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Last Shot: Cousy thrilled Boston's back in hunt

He buried his coach – “Arnold,” Bob Cousy called Auerbach – and realized that it had been 20 years since Red had seen something to the standard of Boston Celtics greatness. Red died a year ago and the Celtics still were an embarrassment. The way it had gone for so long, Cousy started to believe he would never see the Celtics chase a championship again.

“I’m 79,” Cousy said by phone this week, “and I didn’t think I would experience this again in my lifetime. This has been…”

He hesitated to think of the word.

“…emotional for me.”

BASKETBALL PLANET
• It was one thing for ESPN’s Jay Bilas to keep defending Tommy Amaker’s brutal run as coach at Michigan, but another to start going after his successor, John Beilein, for being honest about the pitiful program left him in Ann Arbor.

The more Bilas shills for Amaker, the more people in basketball laugh at him.

Unlike Amaker, Beilein never had the ultimate coaching godfather to pick up the phone and get him a job.

“C’mon Jay, that is terrible,” an NBA scout who watched Amaker’s team regularly in the Big Ten emailed me this week after reading Bilas’ blog rant.

“Almost laughable, really.”

• Had to love Seton Hall’s Bobby Gonzalez trying to distract Marquette’s free-throw shooters by barking across the floor in Milwaukee as they released the ball Wednesday night.

Apparently, it worked once for a CYO coach in Iowa, so why not try it in the Big East?

Now that’s thinking big-time for Gonzo.

When you call his number in Worcester, Mass., and get the answering machine, he leaves the number for the Florida house. Before the beep, he blurts out a “Go Celtics!” Think that was on the message last winter when Sebastian Telfair had his old job? Out on the golf course in West Palm Beach this week, Cousy’s buddies teased him for how rarely he used to wear his Celtics cap.

“In the past I wouldn’t say that I was too motivated,” Cousy said. “But now, I’m enjoying this as much as anyone. I’m behaving like a fan. Players like (Kevin) Garnett come around every 20 years. I’m amazed we were able to get him.”

Cousy spends most of his winter in Florida, but he still does a little television for the Celtics and that gives him a reason to make the 40-minute drive to Boston Garden. Finally, there is basketball that belongs beneath the banners over the parquet floor. So far, this has been remarkable. Twenty-nine victories in 33 games, and these nights at the Garden aren’t so much basketball games as revivals.

Opening night, Cousy was there when the Celtics dedicated the floor to Red. Paul Pierce grabbed the microphone and told the fans that he only wished the old coach was around to see how the Celtics’ world had changed.

“The fans have basically had to sit on their hands for 20 years,” Cousy said. “Even if they don’t win a championship in the next three years, it’s not as important as the heat they’re generating. There is an opportunity and you haven’t been able to say that in 20 years. All of this has created a period we haven’t seen since the Bird, McHale and Parish thing.”

In a courteous way, these Celtics have been eager to honor the history, the legacy, and how they feel a connection to it. They’re always reminding people that despite the gap in time between winners here, they’re a completely unaccomplished team. Garnett has been especially gracious, but Cousy said, “I don’t know if that’s just conversational or genuine.”

Truth be told, Cousy couldn’t care less. History will remember his Celtics as the NBA’s greatest dynasty. He doesn’t need bouquets from this generation of Celtic, but a brand of ball that does justice to the jersey.

From Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen, he just wants to see the sacrifice, the sharing, an understanding that it was Bill Russell and Cousy and Red – the original Big Three – who delivered modern basketball its blueprint on team play.

“At this point for the three of them, all the individual acknowledgments just don’t mean so much anymore,” Cousy said. “When you play a team sport, and you don’t win a championship, you’re probably going to spend the aging process thinking about never having grabbed the brass ring. But what you’re seeing with the three of them is a sustained motivation and intensity every night.”

As the rest of the Boston faithful, Cousy hasn’t taken his eyes off Garnett. What Larry Bird brought into the old Garden in ’79 for a flat-lined franchise, Garnett brings in ’08. Ask Cousy about Garnett, about how much Russell he sees in him, and he says, “He brings the same intensity to the floor, that’s for sure. He’s pretty comfortable controlling the defensive backboard and defending. He’s in the mind of penetrators, just the thought of him rejecting shots. That skill is not as good as Russell’s, not as consistent, but he is some threat back there.

“Frankly, I had not seen a lot of Kevin in the past, and the few times that I did see him he hadn’t gone gang-busters on offense. He’s much more of an offensive threat than I thought he was. I knew he was a Hall of Fame player, but I didn’t know what a complete franchise player he was.”

And just a year ago, when he was saying goodbye to his old coach, Cousy was one more Celtics fan with his enthusiasm and cap buried deep in a closet. Everything’s changed now. Suddenly, everything’s possible. Yes, it gets Cousy emotional. It’s been a long time.

EL CINCO

1. They’re celebrating the release of the 23rd edition Air Jordan this month, as though the shoe been such a positive contribution to American society over the past two decades. The sneakers have warped values, wasted the hard-earned money of poor and working-class parents and gotten too many kids killed for them.

Want to celebrate the release of the Air Jordan for $230 in limited edition, and $185 in the national launch?

For once, let them sit on the shelves.

Go get yourself a pair of Starburys. Yes, Stephon Marbury takes his share of grief from a lot of us, but his line of affordable sneakers ($14.95) ought to resonate with a lot of people held hostage by Nike’s hold on the market.

2.The Sacramento Kings weren’t far into the season when fears of an eventual mutiny on rookie coach Reggie Theus surfaced. Several players told their agents: This will never work. There was the midnight curfew on the road, the cell phone ban on buses, grumblings over long practices and grueling shootarounds.

In a lot of ways, it sounded like Theus was threatening to go the way of his old Louisville boss, Rick Pitino, who burned out the Boston Celtics.

Nevertheless, Theus stabilized the Kings. They’ve been without Ron Artest, Mike Bibby and Kevin Martin for significant games, and yet they’ve never embarrassed themselves. They play hard. They play together. At 14-20, they’ve lost enough games in the final minutes because of a lack of depth and talent to have a much better record.

Under Theus, John Salmons (17.2 points), Beno Udrih (14.1 points) and Francisco Garcia (13.6) have played the best basketball of their careers. As one Western Conference scout said, “I don’t know if he’s the greatest X's and O's coach in the world, but Reggie clearly has a presence and a charisma that these guys respond to. For where this franchise is right now, they need a coach who can get them to play hard. They do for him.”

3. Buyer beware: Trade for Tracy McGrady at your own peril. Around the league, executives will tell you that they believe the Rockets are willing to discuss trade scenarios for him. Once, T-Mac was considered a franchise player. He still gets voted into the All-Star starting lineup. Yet, his days as a dominant offensive force – never mind his chance to ever carry a winner – are over.

His body has steadily broken down and he just can’t get through complete seasons. What’s more, he still hasn’t gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. More and more, it appears McGrady has turned into his old Toronto teammate, Vince Carter. There are worse things to be in the league, yes, but who anymore would want to tie up $44 million over the next two seasons for him?

4. Hall of Famer Willis Reed is one of the finest gentlemen the league has ever known, and he proved it again with a visit to the NBA Store in New York on Thursday. When asked by the New York Daily News about Isiah Thomas, Reed, the two-time Knick champion, wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that New York ought to fire its president and coach.

“I can’t say I’d make a move on Isiah,” Reed said. “I think he’s doing all he can. He’s got talent there. But they don’t have the chemistry right. Hopefully, my guys will turn it around. Sometimes, it takes time and I hope that’s the case.

“…I’m a fan and I believe Isiah will eventually turn it around… .”

Seriously, who is kinder than Willis Reed?

5. The NBA Developmental League holds its showcase event in Boise, Idaho, from Monday to Thursday. The league’s teams each play two games and more than 50 NBA executives and scouts are expected in attendance.

Three days with Jeff Ruland and Rod Benson?

I am there.

SCOUT’S TAKE

Here is one Eastern Conference scout’s assessment of the trade value of Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O’Neal:

“Why would you make a move for him at this point? He’s become an overpaid, always injured guy. For the past three years, he has been constantly hurt. I can’t see how anyone would let him take up $20 million on their cap. Everyone in Indiana will deny it, but they seem to play better without him in Jim O'Brien's system.”