what they did.  The final burst began with Maravich sinking two free throws. Larry Bird rebounded a Bill Willoughby in-and-outer and Tiny Archibald – playing his third clutch flawless game in succession – dropped in two more.

Bill Fitch also represented a critical part of the Celtics’ turnaround.  Ryan’s story in the Globe had some glowing remarks from the former Coe College coach:

When the season began, the players quickly became aware that they would be the beneficiaries of some great coaching preparation.  They seldom were asked to face the unknown, so well were they prepared for the opponents.  Their own offense was so varied, meanwhile, that they could never lack for options.  And when improvisation was needed, Fitch would just whip out his clipboard and whip up something that invariably worked.

Red Auerbach obviously knew what he was doing when he hired the wisecracking ex-Cleveland mentor, even if nobody else realized it.  The simple fact is that without Bill Fitch’s coaching, the Celtics very likely would have been dueling with Washington and New York for a playoff spot.  The coach, therefore, was the difference between being a marginal playoff team and having the best record in the league.  Here’s one man who won’t have to apologize for accepting his paycheck.

Terry Pluto, an award-winning sportswriter for The Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal, covered the NBA beat and even combined on a terrific Celtics-Cavs book with Bob Ryan entitled Forty-Eight Minutes: A Night in the Life of the NBA.  In an interview with BSMW, Pluto discussed Fitch’s evolution as a coach, his personality, and his role with player personnel in Cleveland and Boston.

Boston should be thankful to Cleveland because he did all his training wheel work there.  I’m sure, if Bill were to be really honest about it, he made a lot of mistakes early on.  The Cavs had no general manager.  He was drafting players himself with help from Jimmy Rodgers, who was later an assistant [with the Celtics].  When he came into the league, he was a very strict, disciplinarian coach, and he was a very young guy.  He was allowed to grow as a coach in Cleveland, which doesn’t happen today’s NBA.

Pluto also discussed the difference in roles for Fitch in Cleveland — where he led a basketball operations department of six people — and the 13-time world champion Boston Celtics, where he worked alongside Red Auerbach.

Building an expansion team in Cleveland into a playoff team really taught him what the NBA was all about, but working with Red was critical because somebody needed to tell Fitch — who has very stubborn at that point — that, hey, you didn’t invent the game.  Later on, Bill was very good and very humble by the middle of his career and really good to work with, but he could have never told Red Auerbach he knew more than Red, so that was a great combination for him.  Bill had an engaging way with the media and could be very sarcastic and cutting, but he could handle the whole Boston media scene, and that helped him a lot too.

Though Fitch coached an NBA star in Nate Thurmond, he had never been with any player quite like Larry Bird.

Fitch thought he went to heaven when he coached Larry Bird.  He told me the great thing about Bird was that even though he was a superstar, he was a pass-first player.  Bird wasn’t just into his scoring average, so he was really easy to coach.  I think as Bill got older he realized you needed to pick your personalities as much as your talent.  In the beginning, Bill was a young Bob Knight.  But he learned.

If the Celtics hired the Bill Fitch of 1970, he doesn’t win with Boston.  Ten years later, after coaching Nate Thurmond and Walt Frazier, good and bad, he learned a lot.  And he learned it doesn’t hurt to have a general manager named Red Auerbach.  That was hard for Bill.  The front office with the Cavaliers was so small, so he was used to doing a lot.  Bill went from that to this great organization in the Celtics and they dropped an unselfish guy like Larry Bird on him in his first year.

Fitch would have plenty of time to prepare for the playoffs after the C’s finished the regular season in Philadelphia.  After initially appearing to be a clash of titans playing to decide the Atlantic, the game was void of much meaning after the Celtics clinched the division.  Cedric Maxwell (ankle), Dave Cowens (foot), Julius Erving, and Maurice Cheeks were all expected to sit.

 

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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.