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BOOK REVIEW

From NBA laughingstock to 'Top of the World'

By Brion O'Connor
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2008
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All die-hard sports fans harbor a desire to get a true behind-the-scenes look at the machinations of their favorite sports franchises. Sadly, today's news accounts - whether in print or over the airwaves - tend to be driven by a prevailing sound-bite mentality and rarely afford us that kind of scope. "Top of the World," veteran Globe sports scribe Peter May's solid take on the Boston Celtics' run to their 17th championship banner in 2007-08, promises "the inside story of [their] amazing one-year turnaround." He delivers, and does so with neat, concise storytelling.

The challenge for May, of course, was to create a compelling tale from a storyline that most basketball fans, and certainly Celtics fans, are already quite familiar with. "Top of the World" traces the C's stunning 12-month odyssey from NBA laughingstock to the league's best record in 2007-08, capped off by a five-game dismantling of their historic nemesis -- the Los Angeles Lakers -- to be crowned World Champions. The tale begins with the championship celebration on Boston's parquet floor, and then quickly turns the clock back 13 months, to the 2007 draft lottery, where any semblance of luck appeared to abandon the once-storied franchise.

From that point, May delves into the decision by Danny Ainge, the team's general manager, and head coach Doc Rivers to win immediately. That meant a near-complete overhaul of the 2006-07 squad, and finding veteran help for their beleaguered star, Paul Pierce. "If we're waiting for No. 1 to happen to become a good team, then we're going to be waiting for a long, long time," Rivers reportedly told Ainge. "We're going to have to go out and make something happen."

In May's capable hands, the chain of events that led to the eventual courtship and signing of Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and Seattle's Ray Allen reads like a good spy novel. Garnett and Allen, together with Pierce, formed the Celtics' "Big Three," the foundation of Boston's eventual championship run. But the rest of the Celtics supporting cast gets ample coverage, indicating that May also bought into Rivers's concept of "ubuntu," or teamwork.

May provides meticulous profiles of the team's main characters, parceling out his editorial real estate to correspond with the respective cachet of each player and staff member. The details are terrific, such as May's observation that Garnett, a perennial All-Star and a future lock for the Hall of Fame, was "now almost 32 years old and, more worrisome, had played more regular-season minutes in his NBA career than either Larry Bird or Isiah Thomas."

May, with his own insider's vantage point, had tremendous access to both players and management personnel. Their quotes are fresh and telling, a bracing relief from the cookie-cutter statements that clutter today's sports reports. Consider late-season addition Sam Cassell's impression of Pierce: "He's bigger than people think he is. He's stronger than people think he is. He's faster than people think he is. And he can jump higher than people think he can."

Older fans will applaud May's perspective, honed over a quarter century covering pro basketball, on today's game, such as this cynical gem on the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry: "Hoop historians will look back on the 1980s as the golden era of the NBA, an era where the caliber of play stood by itself, when there was no need for mascots, eardrum-splitting music, boisterous public address announcers, or clueless fans hoping to see their mugs on overhead scoreboards. It was all about basketball back then."

May also reveals how serendipitous the business of big-time sports is, no matter how skilled your management team or players might be (as those who remember the tragedy of Len Bias and the ping-pong-ball fiasco of Tim Duncan can attest). Nothing was a lock for the 2007-08 Celtics, but they made the most of their opportunities. We already know the happy ending. May gives us the whole story.

Brion O'Connor is a freelance writer living on Boston's North Shore. He can be reached at brion@inspiredink.com.

TOP OF THE WORLD: The Inside Story of the Boston Celtics' Amazing One-Year Turnaround to Become NBA Champions By Peter May

Da Capo, 256 pp., illustrated, $25

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