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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Maxwell was always good to last laugh

It could only happen to Max. On the night the Celtics finally decided to retire his number, 18 years after he finished playing here ("What, did I get better since then?" he wondered) the Boston brass pulled the trigger on a controversial deal for Cleveland bad boy Ricky Davis, who happens to wear No. 31.

 

"I guess they won't retire my number now," Cedric Maxwell cracked just before tipoff. "They'll probably put up a banner instead that says `Max.' You know, like `Loscy.' That way they can give Ricky 31."

That didn't happen. At the intermission of last night's Boston-Minnesota game, which began with current Celtics players wearing warmups marked "Maxwell" on the back, owner Wyc Grousbeck assured Max, "You are the last player to wear No. 31." After team patriarch Red Auerbach joked Maxwell received too many gifts, the quick-witted guest of honor shot back, "I got so many gifts because I had to wait so damn long."

His teammates will tell you he was underrated as a basketball talent and a team player. He was a career 55.9 percent shooter and a fine offensive rebounder. He was also a trash-talking, walk-the-walk competitor who loved to verbally spar with the best in the league.

"My most memorable one was talking to Pat Riley," said Maxwell. "There were three Lakers on the bench, two or three nobodies who never got in. I was scoring a bunch of points and they were yelling and hollering from the bench that I was holding this guy, and hooking that guy.

"So the ball goes out of bounds near the Lakers bench, and I turn to Riley and say, `Hey Pat, do me a favor. Why don't you put one of these Bozos in the game and let them try to guard me?' Of course, I didn't say Bozo. I said something else.

"The next thing you know, Pat puts one of those guys in. I score two or three baskets in a row. I say, `It's a lot different out here, playing me, isn't it fella.' Riley didn't say anything. He was teaching the kid a lesson."

In Maxwell's vintage years in Celtic green, Boston made a living out of schooling less talented, less confident opponents.

"Distraction can be good," Max explained. "I would say in 25 percent of the Celtics wins, we beat a team mentally before they stepped on the floor.

"I remember we had Washington down, 2-0, in a best-of-five series. I went up to Greg Ballard before the game and said, `Hey, what are you guys doing tomorrow?' He got all upset and he said, `We're playing basketball.' I said, `Well, maybe so, but it won't be an NBA game. Maybe an intrasquad scrimmage or something, because you guys are done.' We'd tell John Lucas, `Hey, Luke, call the plumber and tell him to get your water turned on. You're going home.' "

Such bravado today is frowned upon. Can you imagine Cedric Maxwell playing for Bill Belichick? He would have been cut more times than Ken Walter. Yet Celts coach KC Jones recognized the synergy of his team included a necessity to ooze confidence. Besides, Max could back it up.

"One time Max and Larry [Bird] went up to Elvin Hayes before a game," said Kevin McHale, who ventured on a rare road trip with his Timberwolves team to honor his friend. "They told Hayes, `Kevin said he's going to kick your butt tonight. Kevin says you're old.'

"I get out on the court and Elvin Hayes is looking at me sideways. Then, just before tipoff, Max yells, `Remember Kev, you said you were going to kick his butt.' What are you going to do? I wasn't going to back down at that point. So I hear myself saying, `Yeah, c'mon, let's go.' "

Dennis Johnson's favorite memory of his stringbean frontcourt teammate was when he used to bounce through the locker room wearing a stethoscope.

"He was checking everyone's heartbeat to see if we were ready to play," DJ said.

Although Max's place in Celtics lore is defined by his MVP performance in the 1981 Finals and his famous "Jump on my back, boys" speech that led to a Boston championship in 1984 over the Lakers, his fondest memory is the Celtics' comeback from a 3-1 deficit against Philly in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals.

"That was really the NBA Finals," he said. "We had a great rivalry with them. I used to go at Moses [Malone] all the time. I'd tell him how we were going to score on him. He always said something back, but I could never understand him."

Maxwell drew the ire of Auerbach in his final season in Boston for what Red perceived as a lack of commitment and conditioning. His pregame meal, after all, was always a Big Mac, fries and a Coke. "He was the only guy who could eat that junk and still score 25," marveled DJ.

Yet Max's endearing quality to his teammates was his willingness to accept a lesser role to allow the Big Three to flourish.

"As I started showing more, they started giving me Max's minutes," said McHale. "He couldn't have been more supportive. He had a great spirit."

That's not to say Max didn't have, shall we say, some designated days off -- especially if former Cleveland big man Lonnie Shelton was on the floor.

"One time before a game, Lonnie came up and hit me in the back of the head for no reason," Max said. "Actually, I had called him fat before the season started. People were saying I wasn't in good shape, and I said, `Well, I'm not as big as Mel Turpin or Lonnie Shelton.' He remembered. I said that in October, and I didn't see him again until January, and he comes up and whacks me in the back of the head. He made me nervous."

"I remember that," McHale said. "Max came up to me and said, `I hope you're not tired, because that guy wants to kill me. I'm going to get two fouls as quick as I can. These guys are no good, and I'm not getting killed for no junior varsity game.'

"After that, every time Cleveland came to town, he'd walk past my locker and say, `Rest up, Kevin. I'm not playing against that crazy Lonnie Shelton.' "

There are plenty of talkers in today's NBA, but it often involves an expletive-laced tirade that includes vague threats to kill someone's mother. The creativity with which Maxwell verbally assaulted the opponent is a lost art.

Today's gamesmanship has been reduced to a knucklehead like Ricky Davis purposely shooting at his own basket, and purposely missing, so he can get a rebound to record a triple double. You can thank the basketball gods no such player existed on the Celtics. Oops. At least not until yesterday.

"That's Danny [Ainge] being the ultimate gambler," said Max. "But it might work. Look at DJ. He came in with a reputation as a malcontent."

Davis should be in uniform tomorrow night against Dallas. It's uncertain what number he'll wear, but it won't be 31.

"Paul Pierce was joking with me the Celtics would retire his number before they retired mine," Maxwell said. "Too late, Paul."

Too late for you, too, Ricky Davis.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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