The Boston Celtics’ Hoosier Connection

Two unusual visitors to Los Angeles awaited Larry Bird outside the arena the night of a December game against the Clippers a couple of decades ago: rain and a stranger who brought greetings from a friend in Indiana.

“Randy Ricketts says hello,” said the stranger, trying to get his attention as he passed.

Bird had a well-rounded game that night: 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three blocked shots, one of which he collected and converted into a score on the other end for two of his … 13 points. But that, like the final score (it was Boston’s 25th win in 30 tries), was typical. As for hearing a name from home, somewhere a world away in distance and in culture, a culture to which Bird returned so often he never really left it? Certainly enough to make a man pause.

Bird halted his progress to engage with the stranger.

“How’s Randy been?”

As Bird’s former agent and neighbor Bob Woolf told the Washington Post in 1984, “There isn’t a day I go over to his house and there isn’t somebody there from Indiana, some teammate or school friends.” Randy Ricketts was one such friend, from Indiana State University. He was a local notable for their relationship: The newspaper in Vevay, Ind. (pop. 1,681), reported in 1996 that his family hosted Bird and his wife for dinner “on their way back from a public appearance in Cincinnati.” Bird was all about such people: Above ambitions later in life, wrote David Remnick in in the Post, his “immediate retirement plans run more toward ‘going back home’ to fish in Lake [Potoka],” just a little south of where the “hick from French Lick” got his name, and a little further from Terre Haute, the home of the Sycamores, who he led against Magic’s Spartans in the 1979 men’s basketball final.

Larry Bird never outgrew his roots, but instead grew from them to greater lengths than anyone from Indiana to take over the family trade, the game of basketball. During his pro career, the extent was about 1,000 miles to the northeast, where he added a little Hoosier hysteria to the Celtic pride. That’s not to say the state’s fans loved him when he wore green—the final two playoff series Bird won in his career were against the Pacers, who featured a rival scorer and trash-talker, Chuck Person. “I don’t know if Larry remembers, but my first game in the pros was against him in Terre Haute, and he said, ‘Young fella, when you come out to play, play hard every night or you’ll get embarrassed—especially by me,’” Person recalled. “That gave me extra incentive to play hard against Larry. My first regular-season game against Larry he had something like 40 points, 20 rebounds, and 15 assists.”

But in the arc of history, Bird’s arrival in Beantown established an outpost for Hoosier basketball in Massachusetts. Think of it as the product of cultural exchange. In 1891, Canadian-American James Naismith invented the game in Springfield, and in the decades after, it became to Indiana what football is to Texas. Bird was the product of a hoops refinery, returned to the birthplace of basketball with a note reading “Behold!” At the height of his career, the mid-1980s, he won three consecutive league MVP awards and entered the contemporary conversation for greatest player of all time.

Three decades later, the exchange program continues. In 2013, a rebuilding Celtics franchise poached its next coach from Butler University in Indianapolis: Brad Stevens, whose ascendance from obscurity to adulation was jet-fueled. Like Bird, Stevens came from Indiana basketball culture, setting a scoring record at Zionsville High School in the 1990s that fell only this year. But his success at the Division I level came on the sidelines, as he led Butler to back-to-back men’s national championship games despite playing in the tiny Horizon League conference. His peers, including the opposing coach in the 2010 final, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, regarded him as a marvel. So did Boston general manager and former Bird teammate Danny Ainge, who made the bold hire.

It’s paid off. Stevens’s tenure with the Celtics has resembled his one with the Bulldogs, largely responsible for turning seemingly outmanned rosters into competitive teams. Boston’s win totals have improved in each of his five seasons, and he’s led them to four playoff appearances. It’s indisputable that players relish competing for him and that most front offices are envious. But it’s not just because he trusts players, cultivating mutually respectful relationships with pro athletes in ways that other college coaches jumping to the NBA like Rick Pitino and John Calipari failed. It’s the basketball IQ—the laboratory creativity for which Bird was praised.

Case in point: The decisive basket in a critical victory over the Philadelphia 76ers last week came off an out-of-bounds play Stevens designed on the fly, after scrapping the one he had in mind before regrouping for a timeout. It involved isolating his best low-post scorer, Al Horford, on a small defender, and luring each of Philadelphia’s other four players to the side of the court from where the ball was being inbounded, so none of them would be close to the basket to either steal the entry pass or contest the shot. The ball was entered over Horford and his defender’s heads, where only he could retrieve it, and he rose for the game-winning layup. He called Stevens a “genius” for it—but Stevens creates relatives of “it” on most nights, whether they’re regular season games or decisive postseason matchups.

Stevens’ genius has allowed the Celtics to thrive despite setbacks that would’ve relegated other teams to the draft lottery. This was supposed to be “the” year for Boston. In the offseason, the team acquired Gordon Hayward, Stevens’s best player in his six years at Butler and a native of Brownsburg, Indiana, who matured into an All-Star forward as a member of the Utah Jazz. Hayward would team up with Kyrie Irving, the Cavs point guard who had tired of playing with LeBron James and demanded a trade, and the pair would propel Boston into NBA Finals contention.

That was the plan, anyhow. But Hayward suffered a gruesome leg injury during the season opener in Cleveland, stalling his true debut as a Celtic until next season. Irving went under the knife, too, for knee discomfort lingering from a previous surgery. Stevens was left to cobble together new lineups and strategies on the fly—with a core of young talent that he and anyone else will say is more skilled, mature, and prepared to compete than a first impression would convey.

“We’ve said it over and over again, Brad does a great job of putting guys in the right spot,” said one of his young stars, 19-year-old Jayson Tatum. Tatum, Horford, recent draft selections Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and veteran Marcus Morris—they range from quality role players on any team to budding stars to All Star-caliber now (Horford), and they deserve credit on the merit of their own play.

All they’ve done, after all, is quiet the skeptics who ruled them out as serious playoff contenders after Irving shut down for the season. The Celtics dispatched the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs to set up an Eastern Conference Finals battle with the Cavaliers.

There’s something thoroughly Bird-like in what Stevens and the Celtics have achieved.

“I always knew I wasn’t very quick. I knew I couldn’t jump too high. The only way I could succeed was on know-how,” Bird said. In other words, making the most out of everything.

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