The Boston Celtics. The third most successful North American professional sports team, right behind the New York Yankees, and the Montreal Canadiens. 66 completed seasons. 50 trips to the playoffs. 21 trips to the NBA Finals. 17 NBA world championship banners. Life has been good to us Celtics fans. There shouldn’t be anything to complain about, or lost opportunities to mull over….. but that isn’t the case. I think we have been spoiled; we expect to compete every season (except for the gloomy Pitino period).
I love reminiscing about the past. Whether it’s remembering past Celtic greats, placing 90′s music on a pedestal, or telling crazy stories as a teenager with much bravado. Revisionist history interests me just as much. At a later date I will jump aboard the massive task of reviewing the dual loses of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, but before then there are some more unheralded stories from the history of the Celtics to explore.
In the 1989 Draft, the Celtics were looking for a versatile forward to back-up Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, hoping to provide the kind of depth that we had hoped Len Bias would have been able to provide. Local sports writers had us drafting Todd Lichti (if available) or picking between point guards B.J. Armstrong, Tim Hardaway, or Mookie Blaylock. This is what Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe had to say at the time:
If the Celtics were to take either [Tim Hardaway] or [Armstrong] (or any other surprise point guard, such as Mookie Blaylock), it would not mean they are in any way down on Brian Shaw as their floor leader. Rather, it would demonstrate their confidence in him as a ballplayer who resists categorization. There are things to like about both Hardaway and Armstrong, but Armstrong would appear to be the more logical choice, since he can shoot much better than Hardaway, whose jumper is truly ugly to behold, and whose true strengths lie in other areas.
Red went a different way. He fell on love with the offensive skills that Michael Smith (not to be confused with Michael “The Animal” Smith) bought to the table. Mike Szostak of the Providence Journal writes:
The Celtics (read that Auerbach) liked [Michael Smith] for his offensive skills. He averaged 19 points per season in four years at BYU and stands second on the school’s all-time scoring list behind Danny Ainge. He buried 43 percent of his shots from three-point range and 88 percent of his free throws.
No one factored in Smith’s selfish attitude, Blake Griffin/ t-rex arms, or his overall lack of athleticism. Smith was in fact a poor man’s version of Jon Leuer, with a bad attitude to boot. tb727 over at Celtics Life wrote a great article a couple of years ago about Smith’s overall douchebaggery. Turns out the guy is a racist, and ripped off a friend with a brain tumor. Real class act by the BYU grad.
Back to basketball. Michael Smith was Red’s pick. The rest of the Celtics brain-trust were enamored with Tim Hardaway and B.J. Armstrong. Both ended up being all-stars, and would have made fine eventual replacements for Brian Shaw. I have read numerous opinion pieces on how we could have drafted Shawn Kemp. Drafting high schoolers was not a common practice, and it was considered very risky. I’d like to go in another direction altogether. Clifford (Cliff) “Uncle Cliffy/ Uncle Spliffy” Robinson was one of the best players in all of college basketball. He was snubbed from the All-American teams, and he was passed over in the first round because scouts were worried about his work ethic and potential off the court incidents. Robinson did slap a police woman in the face in his rookie season, and he was suspended multiple times in the 2000′s for abusing the league’s drug policy. However, Robinson was always known to be a hard worker by his coaches and teammates. Cliff also played small forward, power forward, center over the course of his career. He would have been a risky pick for us, especially after losing Bias to an overdose. I don’t think it’s smart to make decisions based on the ‘once bitten’ way of thinking.
Cliff Robinson could have seriously changed the fortunes of our 1989-90 team, and even more so the 1990-91 team. Robinson was a gym rat, and was a student of the game. I have no doubt in my mind that he would have been an eventual all-star for us, and who knows how his talents could have been utilized by practicing against Bird, McHale, and Parish everyday.
As a rookie, Cliff Robinson was able to fit into a veteran-laden Portland team featuring Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, Kevin Duckworth, and Buck Williams. I have no doubt that he could have played right away in Boston. What would have been the long-term affects on the team? If you’re expecting me to say, ‘adding a versatile forward would have prolonged McHale’s and Bird’s respective careers,’ you would be wrong. Bird’s back, and McHale’s feet were toast by that point. Adding a solid player like Robinson, would have helped us transition to the 90′s with a solid roster, still capable of reaching the playoffs….. if only Reggie Lewis didn’t die… but that’s another story.