1978 Boston Celtics: The 1st Year In Purgatory

The Boston Celtics are the NBA’s most decorated franchise, but the team that represents America’s most Irish Catholic city found themselves in Purgatory during the late 1970s. After winning the championship in 1976, they had slipped to a mediocre 44-win season in 1977. The next two years were spent looking for the right coach and waiting for a young man from French Lick, IN to become eligible for the pros. The 1978 Boston Celtics were a hopeless cause from the very start.

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The roster still had impressive names. Dave Cowens averaged 19 points/14 rebounds/5 assists. Jo Jo White knocked down 15ppg and was the floor leader. Charlie Scott was another good passer and scorer in the backcourt. And the legendary John Havileck was still on hand and getting 16 a night. And you could throw in a rising young rebounder in Kermit Washington who averaged a double-double on a per-game basis.

But offensive basketball in those days was more elegant and efficient, even without the three-point line, and those individual numbers only gave the Celtics a below-average offense and the defense was mediocre.

Boston opened the season with road games at San Antonio, Houston and Detroit and lost all three. They lost eight of their first nine. They lost six in a row in December and were in a 10-21 hole by Christmas.

A league that allows 12 of its 22 teams into the playoffs is one where hope can spring eternal—or at least into the new year, and the Celtics hoped they could get things turned around. But it would have to be with a new coach.

Tom Heinsohn was a playing legend from the days when Bill Russell’s Celtics won eleven championships. As a coach, Heinsohn had won two rings of his own. As a Celtics TV man in the future he would win an unofficial honor for being the most unapologetic homer in the history of broadcasting. And in 1978, after an eight-game road trip ended on December 30 with a loss in Chicago, Tommy was replaced as head coach.

Tom Sanders took over the reins, and the team would play marginally better. But no coach could make old legs turn young again. These Celtics had their moments—there was a nice little four-game win streak in late January/early February that included knocking off the future NBA champion Washington Bullets. An eleven-game road trip in February wasn’t a total wipeout—the Celts pulled out five wins.

But the 1978 Boston Celtics would never make a serious run at the postseason. The final record was 32-50 and nine games out of the last playoff spot.

With a high draft pick, Celtics fans hoped the franchise could get younger quickly. They would, but it would take another year. Team president Red Auerbach used the pick to take Bird, who still had a year to go at Indiana State. It was then legal to draft a player and hold his rights. The result was a 1979 season that was little different from this one. But some things are worth waiting for.