SPORTS

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November 5, 2002

Nolty Says: Celtics open their season on a sour note; is Vin Baker to blame?

There was a period there for a while during which it actually looked like the Boston Celtics had completely lost every last vestige of greatness. The years between the beginning of Bill Russell's career and the end of Larry Bird's will always be a time of remarkable dominance, but there was this period where they were all but forgotten.

These were the Sherman Douglas Celtics, the Alaa Abdelnaby/Greg Minor/Alton Lister Celtics. This is when M.L. Carr was every kind of executive officer in the organization, and the only way to glimpse light at the end of this tunnel was to imagine M.L. firing himself. The makers of NBA Jam had to pretend that Dino Radja could shoot threes with Mark Price and B.J. Armstrong just so the game could be fair. These were the basement-dwelling Celtics.

In the early and mid-'90s, you didn't watch the Celtics games with any hope. You watched them with a beer, maybe, or with a friend. You talked about draft picks, mostly, and briefly you talked about Pervis Ellison's hair, David Wesley's ears, or Popeye Jones's whole face. You did not talk about history. This was not the same team that captivated you as a child, as a child who loved Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and even Danny Ainge. That team had a heart, and a future. But the future died with Len Bias's overdose and Reggie Lewis's heart condition. This new team was a bunch of cardboard cutouts that looked like the Celtics. This new team was a bunch of amateurs playing under familiar banners.

Such are phases in professional sports. This year's Chicago Bulls don't remind anyone of Michael Jordan. Anyone making Allen Iverson-Julius Erving comparisons in Philadelphia will be shot on sight. Teams change, players change. We waited it out in Boston. Last year the period of futility finally ended.

Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker remade the team. They won the favor of every analyst in the NBA, and had a penchant for double-handedly winning basketball games. Shaq, in his Big Aristotelian terms, told America that Paul Pierce was "the Truth," and the nickname stuck. They now play that clip from A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson leans forward on the witness stand, jabs a mustache and a military finger in Tom Cruise's direction and says "You can't handle the truth," (my italics) and the crowd goes wild.

Rodney Rogers and Kenny Anderson, I will add, were the gyroscope of this high-flying Celtics plane. Rogers, the big man who created match-up problems by hitting his outside shots, and Anderson, the reborn point guard who turned it up for the playoff stretch, were the final pieces to last year's Conference Finals puzzle. Yes, they cost money, and yes, the Celtics failed to win the championship, but this was a formula, and the formula, by most accounts, was working. Give the Celtics a dark-horse contender status, as of last year.

Teams change, players change. Apparently, The Management felt that Anderson and Rogers were not the stuff of champions, despite what looked like reasonable evidence to the contrary. Forget that money. We're spending it somewhere else. Enter Vin Baker, the New England favorite.

Baker was the first lottery pick (number eight, for those scoring at home) ever to come out of the University of Hartford. He played for the Bucks. They were not appreciably a better team during his regime, but he managed a couple of 20-point, 10-rebound years for them. Nobody can complain about that. Then Baker went to Seattle and got fat.

Bad numbers, bad relationship with the media, bad all-around experience with the Sonics. But not so bad that the Celtics didn't decide to pony up the considerable dough to bring him to Boston.

At no point did anyone in the Boston media condone this maneuver, so far as I know. There was a general outrage, which team officials tried to quell by suggesting that Baker had "improved his work ethic." They went more or less down the list of meaningless things that team officials say when they are talking about a has-been/never-was/generally-not-very-good player.

Personally, I tried to hold out hope, in some understated way. Maybe Baker really was working off the extra pounds, or really wanted to come back to the east coast. But three games have convinced me otherwise, along with anyone else who was still putting faith in the Celtics' management. Three games were played, in which the Celtics lost to the ignominious Bulls, suffered the franchise's worst-ever defeat at the hands of the Wizards (114-69), and finally eked out a win over the league laughingstock Knicks only because Paul Pierce told the Truth 46 times in one night.

Where was Vin Baker during these games? Not in the starting lineup, it seems. He was playing limited minutes, blocking one shot, and scoring eight points per game. He was being what spin doctors call "a project." Experts are generously giving the C's third place in the Eastern Conference. This would depend on more maturity from Walker, strong performances from the patchwork guard-quilt of Tony Delk, Shammond Williams, and someone named J.R. Bremer. It's all just a little too tenuous.

So this is the new winning formula, in all its glory. Anderson and Rogers are out. Baker is in. Memories of last year's playoff run are fading quickly. Does anyone have M.L. Carr's phone number?