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Ball don’t lie – ‘The Big Three’

December 1, 2020
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Winning an NBA championship is hard; the road to a title demands a lot of the players on the floor. But one could argue that assembling a championship squad is even harder, a delicate dance involving winning trades, quality drafting, good signings … and more than a little luck.

Michael Holley’s “The Big Three: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Rebirth of the Boston Celtics” (Hachette, $28) tells the story of one such squad and the titanic trio that operated at its center. It’s an in-depth look at how the 2008 Celtics championship squad was assembled, from the 2003 purchase of the Celtics by a new ownership group to the hiring of Danny Ainge as general manager to the acquisition of Garnett and Allen to the eventual breaking up of the band to move the franchise forward.

It’s a remarkably well-reported book, a detailed exploration of the many ups and downs that came along with trying to assemble this sort of next-level team. Through conversations and archival research, Holley crafts a portrait that focuses on the people involved as opposed to the numbers, a fine juxtaposition to Ainge’s ongoing insistence on refusing to allow the personal to interfere with his plan.

For nearly two decades, the storied Boston Celtics franchise was mired in mediocrity. Sometimes bad, sometimes pretty good, never great, the Celtics were growing ever farther removed from their championship heyday; Boston hadn’t hoisted the trophy since 1986.

The path to change began in 2003 when the Celtics changed hands. Team owner Paul Gaston sold the team for a then-record $360 million to Boston Basketball Partners, headed up by Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca. The new owners hired Danny Ainge – then a network analyst – to take the team-building reins. Ainge hired Doc Rivers to be his coach.

And then he got down to business.

The first piece was already in-house. Paul Pierce was the 10th pick in the 1998 draft, selected by the Celtics out of Kansas. The early part of his career was marked by solid statistical performance – much of it alongside then-teammate Antoine Walker – but he was viewed by Ainge and company as the by-far superior player to Walker. He would serve as a foundational part of the championship team Ainge hoped to assemble.

The next parts would prove a little tougher.

Kevin Garnett had been an elite NBA player for more than a decade, even winning an MVP in 2004. But he was stuck on the Minnesota Timberwolves, a snakebitten franchise that could never figure out a way to give Garnett any help on the floor. Seemingly every effort backfired, leaving Garnett to play his heart out for teams destined to max out at first-round playoff exits.

Ray Allen was one of the best shooters in the league, doing his thing in Seattle. He was putting up points on the regular, but there were rumblings that new ownership had some less-than-ideal plans for the franchise. Allen was a SuperSonic – but for how long?

Thanks to some elaborate wheeling and dealing that I won’t even try to spell out here – seriously, it’s one of the best parts of the book when Holley walks you through it – Ainge managed to pull off trades that landed both Garnett and Allen in Boston. They joined Pierce and turned a long-mediocre Celtics squad into an instant favorite. For two decades, when you said “Big Three” in Boston, everyone knew you were talking Bird, McHale and Parish. Now?

Pierce, Garnett, Allen – the new Big Three.

For the next few years, this Boston Celtics squad stood as one of the best in the league – a generationally-good team, albeit one that would ultimately win just the one championship. But a title is a title; banners hang forever. And that was what these three players brought to Boston.

“The Big Three” offers insight into the people and personalities involved in this memorable era of Celtics basketball. Yes, we spend a lot of time with Pierce, Garnett and Allen, getting to know who they were and the sacrifices they made in order to make their triumvirate work. And yes, we’re given insight into Ainge and Rivers and what makes them tick; both men are among the very best at what they do, so it’s interesting to get a peek behind the curtain.

But we also get to meet some of the other folks involved – ownership, front office, players – in the championship season, as well as what came before and after. There are a few familiar names mixed in. We learn a lot about the organization’s relationship to Rajon Rondo as the headstrong youngster came into his own. We meet a young front office wonk named Daryl Morey, who would go on to assemble his own super team (with somewhat less playoff success) in Houston.

What Holley has done is bring the entire era to vivid life, capturing that relatively brief stretch when the Celtics stood atop the basketball world, taking on all comers on their way to the promised land. And yes, the multiple championships never materialized; Ainge kept his promise to himself to never let his personal feelings get in the way of moving the organization forward. It was a shooting star of a team, one that burned bright and fast before fading.

“The Big Three” is a book about feeling; Holley does a wonderful job of capturing just how these men felt about what they were doing and how they were doing it. There’s not much in the way of nuts-and-bolts statistics or game recaps – it’s not that kind of book. People who want that can look at box scores or Basketball-Reference. It’s about evoking the very human stories behind this era of Boston basketball. That evocation is Holley’s primary goal – one that he very much achieves.

If you’re a fan of the Boston Celtics or NBA history in general, you’re going to dig “The Big Three.” Michael Holley is a talented writer with a solid understanding of professional basketball both on and off the court. Honestly, even if you’re familiar with the story of this team, there’s a lot here that will likely prove new to you – it certainly did to me. The temptation is to call this book a slam-dunk, but it’s more than that – it’s a dagger three and a game-changing block and a crisp pass. As far as sports books go, it does it all … just like Boston’s Big Three.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 December 2020 09:20

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