(NECN) - As Boston Celtics fans sit in their TD Garden seats for a given game, a tilt of the head upward will lead to a sight no other fan base can claim in its home building -- 17 NBA Championship banners.
The bulk of those banners -- 13, to be exact -- come from a dominant stretch that began in the late 50s and tapered off in the mid-70s under the organizational guide of Red Auerbach. Three more were added in the 80s, during the Larry Bird era -- the time of the original Big Three. But, as fans know, it was not always banners, cigars and parades for this franchise.
To be initiated as a Celtics fan after that 16th title in 1986 would seemingly be a punishment. The much publicized deaths of promising young players Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, combined with the ping-pong disappointment of the 1997 Draft Lottery and subsequent lackluster reign of Rick Pitino, delivered a stark contrast to the organization's glory days.
The fan base endured a byproduct of those tragedies -- the Celtics failed to make the playoffs for six straight seasons prior to the 2001-2002 campaign. On the heels an Eastern Conference Finals exit, though, owner
A virtuous plan of attack
"If you're going to be a playoff team and just make money, that's maybe not a championship formula. So what we did from Day One is we said, 'We're going to invest as much as we possibly can in this team, and the valuation will take care of itself'," Grousbeck in a recent appearance on NECN's CEO Corner. "So that's how it takes four or five years to get that put together, and then luckily we did win."
When Grousbeck took over as Managing Partner, Governor and Chief Executive Officer of the Boston Celtics in December 2002, he inherited a team that surprised many by nearly making it through a weak Eastern Conference to the NBA Finals. But a surprising team from a weak conference would stand little-to-no chance against Western Conference powers Los Angeles and San Antonio, which boasted bigger stars than Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker -- not to mention a better supporting cast.
In May 2003, Grousbeck hired Danny Ainge, a two-time title winner as a player with the Celtics, as the organization's Executive Director of Basketball Operations and General Manager. It would be his task to assemble a team worthy of restoring the luster long since gone from the Celtics mystique. The right formula would take some time.
In his first big moves at the helm, Ainge acquired point guard Marcus Banks and high school center Kendrick Perkins in Draft Night dealings. Banks never made a huge impact with the Celtics, or any other organization. Perkins, on the other hand, was Exhibit A that patience would prove worthwhile in the hunt for a 17th title. Over the coming seasons, there would be many bearers of false hope to suit up in the green and white -- Ricky Davis, Gary Payton, Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Wally Szczerbiak and Sebastian Telfair, to name a few.
Complimentary players are an easy find in the NBA. But Pierce, the foundation piece identified by Ainge, head coach Doc Rivers and Celtics ownership, required more than young, one-dimensional teammates to make a serious run at an NBA Title.
"My partners and I decided that we would rebuild the team bit-by-bit," Grousbeck said. "We would stick with Danny (Ainge). And we stuck with Doc (Rivers), during some darker times. We didn't feel like we'd given them enough time to show what they could do -- the drafting and the coaching, and bringing it all together."
The organization decided to look at the aforementioned role players as an answer, rather than a problem -- a group with collective shortcomings incapable of mounting a strong playoff push, even with Pierce leading the way, but enough promise to lure teams with aging veterans to the negotiating table.
"All of a sudden -- it seemed like it was all of a sudden -- we had the pieces in place to make these trades. In fact, it was the culmination of being patient for four years. So we waited for it, when we were ready to go, we went, we got (Kevin) Garnett and (Ray) Allen and we won the championship," Grousbeck said of the two deals that immediately changed his team's fortunes.
On the night of the NBA Draft Lottery, Boston fans, with dreams of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant dancing in their heads, learned that neither would be in a Celtics uniform in 2007. Boston had been awarded the No. 5 overall selection in the upcoming Draft. The unlucky bounce of ping-pong balls set the Celtics back once before. Boston would not be had twice, deciding to change its future not with a draft pick, but by using it to acquire a veteran player.
On Draft Night 2007, Ainge traded West, Szczerbiak and the 5th overall pick (Jeff Green) to Seattle for the 35th overall pick (Glen "Big Baby" Davis) and Ray Allen, a sharpshooter from beyond the arc and the key to convincing the final piece of the New Big Three to join the Celtics. A little over a month later, Kevin Garnett became that final piece. The high-scoring Jefferson, Gomes, Telfair, Green, Theo Ratliff, cash and two first round draft selections in 2009 netted The Big Ticket, who was leaving the only NBA team he had known, the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Grousbeck's patience with Ainge and Rivers culminated in the organization's 17th NBA Title in that first season the New Big Three played together. It was an amazing run capped by the six-game defeat of longtime rival the Los Angeles Lakers.
Patience is a funny thing, though. What if the Timberwolves and Sonics were not prepared to deal Garnett and Allen? What if the ping-pong ball had landed Boston the No. 1 overall pick in 2007? Would Ainge have gone the way of former New York Knicks boss Isiah Thomas, now coaching a little-known NCAA program after a series of moves put franchise well behind the eight ball? One will never know for sure.
"I think of myself as a trustee of the Celtics -- it's really not mine. It's everybody's in Boston and it's Red Auerbach's and Bill Russell's and everybody back in the past," Grousbeck said. "The chance to take care of one of those franchises and try to hang another banner and add to the pride and tradition is so unique that it's hard to place a value on it."
Grousbeck's group originally purchased the Celtics for $360 million. In 2008, Forbes placed a $447 million valuation on the franchise. Grousbeck noted that the team's rich history and current level of performance bumps its value, in his eyes, far beyond that $447 million figure.
The opportunity to own an NBA franchise is quite limited, as there are only so many teams to be had, and at a steep price. Accordingly, simply seeing the fruits of one's negotiations on the court can be a thrill worth taking on the responsibility of being an NBA owner. Grousbeck admitted as much in his CEO Corner appearance.
But for him, it is more than that.
Having tasted the league's ultimate success, there is no turning back -- his competitive spirit is tied to the on-court ups and downs of his team. It is the type of attitude a true fan -- one that hit Powerball and purchased his hometown team -- would display with pride. Because going from fan to owner takes the experience to a completely different level.
"It's actually much more fun to win, and even when we lose I'm so devastated, but I'm so much more wrapped up in the games. I'm not just a fan anymore and I love it," Grousbeck said.
'Let's have a parade in the end'
At the time of his CEO Corner appearance, Grousbeck's Celtics were a perfect 4-0 on the young 2009-2010 season. Following Friday night's 110-103 loss to Phoenix, the team sat at 6-1 -- now 7-1.
"Well, I can't expect that we're going to be undefeated for the whole year, but I'd like to really cause some problems for our opponents in the league," Grousbeck said.
Problems would be one way opponents could term a first team unit that boasts Pierce, Allen, a healthy Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Perkins. Heck, a second team consisting of new additions Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels and old guard members Eddie House and Glen Davis, would be problematic for a healthy percentage of teams in the NBA.
Seven years later, one can look back on the moves made by Grousbeck's management team with wonderment. That is not to say his goal is accomplished, mission complete.
His plan of investing in the team -- the players on the court -- from the start worked to increase the value of his investment, and his chances of hanging yet another banner -- the 18th.
"I'm really competitive, and there's nothing better than beating the heck out of everybody else," Grousbeck said of this 2009-2010 campaign. "And let's have a parade in the end."
The Duckboats people, one would think, will be happy to hear that.