INGLEWOOD, CALIF., JUNE 14 -- The Boston Celtics' bid to become the NBA's first repeat champion in 17 years went farther -- six games into the league's championship series -- than most people suspected it might. But that didn't mask the disappointment in the team's locker room following today's 106-93 Game 6 loss to the new champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.
"That's the thing about our program," said assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers, "you always feel emptiness when you don't win it all; that's why we're where we are."
Tomorrow that will mean standing as just one of the 22 teams that fell short of the title, which the Celtics expected to win back in October.
"People have been coming up to me and saying congratulations," said General Manager Jan Volk. "They say we shouldn't have gotten this far, but that's not much consolation when you think you're better than where you end up. I thought we could have gotten farther, but maybe not, considering our condition for most of the year."
The Celtics' season received a jolt as early as last June, after the death of Len Bias, the second player selected in the NBA draft and Boston's top choice. Early in training camp, substitute forward Scott Wedman, the man Bias was scheduled to replace, went down with a heel injury. He was followed a short time later by reserve center Bill Walton, hobbled by ankle and foot problems.
The losses made a suspect bench woefully thin, and forced Coach K.C. Jones to use his starters much more than usual. The quintet of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge all finished in the NBA's top-10 list of minutes played.
"I've relied on starters for the past four years," said Jones. "The heart of our bench was just torn out -- Bill Walton's a legend. We did an amazing job just getting to the sixth game. I like the courage and determination these guys have shown."
"Those guys have an amazing will," said Rodgers. "From the first day they faced so much -- the long minutes, being under the gun every night as the champs -- and the team held up."
The Celtics held up through the November loss in Hartford to the Washington Bullets that ended their 48-game, home-court winning streak, and through the December loss to the Lakers that ended their streak at Boston Garden at 48. They endured a mediocre 20-21 season on the road, losing nine straight times in one stretch.
They also survived a strong challenge from a conference determined to keep the team from reaching the finals for the fourth consecutive season. Washington acquired Moses Malone; Philadelphia, Jeff Ruland, Cliff Robinson and Roy Hinson. The Detroit Pistons got Adrian Dantley while a talented Atlanta team got a year's more experience.
The Hawks were supposed to represent the biggest obstacle to Boston's repeat effort, but when the Celtics destroyed them in the final game of the regular season to retain the best record in the conference, it made people realize that, perhaps, there was still some kick left in the team.
"We've been through so much together and we know how to win," said Bird. "Even though we lost the first two games here, I knew the guys wouldn't pack it up; they'd come back and play hard.
"I think they have a hell of a basketball team, a really great one. I would have loved to play them with a Bill Walton and a Scotty Wedman. They probably still would have beat us, you know, but we would have given them a hell of a fight."