Part of the enjoyment from re-watching old games during this COVID-19-necessitated absence of live sports comes in getting reacquainted with achievements that have been obscured by the shadows of time, remembered still, but perhaps not as vividly as they ought to be.
Take, say, the multiple clutch performances in Cedric Maxwell’s Celtics career. Old-school Celtics fans — and those of any generation that have learned the franchise’s lore — know why his No. 31 dangles from the Garden rafters. He was at his best in some of the Celtics’ biggest victories in the 1980s, when they added three championship banners to their collection.
Maxwell, a Celtic from 1977-85, was crucial in winning the first two, being named Most Valuable Player of the 1981 NBA Finals, dropping 28 points in Game 5 and 19 in the clinching Game 6 against the Houston Rockets.
“I’ve enjoyed watching these older games,’’ said Maxwell, who is in his 25th season as an analyst on Celtics radio broadcasts. “It does feel like a long time ago, because I’ve been doing this for so long. I’m used to seeing Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown] and Kemba [Walker] out there on the court from the broadcast perspective.
“I was watching one of these old games that I was playing in, and I was like, ‘Hey, that’s me out there. What am I doing out there?’ It takes some getting used to, because it was so long ago. But it’s really fun, and I have to say, there’s still some suspense. I was watching an old game when we played the Sixers, can’t remember which one it was, but I was sure we had won, and we actually ended up losing. I was like, ‘Did the ending change?’ ”
While Maxwell was the ’81 Finals MVP, his most memorable performance came three years later. Famously imploring a loaded Celtics team that included future Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson to “climb on my back, boys” before Game 7 of the Finals against the Lakers, he went out and backed up his words with a sensational all-around effort, tormenting future Hall of Famer James Worthy while putting up a team-high 24 points, plus 8 rebounds and 8 assists in a 111-102 victory.
“You know, we didn’t really learn to hate the Lakers until 1984, ’85, when we met in the Finals a couple of times,’’ said Maxwell. “The rivalry with the Sixers was vicious and physical, a real East Coast battle. When I got here in ’77, Jo Jo White took me aside and said, ‘Remember, we hate the Sixers.’ We fought for every inch with them.”
The Celtics-76ers Eastern Conference finals in ’81 might have been the most hard-fought and physical series in NBA history. The Celtics came back from a 3-1 deficit to win in seven. The final four games were decided by a total of seven points.
“That series stays with all of us,’’ said Maxwell. “I saw Mo Cheeks [the 76ers’ point guard then, and now an assistant coach with the Thunder] this season and we were talking about ‘81. He said, ‘We were the better team,’ and I just said, ‘We ended your season.’ Can’t really argue with that. Man, did we want to kill each other in those days.”
To a newer generation of Celtics fans, “Max,’’ as he is known to all, is probably best known as a broadcaster. He’s been in that role 14 years longer than he played in the NBA and 17 years longer than he played in Boston. That generation includes current Celtics players.
“When Jayson Tatum got here, he didn’t really know me, other than as the broadcaster,’’ said Maxwell. “He didn’t know my history.
“Well, one night a couple of years ago I was out on the court before the game, an hour, hour and a half before it began. And all of a sudden I hear, ‘Cornbread! Cornbread! Cornbread!’,” the nickname that was bestowed upon Maxwell by a teammate when he led underdog UNC-Charlotte to the Final Four in 1977.
“It was Tatum. He came over and he said, ‘I watched that Celtics-Lakers “30 for 30” last night. You were a bad man.’ He said he ended up watching it three times.’’
One reason Maxwell sometimes gets overlooked is that the ’86 Celtics — regarded by many, including me, as best NBA team of all time — is the one most celebrated by Boston fans.
Maxwell was not part of that team, having been traded after a falling out with Red Auerbach to basketball purgatory — the Los Angeles Clippers — for Bill Walton after the ’85 season.
But Maxwell’s place in Celtics lore and his role in putting a pair of banners in the rafters should never slip from mind.
An argument can be made that he’s worthy of an even greater accolade.
Should Chauncey Billups eventually make it into the Basketball Hall of Fame — and he has been a finalist — that would mean that Maxwell would be the only Finals MVP from the inception of the award in 1969 through 2005 to not have gained induction. And many, if not all of the MVPs after 2005, eventually will.
Remember, it is the Basketball Hall of Fame, not the NBA Hall of Fame. Maxwell’s NBA career lasted just 11 years, and his 12.5 points-per-game average won’t blow away anyone unfamiliar with who he was as a player.
But he led an unheralded college team to the Final Four, was named NBA Finals MVP, was the star of a Game 7 victory at the height of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, led the league in field goal percentage twice, and has spent a quarter-century as a broadcaster.
“It’s an interesting resume,’’ Maxwell said when asked if he thinks about the Hall of Fame. “I always say somebody has to be the stopping point, and when people ask about it, I say, ‘Yes, I’ve been to the Hall of Fame, but I bought a ticket.’ But it’s an interesting resume.”
It sure is. One that should always be celebrated by Boston fans, whether or not Springfield ever comes calling.