The Frank Challant Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Wednesday, April 6th, 2005
Take me back to the beginning; tell me how you started
working for the Boston Celtics.
I was born in Swampscott [Massachusetts], and I was around the Celtics pretty much my whole life. My father, Nathan Challant, and my first cousin, Norm Altman, starting doing volunteer work for Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics in 1952. My father kept track of the fouls while Norm tracked the rebounds. Auerbach had the Box 1 seats in the loge opposite the Celtics' bench, and my father had Box 43. I remember going to the games and playing in the stands, and having a great time. There are so many memories that still stand out; I remember going to the Boston Garden and watching a doubleheader – Boston versus the Philadelphia Warriors in the first game, and New York versus the Sheboygen Redskins in the second. That was during the 1953-54 season, and I was seven or eight years old at the time. I remember playing with Frank Ramsey's son at practices and during the games, and with Bob Brannum's son, too. We had the run of the place. I remember all of the players from the early days, guys like Arnie Risen and Dwight Morrison. I was also lucky enough to be around the team through the glory years, up until the late '60s.
Buddy LeRoux was the Celtics' trainer from the mid-50s until the late sixties. He took me under his wing, took care of me, and really got me interested in sports medicine. He was a great guy. Joe DeLauri took LeRoux's place when he resigned as the team trainer,. DeLauri was a character – he was 5'4" and about 320 pounds, and a real delightful guy. I believe he was named trainer after the 1965-66 season.
I went to Springfield College because I was interested in becoming an athletic trainer, and Springfield had the best physical education program in the United States. I got hurt playing football there, so I gained a very real appreciation for my chosen profession [laughs]. Following graduation I was hired at a local high school as a trainer and teacher – I held that job until I went to a symposium, and I was able to land a job with the New England Patriots. It was 1971. The team had just drafted Jim Plunkett. I was twenty-five years old, I had a wife and a young daughter, and I was thrilled to be working as an athletic trainer in the NFL.
About that time, Joe DeLauri announced that he was stepping down from his job with the Celtics. He called me and said, 'Congratulations'. I asked him what the hell he was talking about. He said, 'You have the Celtics job'. He asked for references, and said that I should call the team's offices and speak to Jeff Cohen about the opening. I thought about it for awhile, and then I finally picked up the phone and called. I told Jeff that I'd like to throw my name in the hat. He said that I'd already be mentioned for the job, and that I was seriously being considered. I thought, 'Oh, shit', because I'd just taken the Patriots' job.
I went to see Red, and we had a long talk. DeLauri had given me a glowing recommendation, so he finally called me back for a second interview. He offered me $11,000 and wanted to know when I could start. I asked for the standard two-week notice, and I asked that we keep it quiet until I talked to the Patriots. Didn't happen. Upton Bell was the Patriots' general manager at the time – he's the son of Bert Bell, the former NFL commissioner – and it didn’t take him long to find out what was going on. He called Red wanting to know what the big idea was, and accused him of tampering. Didn't phase Red. I got the job. So it's safe to say that 1971 was a very eventful year in my life; I was teaching in May, working for the Patriots that summer, and then working for the Celtics that fall. They say that timing is everything, and in this case it couldn't be more true.
The ‘70s Celtics often get overlooked, but the decade
produced two world championships and a lot of great
memories. In your opinion, why don't these teams –
especially the ‘74 and ‘76 champions – get the credit
that they deserve?
I honestly don't know. I think it has a lot to do with what happened leading up to that, with all of the championships that the Celtics won during Bill Russell's career. And part of it has to do with the three years prior to Larry Bird's arrival – the Celtics just stunk during the 1978-79 season. And then Bird comes along, and Magic Johnson is playing ball on the other side of the country, and fan interest spikes way up. There was an instant rivalry there – Bird led Indiana State to the NCAA Finals against Magic and Michigan State, and then they ended up becoming part of the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry that went all the way back to Russell and [Wilt] Chamberlain. It's just a shame that those championship teams of the '70s – with great players like Cowens, Havlicek, White and Paul Silas – get overlooked the way that they do. Nobody seems to remember us. In a way, I guess it all goes back to timing.
The importance of the trainer is often overlooked,
especially by the casual fan. But for a player, the
trainer can mean the difference between playing and
sitting out the game due to injury. What was it like to
help the “walking wounded” get back out on the court and
contribute to the team’s success?
To me, that's what working for the Celtics was all about. That's why I was there. I believe that you judge a person by what he or she does – you measure their performance – regardless of the profession. It could be someone in sales, or someone working as a machinist, or someone playing basketball. In the NBA, players are mostly measured by the numbers that they produce – points, rebounds, assists. When a player gets hurt, the athletic trainer is challenged to do whatever we can to get that player back on the court as quickly and as safely as possible. That's how we are measured. There is a lot of pressure for us to get the athlete back into the flow of competition so that he can help the team win.
Ankle sprains are the most common injury in basketball. If a player sprains an ankle, he's going to do physical therapy up to three times a day, depending on the severity. We're right there for that, providing the best medical attention possible. Taping the injury properly is vitally important, as is wearing shoes that provide maximum ankle support.
As a trainer, the highlight of my career probably came during the 1977-78 season. Jo Jo White had bone spurs on his right heel, which is an unbelievably painful condition. Most people can barely walk when they have spurs floating around in their feet. Jo Jo was just an incredible physical specimen – he was always in the best shape, and he was so damned strong. And he never complained publicly about an injury, no matter how severe it might have been. Well, the press really got down on him that season, because they didn't know that he was hurting – they called him a malingerer, and said that he was a lazy player. That wasn't the case at all. He was injured. He knew it. I knew it. We just couldn't figure out what was going on. There was no MRI at that time, and no CAT scan…those technologies just weren't available. We had X-rays and surgery. After the season they went in and found a spur so high up that it wasn't picked up by the X-rays. For me to help him manage the pain and make it through that season has to be the highlight.
During the 1975-76 season, Hondo [John Havlicek] tore the fascia on his right foot. With the help of the medical staff, we were able to treat the injury between games and then tape it up for tipoff. He didn't miss a game. More importantly, he played as if he didn't have an injury. If our opponents would have known, they would have picked on him and tried to exploit the injury as a weakness. He helped lead the Celtics past Buffalo and Cleveland to reach the '76 NBA Finals, and was a big part of the team winning the championship against Phoenix.
Everyone knows the intensity goes up during the
playoffs. In terms of keeping players healthy and ready
for the next game, what are the biggest differences
between the regular season and the post-season?
One four-letter word: TIME. During the regular season you may have two-to-three weeks to treat an injury. During the playoffs you don't have that luxury. You're lucky if you have two days.
The Celtics began the ‘70s in rebuilding mode, but by
1972-73 the team had posted a 68-14 record, still the
best mark in franchise history. What happened to derail
their championship hopes that season?
John suffered a shoulder injury that kept him from playing in most of that playoff series against New York. Tom [Heinsohn] did a good job of getting the team to fight back – we won the first game of that series and then fell into a 3-1 hole. We were able to come back and even the series at 3-3, and that's when John came back. I'm not sure he was 100 percent, and he was maybe a little out-of-synch with what the team was doing. For whatever reason, the Knicks ran us out of the Garden that afternoon.