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On and off the court with Boston’s Big Three – ‘Wish It Lasted Forever’

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It’s easy to forget, in this world of commonplace multimillion-dollar contracts across the professional sports landscape, that it wasn’t always about the money. Well, not entirely about the money anyway.

Take the NBA, for example. Today, the league is a global powerhouse, a corporate machine featuring massive television contracts and marketing deals and individual teams worth literal billions of dollars. But it wasn’t so long ago that pro basketball was a good living, but far from providing the generational wealth it does today.

It was a different time. A time worth remembering.

“Wish It Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics” (Scribner, $28) takes a look at an iconic team in the days just before everything changed. Written by Dan Shaughnessy about his time covering the Celtics beat for the Boston Globe (1982-86), it’s an up-close-and-personal look at a time that simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a book packed with the sorts of stories that could never happen today, tales from the road when everyone – players, coaches and media – traveled together and dined together, staying in the same hotels and generally being a constant presence in one another’s lives.

These stories – stories about what the players were really like in the locker room and at the bar after the game as well as about their performance on the court – are a fascinating snapshot of a bygone era, featuring compelling and thoughtful looks at some of the greatest to ever play the game. Rendered with the standard self-deprecatory wit and good humor by Shaughnessy, it’s a book that any Celtics fan – any NBA fan, really – will find to be fascinating reading.

The Boston Celtics had a long and storied history long before Larry Bird showed up. This is a team that utterly dominated the early days of the NBA – they won two titles in the late ‘50s (1957 and 1959) and two in the ‘70s (1974 and 1976) … and NINE in the ‘60s (every season but 1967). One might think there’d be some sort of downswing, but then, in the 1979-80 season, here comes Larry Bird, the Indiana standout whose game – along with that of cross-continent rival Magic Johnson – would play a major part in catapulting the league into the stratosphere.

Imagine, then, that you are Dan Shaughnessy. You’re a young up-and-comer of a sportswriter. All of a sudden, you’re tasked with covering a team that is starting to look like one of the greatest ever, all while replacing an icon on the beat in Bob Ryan. That is a one-two punch of pressure, to be sure, but one that Shaughessy weathered.

Shaughessy came into the picture on the heels of yet another title in 1981 – the first for Bird. He would be there for everything that would come over the next few years. He would be there to see the team grow and thrive around the incredible skill set that Bird brought to the table. From exceptional shooting to needle-threading passing to fundamental rebounding to joyously confrontational trash talk, Larry Bird could do anything that needed doing on a basketball court.

(Bird led the way in the team’s eventual agreement to refer to Shaughnessy as “Scoop,” ostensibly to recognize his dogged reporting abilities, but really just some not-quite-totally-friendly ball-busting. This was an era where writers and athletes were very much mutual backscratchers – a game that Shaughnessy wasn’t interested in playing.)

The general attitude around those Celtics teams – initiated from the top down by the legendary Red Auerbach – was that basketball is a team game, a game built around contributions from everyone on the roster. A noble notion, to be sure, but when the roster looks like that one did, what you get is something transcends a mere team-first ethos.

We talked about Bird, of course, but one can’t discuss this era of Celtics basketball without talking about Kevin McHale – who made his debut with the Celtics as a rookie in 1980 – and Robert Parish, who arrived that same year via a trade with the Golden State Warriors. Shaughnessy watched as this trio came together as one of the most impactful groupings in the history of professional basketball, three all-timers, Hall of Famers all.

A big highlight is the arrival of Bill Walton, whose contributions to that 1985-86 squad – considered by some to be the greatest team ever assembled – were vital. It was a quote from Walton that lent itself to this book’s title, an acknowledgment that he would never be so blessed as to be part of that phenomenal a team again.

Shaughnessy divides his time pretty equally between behind-the-scenes stories and on-court action. There’s some great stuff here about the burgeoning disdain he inspired in Robert Parish, who eventually flat-out refused to speak to him (even now – he did not participate in interviews for this book). Maybe the best of the bunch, however, is when Bird was suffering from an injury to his shooting hand and Shaughnessy wound up in a free throw shooting contest with him. Taped hand or no, you can probably make a pretty good guess how it played out.

And when Shaughnessy puts you there on the parquet floor … man. Spectacular stuff, sweeping the reader up into the moment with an immediacy that makes it easy to forget you’re reading about events from nearly 40 years ago. The dripping sweat of the overheated Garden, the squeak of the sneakers on the floor, the titanic clashes between teams battling not just for the championship, but for dominance of the era. But while the title fights are key, so too are the accounts of moments during small, seemingly inconsequential regular season contests – no matter what the stakes, Shaughnessy finds ways to bring the game to vivid life.

“Wish It Lasted Forever” is a remarkable, close-up account of one of the most iconic teams in the history of one of the NBA’s most iconic franchises. It was a special time for the Boston Celtics, featuring a handful of guys who to this day are among the greatest to ever play the game. And thanks to Dan Shaughnessy, even those who weren’t there in the moment are gifted with an intimate portrait of that team.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 November 2021 08:32


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