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Celtics court change with a move to white sneakers

The Boston Celtics, pro basketball's most tradition-conscious franchise, started this season on a new foot -- in more ways than one.

Running the front office is rookie general manager Danny Ainge, a fan favorite from the banner years of the 1980s. Gone is All Star forward Antoine Walker, traded to Dallas, while a rejuvenated Vin Baker shows new spring in his step as he runs the fabled parquet floor.

Of all the changes, though, none may be as subtly symbolic as one the Celtics unveiled at their first home game last week. After decades of wearing dark-colored footwear, the boys in green took the

court in white sneakers. Longtime Celtics watchers were amazed. It was almost as if Red Auerbach showed up with gold chains and a spider-web tattoo. What in the name of Bob Cousy was going on?

"Danny called me about it, and I was fine with it," Auerbach says by telephone from his office in Washington, D.C. "Besides, a lot of teams wear black today. As long as the [Celtics] win, it doesn't really matter."

Auerbach, 86, who retains the title of team president and who attended the home opener last Wednesday, says that notwithstanding the mystique factor, he has no problem with the color change, which was proposed by a couple of players and endorsed by Ainge. The Celtics haven't worn white sneakers since the days of Chuck "The Rifleman" Connors. Black, yes. Green, you bet. But white shoes? Those were worn by sissy boys from Los Angeles or Philadelphia.

Like the late Johnny Cash or Lee Van Cleef, the Celtics made wearing black a statement. We may not look pretty or fashionable, the statement went, but we will stomp you when it counts.

These days, white is the new black when it comes to hoops fashion.

"You win with something over the years, and I guess it becomes sort of a superstition," says Auerbach. "But there are more important things to worry about."

The reconstituted Celtics are winning, all right -- two of their first three games, anyway. On the road they have elected to stick with basic black, at least so far. NBA rules dictate that all players on a team wear the same color sneaker during a game: black, white, or the team's primary color, with allowances made for color accents. Whatever color scheme is chosen, today each player follows his own preference in make and style of sneaker, be it high-top, low-top, or mid-cut. What the Celtics' switch to white does signal is an ending of sorts, one perhaps not on a par with the razing of the Boston Garden but not insignificant, either.

Long before NBA rookie sensation LeBron James and his $90 million sneaker contract came along, there were Chuck Taylor and his Converse All Star basketball shoes. The Celtics began in the late 1940s wearing white Chucks, as the shoes came to be called. Auerbach changed all that -- and basketball history -- when he started coaching the team in 1950.

In that era, players obtained sneakers through their teams. One or two pairs per player would often be nursed through an entire season. A stickler for detail, Auerbach noticed that white shoes quickly got dirty, particularly when pounding up and down the Garden's oily wooden floorboards. For what one book about Celtics history describes as "practical and financial reasons," Auerbach began outfitting players in black shoes. Nine championships later, the black high-top had become as vital a part of the team's assassin image as Bill Russell's glare.

As the '70s dawned and sneaker companies expanded their product lines, dark green sneakers were fitted on the feet of Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, and other Celtics legends. When the team signed Larry Bird in 1979, Boston Globe columnist Leigh Montville speculated about whether the kid from French Lick, Ind., was worth $1 million a year. If anybody was, it was Bird, Montville concluded, since he'd be forced to wear green sneakers that "make a man's feet look like Bozo the Clown specials." Bird had the last laugh, of course.

The team went back to black at the beginning of the '85-'86 season, partly because league expansion brought in teams that also had green uniforms, and partly because then-general manager Jan Volk felt it was too much trouble getting various shoe companies to produce sneakers in the right shade of Celtic green. (When Scott Wedman joined the team in January 1983, no green sneakers his size were available; Wedman hurriedly colored a pair of white sneakers with a green marker, producing what one reporter called a "hilarious tie-dyed effect.") Ironically, the player who most vocally complained about the switch from green to black was Ainge.

The Hall of Fame front line of the 1980s -- Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish -- all wore dark high-tops during their glory days. Indeed, one of Bird's signature moves was wiping the soles of his sneakers before checking into a game, like a hit man pulling on rubber gloves before executing a contract. McHale, in a 1988 playoff game, heaved in a 3-point shot at the buzzer, sparking the team to a win. At that juncture, McHale had made only one 3-pointer in his career. Some thought his foot had been touching the line when he shot. "Well, he had those black sneakers on, and it was very close," Pistons coach Chuck Daly said charitably. The legend grew.

Even sportswriters in other NBA cities have gotten exercised over the Celtics' choice in footwear. In 1985, at the height of the Celtics-76ers rivalry, a Philadelphia scribe wrote a scathing column calling the Celtics "arrogant enough to think their Kelly-green sneakers don't stink."

Touche.

In the modern era of $150 Air Jordans, sneakers are appraised for everything from shape and ventilation to color and space-age material. Even Converse, which was taken over by Nike after filing for bankruptcy, still makes a street version of the All Star sneaker. It comes in more than 50 colors, from ice blue to terra cotta.

Bird in terra cotta? The mind reels.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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