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Bob Ryan

A program note on ‘biggest loser’

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 5, 2010

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The New Jersey Nets are in town. If you have any sense of history, this is a game you don’t want to miss.

The Nets are 4-44. They’re on pace to become the losingest team in NBA history, a distinction currently belonging to the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who were on the verge of a double-digit victory season when they kicked into gear by losing their final 13 games. By that time, the 76ers were losing specialists to the extreme.

If the Nets think this can’t get worse, they’d better do a little homework. What they will discover as this season progresses is that opponents will not, as they may hope, take them lightly. They will discover that opponents will play as if every Nets game is the seventh game of the Finals. The desire to win does not to begin to compare with the fear of losing to a team that loses to everyone else.

I have often thought about a game that took place in the Old Garden on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 4, 1973. On that day, the 42-10 Celtics played the 4-53 76ers. A little background is necessary.

This was the seventh and final game of the season series. At the beginning of the season, the Celtics, coming off a 56-26 year, were expected to be good. The 76ers, who had gone 30-52 the year before, had lost Billy Cunningham to the ABA and everyone knew it would be, to be polite, a rebuilding year. But no one expected it to be a disaster year.

They did have a new coach. Roy Rubin had been a success at Long Island University, but he had no professional experience. Let’s just say he did not turn out to be an inspired pick.

The Celtics and Sixers first met in Boston on Oct. 23. The 6-0 Celtics beat the 0-5 Sixers, 105-85, prompting Rubin to say, “I’m trying to spot young players with veterans, and it’s going to take some time for us to do something.’’

It never happened.

By the time the teams met again on Dec. 1, the Celtics were 18-3 and the Sixers were 2-22. The Celtics loafed their way through a 105-99 win, making coach Tom Heinsohn very unhappy. It was an attitude that would continually resurface as the Celtics defeated the 76ers three more times, leading to a meeting in Philadelphia on the night of Feb. 3 (back-to-backs were very much in vogue in those days). The cocky, arrogant Celtics again tried to win the game by taking shortcuts, and at the end of the third period they trailed by 6. They managed to pull it out, 104-100, but Heinsohn was fuming, and never mind that John Havlicek didn’t play because of a knee injury. A 41-10 team should have its way with a 4-52 team, or so you would think.

By this time, the Celtics really did think that showing up guaranteed a victory. But on Feb. 4, an inspired 76er team shot 68 percent in the first half and continued to play well in the third, and when the buzzer sounded to end the period, they had a 97-85 lead.

Paul Silas was the conscience of the Celtics then, as Kevin Garnett is now. They still had a jump ball at the beginning of each quarter then, and Silas would later relate exactly what he was thinking as the players took the court to start the period.

“I could just see the headlines in the morning paper,’’ he said. “ ‘76ERS BEAT CELTICS.’ Coast to coast. And that was not going to happen.’’

You could tell by the look in Dave Cowens’s eyes that he wasn’t going to allow that headline to be seen in Albuquerque, Ashtabula, or Aliquippa, either. Cowens had looked into that proverbial mirror after the third quarter, and he did not like what he had seen.

The Celtics played that fourth quarter as if their entire year’s salary depended on it. Cowens was maniacal at both ends, as only Cowens could be. Silas grabbed whatever rebounds Cowens didn’t. Jo Jo White fired in jumpers (he would wind up with 38). And Hambone Williams ran around and ran around and ran around, firing passes hither and yon to accumulate 10 assists - how do you like that, Rajon? - in that dazzling fourth quarter. When it was over, the Celtics had scored 38, the 76ers had scored 18.

Final score: Boston 123, Philadelphia 115. Boston Globe headline: “SPIRITED CELTICS OVERHAUL 76ERS.’’

Cowens explained exactly what had motivated him.

“Sometimes you fool yourself into thinking you’re doing your best, but you’re really not,’’ he said. “Your heart is in it, but your body is saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ Maybe this is what I needed to bring me out of it - being humiliated out there.’’

Trailing the 4-53 Philadelphia 76ers by 12 entering the fourth quarter, at home, quite obviously constituted enormous humiliation for Dave Cowens.

Has there been any change in human nature during the ensuing 37 years? The New Jersey Nets will be the first to find out if there has.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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