The proud Boston Celtic franchise suffered a rarity in 1978—they missed the playoffs, only the second time that had happened since Red Auerbach arrived in the Hub in 1951. Auerbach made a big move in the draft to help the aging roster—he used the sixth overall pick on Indiana State’s star forward Larry Bird. But Bird still had to play his senior year in French Lick and Auerbach simply used what was then a loophole in NBA draft rules to lock up the player a year early. The 1979 Boston Celtics were essentially a team-in-waiting and they played like it.
The ’79 Celts did have some notable pieces. Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell was a second-year player and averaged 19 points/10 rebounds. But the rest of the team was getting older. Dave Cowens up front, along with Tiny Archibald and Chris Ford in the backcourt were all 30-years-old. All were productive players on the offensive end, but the age problem could be seen on defense. The Celtics ranked 19th in defensive efficiency in a league that only had 23 teams. And they certainly didn’t score enough to cover for that.
The Celtics lost twelve times in their first 14 games. A 128-123 home loss to a bad Detroit Pistons team that was coached by Dick Vitale was the last straw. Head coach Tom Sanders was shown the door. His replacement? Cowens was player-coach the rest of the way, the last time in NBA history that anyone has pulled double-duty.
It would be a stretch to say that Coach Cowens got things turned around, but at the least the bleeding stopped. Boston knocked off the eventual NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics on December 1, 87-80. The record stabilized at 12-20 by Christmas.
Back-to-back games with the Philadelphia 76ers of Julius Erving were the highlight in January. The Celtics and Sixers played on Saturday in Philly, then turned around to play again on Sunday in Boston. The Celts took the road game 108-102 behind a 29/14 performance from Cornbread. But even though Maxwell and Cowens both rebounded well on Sunday, some poor shooting undid the Celtics in a 91-87 loss.
That split was still the high point of a tough month and Boston was 18-31 going into February, six games off the playoff pace.
Seattle made another visit to the old Boston Garden on February 7. Cowens and Maxwell each went for 24/10 and Boston again knocked off the eventual champs. But they couldn’t get closer than six games of the playoffs. But with a 25-36 record going into March, they weren’t quite dead.
March would be the cruelest month. The Celtics lost 9 of 11 to begin the month and finished off whatever meager hopes they had. The local fan base knew they could cheer on Bird and his Indiana State team made the NCAA final, but lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
A 103-94 win over Philly on a Sunday afternoon at the end of March was the last real high point in a season of lows. The Celts got 20 from Maxwell, 27 from another young forward in Rick Robey and 25 from center Bob McAdoo. After that they lost eight in a row before concluding the season with one last win over the New Jersey Nets.
The final record was 29-53. Cowens returned to simply being a player and Bill Fitch came on as the next head coach. But more important was that Larry Legend was finally on the way. And spending the year in waiting would be well worth the price.