Celts' gear rockets to roof along with team's record

The Boston Celtics' resurgence in the NBA has extended from the hardcourts to the malls.

U.S. sporting goods retailers sold more Celtics-logoed merchandise in the four weeks ending on Dec. 23 than any other NBA team, according to SportsOneSource, a firm that tracks licensed goods.

At this time a year ago, Boston was only the No. 11 NBA team at the retail checkout counter. At the start of the 2007-2008 season, even after they added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the Celtics were still only No. 7.

But their 24-3 start ahead of Saturday night's game at Utah and Sunday evening's game against the Lakers in Los Angeles has restored the luster of the green, which means fans are forking over plenty of their own green for Celtics gear. The team accounted for 13.1 percent of all NBA merchandise sold during the holiday shopping season, compared to the runner-up Lakers' 9.9-percent share, according to SportsOneSource. (Its data doesn't take into account goods sold at arenas or overseas.)

Garnett is the Celtics' leader at the checkout counter. His No. 5 is the top-selling jersey at the NBA Store in New York, which is doing triple the Garnett business it did a year ago. Garnett has jumped into fourth place on the jersey best-seller list nationally, according to SportsOneSource, behind only Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. A year ago, when he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Garnett jerseys ranked No. 12.

Take a trio of high-performing stars and put them with a storied franchise which has once again taken flight, and you've got the formula for a retail bonanza. The Celtics are single-handedly responsible for a comeback in NBA gear after a soft 2006, according to SportsOneSource analyst Matt Powell, whose data shows league-licensed merchandise sales rising 11 percent in the four weeks that ended on Dec. 23.

The Celtics' impact at retail is just one way that the team's great play is great news for the NBA. Boston's Dec. 21 game against Detroit produced ESPN's highest NBA ratings of the season to date. TNT recently added two more Celtics games to its broadcast schedule -- in March, against the Rockets and the Mavericks -- because of the revived fan interest in the resurrected team.

This couldn't come a moment too soon for the NBA, considering the sad state of its other East Coast flagship franchise, the Knicks, as well as how much of the league's "glamour" quotient had shifted west to teams such as Dallas and Phoenix in recent seasons.

The Celtics had fallen from dynasty to travesty, posting losing records in 12 of the past 14 seasons and enduring a steady series of embarrassments, from Rick Pitino to Sebastian Telfair.

"It's important for any league to have its marquee teams be in the thick of things," says Bill Sutton, former vice president of team marketing at the NBA and now associate director of the University of Central Florida's sport business management program. "The Celtics have a huge following that's been dormant the past few years but that's become re-engaged."

Bob McGee, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence, which tracks licensed merchandise, feels the Celtics biggest retail surge could still be ahead.

"The explosion in the Celtics' home market won't be happening until February," he predicts.

That's because the team's home market, at the moment, is avidly following the New England Patriots and buying loads of goods bearing that team's logo.

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."