The Boston Celtics began this season just as they did at the start of their championship season a year ago -- by winning.
In taking 15 of their first 16 games this season, the Celtics had few injuries. On the way to the team's 15th NBA title, the Celtics also enjoyed nearly perfect health. The team's starting lineup -- Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Gerald Henderson (traded to Seattle at the start of this season) -- and sixth man Kevin McHale played in 479 of a possible 492 games.
Three weeks ago, coaches and players around the NBA took immediate notice when Johnson and McHale went down with ankle injuries just before a six-game road trip. Some thought it was pay-back time, particularly after the Chicago Bulls drubbed Boston, 105-85, in the first game of the trip.
But the Celtics hardly have folded, winning four of the remaining five games on the trip, keeping Philadelphia, Washington and all the other wolves at bay. Even with the 76ers in the midst of a nine-game winning streak, they still remain a half-game behind the Celtics (30-6), who play host to the Bullets Friday night at Boston Garden (WDCA-TV-20 at 7:30).
Now the league's sizable anti-Boston faction is wondering when and if it will get a second chance.
It's easy to dislike the Celtics, probably for many of the same reasons some people tend to loathe AT&T, IBM and the New York Yankees. The Celtics' home court, the Boston Garden, with its 187 straight sellouts, championship flags and retired numbers hanging from the rafters and bare-chested fans bellowing boisterously in a gladiator atmosphere, is a monument to this wildly successful team.
At times, the players don't try to combat that image, performing like so many smug, all-too-noble Romans. In times of need, Boston enforcer M.L. Carr will play up to crowds -- both at home and on the road -- often appearing to extort noise from fans -- friend and foe alike.
Therein lies one of the keys to why the Celtics might stand a better chance to repeat than the 14 NBA champions before them who tried and failed. The Celtics have placed a chip on their shoulders, one that they plan on maintaining for the rest of the season and -- they hope -- all the way into the league finals.
"I think that in sports, we love to hate," says Celtics General Manager Jan Volk, who succeeded Red Auerbach, now the team president, at the start of the season. "I mean, here in Boston we root against the 76ers. In order to appreciate something, there has to be the risk of losing it."
There are many who would like to see the Celtics lose what they have, citing the team's arrogance. "I hate them because they're Boston," Washington's Jeff Ruland has said, expressing an attitude that's not uncommon throughout the league.
But it is an attitude that the Celtics feed on. "I think we have certain people that tend to shoot off at the mouth," said Johnson. "They love to talk and it gives an impression -- a strong one -- of arrogance."
Johnson says the guilty parties are the players who "wear numbers in the 30s," meaning players such as Carr (30), Maxwell (31), McHale (32) and Bird (33). McHale says that it's just the team's way.
"Other teams really love us. They just don't want to admit it," he says. "We love them, it's just that we need the hostility to get us going. I'll give you an example. Philadelphia is automatic, but Washington was the first team to beat us this season so we 'Don't Like Them.' The Knicks have Bernard King and there were all the statements made in our playoff series with them last season (many of them made by McHale), so they're on the list. Dominique Wilkins got 47 points against us the last time Atlanta was here, so that put our noses out of joint.
"Hell, even Indiana's on the list because Steve Stipanovich said something bad about Chief (Robert Parish). At least that's what M.L. said, and even if it wasn't true, we'll take it anyway."
Coach K.C. Jones says that the team's foundation is in its "cockiness and aggressiveness. All we have to do is firm up the offense and defense."
Jones himself is the second key to the Celtics' bid for a title repeat. Volk said, "I'm not surprised at how well we've performed this season. K.C. has gotten the effort out of the players in a way that hasn't taken a lot out of them. The man won eight championships when he played, if anyone is going to be sensitive to how to go about defending one, it's going to be him."
There are fires that smolder inside Jones, mainly from the hurt in having to wait seven years between head coaching jobs after being fired from the Bullets in 1976 despite taking the team to the finals the previous season.
Today, his .800-plus winning percentage is easily the best in the league, but Jones still prefers the low-key approach while still getting his point across to his team. "We don't run around every day going berserk, saying, 'We have to do it, we have to repeat,' " Johnson said. "It's nothing like that and a lot of it is K.C. We come into the locker room every day knowing the record that we have, that Philly has and what we have to do."
Jones said, "Other squads like Detroit and Washington used to say, 'Maybe we can make the playoffs.' Now they talk about winning the division title. Potential negatives like injury and dissension outnumber the positives. All we have going for us is the incentive of being the champs and wanting to meet the challenge."
Some insist that Boston's meeting the challenge in the regular season may lead to problems in the playoffs. For the most part, the Celtics have a 30-6 record on the strength of their first six players and at the expense of their bench. In last Monday's 108-97 victory over the Knicks, the starters and McHale played all but 11 minutes and scored all of Boston's points.
McHale, who comes from Minnesota's iron mining country, isn't worried about burnout. "The miners in Minnesota didn't complain about what they did and it was a lot more than 37 minutes a night," he says. "They didn't know what burnout was. I'd bet a lot of people in America would love to work the hours we work and get paid what we do.
"There are times that you get to the point where you're thinking that basketball isn't fun any more, but K.C. will pick up on that and give you a day off. Plus the guys on this team love the game. A lot of times you'll get seven or eight guys spending a half-hour or 45 minutes after practice playing one-on-one or three-on-three."
Such familial togetherness isn't at all in keeping with the Celtics' image. "If we tried mending fences, we'd never have any time left to play basketball," Maxwell said. "Being the world champs has made things even worse."
"You hear the things that people say and think about us and you wonder if it ever registers that we just have a good team," says Johnson. "We know we have a good team but Philadelphia's not gonna be confident for us, Los Angeles isn't. If we don't take care of ourselves, who will?"
Bullets forward Cliff Robinson practiced with the team today and is listed as probable to play against the Celtics. Robinson has missed the last three games with a strained tendon in his right index finger.