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NBA: Celtic Pride recovers from mortal blows

Mark Woods

When Bill Russell was in his pomp, the Boston Celtics didn't need the Luck of the Irish. 

They were so good, they made their own. 

One of the greatest players ever to grace the National Basketball Association, Russell picked up a startling 11 championships in 13 seasons in Beantown, the final two coming as player-coach as the 6'10" Californian broke through the colour barrier in 1967 to become the first black head coach in a hitherto white-dominated league. 

Clad in a golden waistcoat festooned with shamrocks, the leprechaun which adorned the centre of the floor at the now-demolished Boston Garden had every reason to keep smiling. Even when Russell hung up his boots, a new generation of Celtics led by the indomitable Larry Bird brought another three titles home to roost in the eighties. 

Celtic Pride, they called it. And there was so very much to be proud of.

Across the city, the Boston Red Sox could have done with some of their neighbours' magic beans. The Curse of the Bambino which has hexed Fenway Park since baseball great Babe Ruth was pawned off to the New York Yankees left the Red Sox as distinctly second-class citizens, obscured in the shadows of Russell, Bird and their magnificent green machine. 

It looked as though the Celtics well of luck would never run dry. And when - at the height of Bird's powers - the team held the second pick in the 1986 Draft, all signs pointed towards another golden age to rival that of two decades before. The green cap was duly bestowed on Len Bias, an impossibly gifted young player who had shone at the University of Maryland and who seemed the perfect complement to an already superb Boston line-up. 

24 hours later, Bias was dead, cocaine his killer. 

Boston mourned but the spell had been broken. Although Bird went on to lead the Celtics to the NBA Finals the following summer (losing to the Magic Johnson-inspired LA Lakers), the bad luck continued as back injuries eventually forced the legend into an early retirement.

The Celtics did have one All-Star player around whom to build a revival. Reggie Lewis had been drafted one year after Bias, rising under Bird's benign influence to become a much-loved captain of the side. One summer's day in 1993, Lewis was shooting around at a practice. It was to be his parting shot, a heart attack robbing Boston of another son and with it the Celtics of any lingering veneer.

This week however, Boston will take to the court with an opportunity to win a series in the NBA's play-offs for the first time in a decade. Victory over their old rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, will
see the Celtics advance into the Eastern Conference semi-finals. 

More importantly, a new generation in green and white holds an opportunity not only to restore some long-absent respectability to the most storied franchise of them all but to also draw a line under the mediocrity of the recent past. 

Celtic Pride, long presumed missing, is back. 

"I don't know where it has been for the last bunch of years," states Danny Ainge, a former team-mate of Bird's who is now working as a television commentator. 

"But I think that the old leprechaun in the Boston Garden and all the luck and all the Celtic Pride had a lot to do with the talent that the teams had and the tradition that was started."

It is two individuals, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, who have assumed the mantle once carried by Russell and Bird, a youthful dynamic duo who have flourished this season under the tutelage of first-time head coach Jim O'Brien. 

A multi-talented forward, Pierce though wakes though each day knowing that only fortune separated his fate from that of Bias and Lewis. Stabbed in the face, back and neck at a nightclub just 18 months ago, he came centimetres away from a fatal wound, an assailant's blade so close to ripping the Celtics apart once more. 

Pierce is now restored to full health. And after too long in the doldrums, so is his team. Despite their relative inexperience, there is even a realistic ambition that in around six weeks time, the Celtics will renew basketball's greatest rivalry against the Lakers in this season's finals. 

"Obviously, I'm a fan of Boston but when I look at what the outcome will be I have to be objective," observes Russell, now aged 68. 

"I have to look at it truthfully. I like the Celtics. I like the progress that they've made." 

Such improvements may not be attributable to the Luck of the Irish. But Boston will take any good tidings on offer if their spell of failure is finally at an end. 

For Celtics fans, it is time to join their leprechaun in smiling again. 

A version of this article also appeared in Scotland on Sunday

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