Winning in Boston still represents historic NBA rite of passage

Boston Garden is long gone, 25 years since the bandbox atop North Station was reduced to rubble and replaced with a newer, shinier, tonier version of itself. TD Bank has been the name sponsor for the new place since 2005; no self-respecting bank (or loan shark, for that matter) would’ve ever chosen to be commemorated alongside the old joint.

But when the NBA Finals return to Boston, as they will beginning Wednesday, it always feels like an appropriate homecoming. You can love the Celtics or you can loathe the Celtics, but there is no way you can be a self-respecting fan of professional basketball and ever minimize the Celtics.

Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — who had more reasons for more built-up enmity toward the Celtics than anyone else not named Wilt Chamberlain — conceded as much.

“They didn’t buy all those banners at Woolworth’s,” Jabbar once wrote.

At last count there are 17 of them scattered in the ceiling at TD Garden, putting the Celtics in a flat-footed tie with the Lakers for most NBA championships. Sixteen of them were augmented at the Old Garden and shifted to the new digs; No. 17 cam some 14 years ago. And all the Celtics need to do to start stitching up No. 18 is hold serve at home after splitting the first two games of these Finals with the Warriors in San Francisco.

The Celtics' banners hang from the TD Garden rafters during the team's second-round series against the Heat.
The Celtics’ banners hang from the TD Garden rafters during the team’s second-round series against the Heat.
NBAE via Getty Images

Which also leads us to a corresponding point of interest with the Warriors, who won Game 2 to squeeze themselves back into this series, keeping alive the possibility they might win a fourth championship in eight years. Now, that may pale in comparison to the 11-titles-in-13-years splurge that the Bill Russell Celtics put together from 1957-69, but it is as close to a dynasty — lowercase “d” — as we have in the sports right now.

And it feels like an appropriate locale for the Splash Brothers to make their run at history. They needn’t apologize for the three titles they’ve already won, since all three came with LeBron James on the other side, and whenever you can have your way with the generation’s best player that’s an accomplishment worth savoring.

But across history, almost every worthwhile champion has had to first figure out a way to shake off the ghosts and goblins that used to inhabit Boston Garden, and make regular appearances at the new place, too.

The championship Knicks won a Game 7 at Boston Garden in 1973. The Bad Boy Pistons and the Dr. J Sixers inspired chants of “Beat LA!” when they conquered the Celtics after years of falling short. Even Michael Jordan’s principle coming-out had to happen at Boston Garden, his epic 63-point playoff outburst in 1986 inspiring Larry Bird to gush, “I’ve never seen a player like that.”

Larry Bird shoots against Michael Jordan at the Boston Garden.
Larry Bird shoots against Michael Jordan at the old Boston Garden.
NBAE via Getty Images

Only three teams—Russell’s Celtics, the Showtime Lakers and Jordan’s Bulls—have ever won as many as four titles in an eight-year span, so the Warriors have it within their sights to join a rarefied group of historical elites. And they probably figured they might be able to pull that off merely by defending their home court — a blueprint that was crumpled as soon as the Celtics flattened them in Game 1 with an epic fourth-quarter comeback.

So now they have to go to Boston, win at least one there, and it feels exactly right that should be the overload for entry to immortality. The new Garden has hot and cold running water, something you couldn’t always count on in the old days. It’s supposed to reach 80 in Boston on Wednesday; back in ’84, during the Finals, the Lakers demanded that the Celtics do something about the stifling conditions in their locker room.

Red Auerbach responded by sending them a window air conditioner. Still in the box.

Stephen Curry dribbles during the Warriors' Game 2 win over the Celtics.
Stephen Curry dribbles during the Warriors’ Game 2 win over the Celtics.
Getty Images

Red is gone now, too, and so are the dirty tricks that he may or may not have perpetrated on his bedeviled rivals. All that remain are the banners, and the retired numbers, and the sense that beating the Celtics in Boston is the same championship rite of passage it’s always been — same as beating the Yankees in The Bronx has always been, same as beating the Canadians in Montreal used to be.

When the Lakers finally did conquer the Celtics in 1985, Pat Riley crowed, “We survived the belly of the beast!” The belly awaits for Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and friends. Want to be a dynasty? You’ve come to the home office.


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