Past as prologue: The twilight years of Boston’s big three

By the time I became a fan of the Boston Celtics, the "big three" signified a bygone era of the team's glory days. It was a term that evoked nostalgia for the past rather than hope for the future. For my generation, it was a reference to the three superstars in green and white who became forever etched in the young minds of kids like me growing up in the '80s. Namely, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert "The Chief" Parish, the three giants of recent Celtics history who seemed irreplaceable. As the modern incarnation of the big three edge closer to retirement, it's worth looking back on how things went the last time fans faced the prospect of a post-big three era.

True, the circumstances surrounding the modern big three don't exactly match up with the original group in that '80s golden age. After all, Paul Pierce(notes) was only joined by Ray Allen(notes) and Kevin Garnett(notes) in 2007, while the big three of the '80s played together for over ten years. Bird, McHale, and Parish won three championships, while Pierce, Allen, and Garnett have one. Both groups immediately won a championship in the very first season they shared the court.

The original big three were a seemingly permanent fixture of Boston sports, with fans eventually becoming hard-pressed to remember what it was like without them. Three championships and five trips to the Finals does that. So far, the current big three are one-for-two in Finals appearances, but there's plenty of reason to assume that the 2011-12 season may be their last chance at another championship together. Kevin Garnett has long hinted at retirement, and while Ray Allen has avoided talk of the end of his own career (despite persistent media speculation), he's the same age as Garnett (35).

Fans in the '80s had the luxury of soaking in the third championship of the original big three era in 1986 when earnest talk of a post-big three era first got underway. The team had not only won the Finals, they'd had a nearly flawless season, going 67-15 and losing only a single game at home. The legendary Red Auerbach and Jan Volk knew that they could rely on more solid seasons from the still-dominant big three, but set contingency plans in motion for their eventual departure. Of course, the lynchpin of those plans was Len Bias.

Longtime fans remember just how promising Bias was as the Celtics' first round pick, second overall in the '86 draft. Bias's drug-related death less than two days after his selection was a devastating blow that essentially put a halt to the idea that any player in the big three could be replaced outright any time soon.

The team had no choice but to continue to rely on the aging big three through the rest of the decade and early '90s. When Reggie Lewis, the team's next greatest hope, died of a heart-attack in '93, the team was left to languish without stars capable of living up to the glory of the past. After getting eliminated in the first round of the 1995 playoffs, the Cs would go six straight seasons without a playoff appearance.

When I moved to Mass over ten years ago, the team was at the tail-end of that period, though the fresh-faced Paul Pierce was giving the Cs a new spark. Still, fans like me would have to go through the the 58 losses of the 2006-07 season before the team would reach its current status as NBA heavyweights.

While we don't yet know if the current era will go down as a brief respite from those frustrating seasons in recent years, we know that now is the time to make sure the team keeps its spark. As much as fans would hate to see any of the big three traded away, the team may not be able to count on valuable bargaining chips like Allen or Garnett, or even Rajon Rondo(notes) in the near future. I know, the loss of the team's biggest stars might be unthinkable, but making hard choices now may be mandatory, otherwise this decade might end up just like the '90s for Cs fans.

Taurus Londono has lived in Massachusetts for over ten years. He is a longtime fan of the Boston Celtics.


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Updated Thursday, Jun 23, 2011