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'Baggage' carousel can spin both ways

The question following Stephon Marbury involved team chemistry, but reputations and reality can be quite different. The question following Stephon Marbury involved team chemistry, but reputations and reality can be quite different. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 1, 2009
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To this day, Tom Heinsohn still can't understand why the Phoenix Suns would wrap a for-sale sign around a three-time NBA All-Star who gave them 25 points a night.

The Suns had come up with all kinds of labels for Charlie Scott.

"He was a 'malcontent,' a 'cancer,' all that," Heinsohn said.

But Heinsohn saw it differently. The Suns lost 146 games in the three years that Charlie Scott was the face of the franchise. When you lose that many games, someone has to take the blame.

"He was a scapegoat player," Heinsohn said. "They point the fingers. Some players would have a reputation as they can't do this or do that strictly because the coaches or the ownership or the management can't do what they're supposed to do, so they point to the most vulnerable person in the public eye to take the fall."

When the Celtics dealt for Scott on May 23, 1975, Heinsohn hung one last tag on him. He called him a "reclaimable player."

Certain players just fit the type, according to Heinsohn.

"They're usually smart guys," he said. "They've got something to prove. I think they understand that this is their shot to win a title and be a special player and reclaim their heritage to the game."

New England has been good to those kinds of players recently. Randy Moss mooned Packers fans in Green Bay, nudged a traffic officer with his car in Minneapolis, then went to a Super Bowl in his first season as a Patriot.

Corey Dillon went from Cincinnati malcontent to Super Bowl champion.

Stephon Marbury is the latest to come to Boston with baggage, and the constant question around his impending arrival was whether he'd be toxic to team chemistry.

But there's something reclaimable about Marbury, because of the situation he's walking into - a veteran locker room with a championship-tested formula - and he wouldn't be the first player to thrive with the Celtics after being labeled damaged goods.

"Every new guy that came to Boston, they wanted to make sure we kept winning," said Tom "Satch" Sanders, who won eight rings in Green. "They didn't want people to say, 'What was the reason the Celtics didn't win? It must be that new guy.' "

"They're tired of being the reason why," Heinsohn said. "Tired of being the scapegoat. They wanted to prove that they were really a terrific player. And they want to be on a winning team."

Ups and downs
Dennis Johnson had the "problem" classification before he came to Boston. His temper torched college coaches, and Lenny Wilkens spent three years butting heads with him in Seattle. Fed up in 1980, Wilkens told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "You can't get rid of the body, but you can cut out the cancer."

The Sonics dealt Johnson to Phoenix, and three years later he ended up in Boston. K.C. Jones, the Celtics' new coach, paid Johnson's rep no mind.

"When he came, I knew he had a reputation," Jones said. "I heard things about him, that he was difficult. When he came in, I wanted to see how he played and if he did his job. When he got to the Celtics, he got out there and he played, and nothing came up because none of it showed."

Johnson won two rings in Boston.

The problem with Bob McAdoo was that the Celtics had to practically drag him out of New York. McAdoo took the news hard when he was traded to Boston in February 1979. He joined the team after four days.

He told the New York Times, "The day before I was traded, [Knicks coach] Red Holzman told me at the airport I was doing just fine and to keep doing what I was doing. My trade to Boston was done, to my knowledge, without the knowledge of Red Auerbach and Dave Cowens. I felt the frustration and hostility as soon as I got there."

"He loved playing in New York," said Cedric Maxwell. "He loved the energy of the city. He loved all that. Boston was a smaller town. The energy wasn't there. The people of color weren't there. He felt really trapped."

When McAdoo arrived in Boston, he landed on Maxwell's couch, refusing to get his own place.

"I'm thinking he's going to stay with me a couple days before he gets an apartment," Maxwell recalled. "The man stayed 2 1/2 months and stayed on my couch because he hated the trade so much. He was like, 'I'm not giving these people one red cent.' "

On the court, McAdoo played 20 games, giving the Celtics 20.6 points a night, but fans could tell they had a player who didn't want to be there.

Years after the trade, talking to the Associated Press, he still hadn't gotten over being spurned by New York.

"I always think about why I got traded, and I can't come up with anything, " McAdoo said. "I can't figure it out. I tried to get along with the coach and the players, and I did. I produced. I did everything they asked."

The Pistol misfires
Pete Maravich's reputation preceded him to Boston.

He already was tagged as a showman who overdosed on flashy plays and tons of scoring, but never actually won anything. He was 31, with no rings. Plus, he hadn't done so much as a suicide drill in seven weeks before signing with Boston in January 1980.

But his bags were light compared to the situation he was walking into.

"There was already a power struggle between Bill Fitch and Red Auerbach about who did what and who was really the coach, because everybody still looked at Red as the coach of that team," Maxwell said. "Red Auerbach bringing Pete in was almost against Bill Fitch's wishes. So there was some conflict already."

It's not that Fitch wasn't a fan, but he told Mark Kriegel in the 2007 biography "Pistol," "I was a bigger fan of his before I coached him."

It got worse when Maravich actually joined the team.

"Never seen an athlete in poorer shape," Fitch told Kriegel. "He still can't run and think at the same time."

It was also Larry Bird's rookie season, and Maravich for the first time had to figure out how to be a role player.

Maxwell recalls a game in which the two of them were trying to coexist on the court.

"Somebody was double-teaming Larry," Maxwell said. "They came back to the bench and Pete says, 'Larry, pass me the ball, they're double-teaming you.' Larry told the great Pete Maravich, 'Well, if you were any damn good, they wouldn't be double-teaming me.' "

Maravich retired the next season, walking out of practice in the middle of another tirade from Fitch. He never got his ring. The Celtics won the title the year he left.

Infamous acquisition
Charlie Scott ended up being the Celtics' defensive stopper, making key plays in every series that led to Boston's 1976 Finals win. Ultimately, he again was traded. The Celtics dealt him to the Lakers for a player who at the time couldn't have had a worse reputation around the league: Kermit Washington.

Washington was cast as the villain in a 1977 brawl between the Rockets and the Lakers that nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich. Washington hit Tomjanovich in the jaw so hard that Tomjanovich sued for $2.4 million and was awarded $3.2 million. The league fined Washington $10,000 and suspended him 60 days (26 games), both records at the time.

Then-Lakers executive Jerry West said in John Feinstein's book "The Punch, "We left him hanging out to dry after the incident. He deserved better than what he got from us."

But Auerbach had known Washington as a kid, and he was comfortable bringing him to Boston. Plus, he needed a rebounder, and at that point in his career Washington could get you 11 a night.

Maxwell, who was in his rookie season when the Celtics brought Washington in, said, "He was hated. He was the villain. He was a bad guy. The press was following him around. He had a bunch of death threats. He was not liked by the public. He was booed at our games. He had a real tough time adjusting."

In Los Angeles, Washington had been the bruising yin to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's graceful yang, but after the brawl, Maxwell said, he was never the same player.

"I think it probably made him more docile," Maxwell said. "At his position, you have to be aggressive, and it took the aggressive nature from him because he didn't want to give a hard foul. It made him less of a player than he would have been."

Washington gave the Celtics 10.5 rebounds in 32 games, but the team went 32-50.

And according to Maxwell, he wasn't anything like what he had been made out to be.

"He was just one of the nicest guys around," Maxwell said. "He was completely opposite of what his reputation was."

The same could happen with Marbury, but if history shows anything, it's that everyone's different.

"You have to really wait and see," Sanders said.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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