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Saturday, December 24, 2011
Shocked by old Saint Knicks

By Peter May
ESPNBoston.com

Christmas Day, Madison Square Garden, 1985.

"I don't remember that game," said Danny Ainge, then a starting guard on the Boston Celtics. "Wait. Was that the game where we blew a 25-point lead and lost?"

Indeed it was.

Twenty-six years later, the Celtics return to the World's Most Famous Arena for a Christmas Day meeting with the New York Knicks, the first since 1985. Back then, it was Game No. 28 in an 82-game schedule. In 2011, it will be Game 1 of a 66-game schedule. It will be the very first game of the abbreviated 2011-12 NBA season.

Here's the irony of the 1985 game: It was, arguably, the team's worst loss of the season. The Knicks were not a good team, and to allow them to rally from a 25-point deficit in the third quarter and win in double overtime was appalling.

The Celtics had legitimate championship aspirations. The Knicks had rookie center Patrick Ewing, who helped lead the comeback, and not much else. But as bad as that loss was, in hindsight, it represented a turning point of the 1985-86 season.

The Celtics would go 46-8 the rest of the way (and would not lose a single game in Boston Garden.) They would then go on to win their 16th NBA championship with what is generally regarded as the greatest Celtics team of all time, if not the greatest NBA team of all time.

"In retrospect, it was absolutely the game that turned our season around, even though it was memorable for all the wrong reasons," said Jan Volk, the Celtics' general manager at the time. "What it did was it refocused the team and made everyone acutely aware that as good as we were -- and we thought we were pretty good -- that it wasn't going to happen just by being there."

There were a few subplots to the game, which, back then, was the only NBA game shown on Christmas. (New York was almost always involved.) Although the league offered to pay for -- and encouraged -- families to come, not everyone was pleased by the edict that they arrive in New York on Christmas Eve. The team hotel was The Summit, or, as everyone called it, The Slum-It. Let's just say that it wasn't The Plaza.

Danny Ainge, Kevin McHale
Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale share a light moment at the 1988 All-Star Game -- clearly a better memory than their '85 Christmas meltdown.

Back then, traveling to a game the night before it tipped off was rare -- and it never happened when the Celtics were playing the Knicks in a night game. They would always go down in the morning. But this was as an afternoon game (but a 3:30 p.m. start), and the league insisted that the team be in town on Christmas Eve, lest it be fined $15,000.

When the team left Boston on Christmas Eve, there was one conspicuous absentee: Kevin McHale. He rebelled against the league order, stayed in his comfortable home in Weston, Mass., and was there on Christmas morning when his children opened their presents. He took a 9 a.m. shuttle and was in New York in more than enough time for the game -- and accepted the consequences for his decision (a fine that never was actually levied).

McHale didn't say much about it at the time -- uncharacteristically -- but he did have something to say about his actions when he was interviewed for my book, "The Last Banner," which chronicled the Celtics' 1985-86 championship season.

"I'd do it again," he said, noting that Bill Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas did the same thing when the Detroit Pistons played on Christmas Day.

McHale went on: "People lose perspective on the family and holiday part of Christmas. Yeah, it's fun to see the kids open their presents, but it's also a special time to be together as a family. And that's what I wanted to do. I knew it was wrong from a team perspective, but I knew that I would not miss the game and I got there in plenty of time."

Basically, it was Kevin being Kevin. (As Volk noted, "I'm curious to see what Coach McHale would have to say about that.")

As for the game, the Celtics were in a bit of a rut at that time of the season. Larry Bird's back was sore. Coach K.C. Jones hadn't yet figured out a rotation. The 113-104 loss to the Knicks horrified then-owner Alan Cohen, a New York native, who watched in disbelief as his team squandered its big lead.

"Am I wrong about all this?" Cohen said he wondered at the time. "Is it going to all work out? At that point, we didn't know."

McHale, as fate would have it, led the Celtics that day with 29 points, but he missed 14 of 21 field goal attempts. One of the misses was a potential game winner at the buzzer that was blocked by 6-foot-5 Ernie Grunfeld.

Bird was 8-of-27 from the field. The Celtics shot 34 percent, which would turn out to be their worst shooting game of the season. The team flew back to Boston that night, where Bird and Jerry Sichting, with their families out of town for the holiday, got together for a beer at Bird's house.

In those days, the Brookline police watched Bird's house when the Celtics were on the road and, noticing activity there, stopped by to see what was going on. It turned out to be a fortuitous development for Sichting, who got to know the policeman well enough to get free parking passes to the pro tennis tournament the following summer in Brookline.

So it wasn't a total loss for everyone.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.