For a non-Celtic, Rick Mahorn’s NBA career was uniquely tethered to the Causeway Street staple once known as Boston Garden.
As a member of the Detroit Pistons in the spring of 1988, Mahorn and Co. downed the Celtics in six ultra-physical contests in the Eastern Conference finals. Two of the three games played at the Garden that series went into overtime, including a crucial Piston win in Game 5. Detroit won the series in Game 6 before falling to the Lakers in seven games in the Finals.
A year later, the Pistons finally claimed their first title, sweeping a Bird-less Celtic squad in the first round before exacting the same revenge against the Lakers for their first of two straight titles.
Mahorn returned to what is now TD Garden on Friday night as part of the Big3, the 3-on-3 showcase that brings former NBA stars to arenas across the country.
Though 30 odd years removed from those massive playoff bouts with the Celtics, Mahorn still retains a distinct sensory memory of walking the grounds.
“Not this building,’’ Mahorn retorted. “Another nasty building. The Nasty Garden. They found a skeleton of a monkey that was here when the Ringling Brothers were up here. Am I lying? I’m not lying.’’
Mahorn now coaches Trilogy, which bested coach Rick Barry and captain Brian Scalabrine’s Ball Hogs, 51-45, in the first of four games played Friday evening.
Though basketball is technically what draws fans into seats at the Big3’s venues, this isn’t your typical hooping scene.
The halls underneath TD Garden through which players wind their way from locker room to paraquet are hallowed grounds. A who’s-who of basketball legends have walked that walk.
However prior to Friday’s action, the tunnels more resembled a backstage area where actors mingled before curtain than it did basketball teams before tipoff.
Former North Carolina Tar Heel and five-year NBA veteran Rashad McCants could be seen donning a mask resembling that of Michael Myers in the 1978 horror flick “Halloween’’ as he stretched. Nearby, Mahorn shot the breeze, while wearing shorts and a white polo shirt, sunglasses hanging from his collar. NBA legend Julius Erving, suave as ever in a tan suit and dark red velvet shoes, shook hands with Carlos Boozer and stopped for a chat.
Out under the bright lights on the floor told a similar tale.
Ice Cube — the actor, rapper, and guiding force of the two-year-old event — made friendly with fans, taking selfies and shaking hands. Andre Emmett, playing for 3’s Company, shot around in a backward hat. A DJ played music courtside, something that continued even as play unfolded. Only one hoop was needed.
It’s all part of an effort to create a light and lively atmosphere in which former players’ talents can be showcased, while appealing to a younger and broader base.
“I think it gets better every week,’’ said James White, the former New York Knick best known for his exploits in the Slam Dunk contest. White now plays both in the Big3 for Trilogy, and overseas.
“I think it’s a lot better from last year,’’ he said. “They’re doing a great job marketing it, putting it out there. I see people all the time, even overseas, everybody tells me they’ve been watching the games. They’re doing a great job.’’
Erving, the coach of Tri State, is another who had many memorable moments in the Garden. Former Celtic Nate Robinson, who plays for Erving in the Big3, called him “the MJ before MJ.’’
“I got a good greeting and I think that’s a matter of the basketball knowledge that they have and the respect they have for the history of the game,’’ said Erving. “Some greats have played here: Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White. They are the foundation for the NBA. To be back in that building, you feel it.’’
Naturally, the Celtics in attendance drew the loudest cheers. Scalabrine entered like a rock star, pointing at each section of the crowd in appreciation while they showered him with a thunderous ovation.
For Mahorn, coaching below the rafters under which he used to compete was a treat.
“Playing in the Garden is historic, seeing all the championship banners,’’ he said. “The nostalgia, the guys like [John] Havlicek, [Bill] Russell, Sam Jones, those guys that I saw being from Hartford.
“What I like about [the Big3] is the camaraderie. You can see former players that played in battles, like Charles Oakley and Rick Barry, then you see Smooth Dr. J, you just go down the line. It’s fun.’’
Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis, who was a member of the Celtics when they won the NBA Finals in 2008, turned back the clock to hit a game-winner for Nancy Lieberman’s Power.
“Time goes by so fast,’’ Davis reflected. “I definitely am blessed to be part of immortality.’’