When I learned that CSNNE is honoring the 30th Anniversary of the 1986 champion Boston Celtics, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share my remembrances of that team. Everyone knows the basics already. A 67-15 regular season record including a then-record 40-1 mark at the Boston Garden set the stage for a dominating playoff run that began with a showdown against “God disguised as Michael Jordan” and ended with a 4-2 Finals win against the Ralph Sampson, Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.
My most indelible memory of that season was the way that the newly acquired Bill Walton completed that team from both a basketball, and a personality standpoint like Renee Zellwegger completed Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire.
Red Auerbach acquired Walton in the summer of 1985 from the LA Clippers in exchange for an injured and disgruntled Cedric Maxwell as part of a mid-80s arms race among the NBA elite. After a disappointing 1982-83 season that saw the rival Philadelphia Sixers entrenching themselves as an Eastern power thanks in part to the rise of backcourt scoring machine Andrew Toney, Red put the Celtics back on top in the following season by acquiring former Finals MVP and defensive stopper Dennis Johnson.
After the Celtics bitterest rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, denied them a repeat championship in 1985 (with the deciding Game 6 loss coming on the hallowed Boston Garden parquet), Red pulled another rabbit out of his hat by acquiring the injury-riddled, 2-time former Finals MVP Walton.
On the court, Walton added size on the boards and defensively to what was already a big frontcourt. Despite playing short minutes (less than 20mpg), Walton’s dominant rebounding (12.7 per 36 minutes) and rugged defense was the perfect complement to starters Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to complete their rotation at the C and PF positions.
Most of all though, Walton’s skill as a passer completed what may have been the best passing team of all time. Whether it was laser-like outlet passing to a streaking Danny Ainge, running the give-and-go with Larry Bird or simply finding backdoor cutters out of the high-post, Walton opened up and added another dimension of artistry to an already potent Celtics offense.
As much fun as it was to watch that team on the offensive end on a game-to-game basis, it may have been even more enjoyable seeing the personalities on that team mesh. The truly memorable teams each bring a unique identity forged from the way various personalities coalesce over the events of a championship season.
Bird was the dominant personality of that team. His brutal confidence, playful arrogance, and irrepressible competitiveness was the stage upon which much of the season played out and punctuated many of the great moments of the season.
McHale was the Yang to Larry’s Yin. His irreverence to the game and occasional indifference to his prodigious talents irked his MVP teammate, but also engaged Bird with the challenge of drawing those talents out of him.
Parish was the stoic and steady anchor.
DJ was the understated executioner.
Danny was the shrill and sarcastic younger sibling.
The one word that best sums up the Bill Walton experience that season is simply ‘joy’. On the court…off the court, he seemed in a perpetual state of bliss. Smiling as he strolled around the Public Gardens, engaging fans in Harvard Square with a game of Chess, exuding gratitude in post-game press conferences, and basking in the basketball skill and personalities around him, Walton was undeniably in his element.
If Bird and McHale’s personalities were a balancing act, Walton’s provided fulcrum that season. He appreciated McHale’s japes (upon the birth of his son, McHale noted that he and his wife thought about naming him Bill, but couldn’t because his feet were fine) as much as he admired Bird’s competitiveness.
There are a lot of great memories of that remarkable season, but it’s those personalities and the way that Bill Walton meshed with them that were the defining characteristic. His time in Boston was brief, but he was an integral part of the best season in franchise history.