One Last Thing: Number 17
No franchise in professional sports does banners quite like the Celtics. They don’t hang testaments to division titles or conference crowns; the rarefied air high above the Garden floor is reserved solely for world championships. It’s an elite group that until this year numbered just 16, all handcrafted by Waltham’s New England Flag & Banner (which has supplied the team’s banners dating back to the first one, in 1957). Each of the 10-by-15-foot swaths of nylon contains its own piece of Celtics lore: Bob Cousy dribbling out the clock (1962)…Red Auerbach winning in his final year as a coach (1966) and Bill Russell doing the same in his final year as a player (1969)…Cedric Maxwell exhorting his teammates, “Climb on my back, boys” (1984)…Larry Bird at the absolute height of his powers (1986).
It’s been 22 years since the last banner was hung. Twenty-two long years that saw the closing of the old Garden and the opening of the new, and a losing streak that mixed tragedy (the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis) with the absurd (Pervis Ellison missing most of a season after dropping a coffee table on his toe). The players wore the same uniforms, but the Celtics of yore seemed gone long before Red passed away in 2006, the cigar-smoking patriarch replaced by a dance team and a slam-dunking leprechaun. Mostly, though, the team was irrelevant, sleepwalking through Boston’s sports revival.
The Celtics’ transformation was as stunning as it was sudden: the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history, capped by a championship victory over their eternal rivals, the L.A. Lakers. The driving force was Kevin Garnett, the superstar forward from Minnesota who had himself gone bannerless throughout a 12-year career. A player for whom the words “maniacally intense” describe his normal state of being, Garnett helped revive the old Celtics ways of teamwork and trust, and apply them to a new generation.
Like its predecessors, the 2008 banner will have its own stories to tell when it’s hung this fall on opening night: Ray Allen rushing to the hospital to care for his infant son before the final game…Garnett telling Russell, “I hope we made you proud”…series MVP Paul Pierce taking his rightful place among the all-time greats. It will also carry a promise—that we won’t have to wait 22 years for another.