Then Boston blew a rare high selection in the 1989 draft, taking BYU forward Michael Smith over future all-stars Tim Hardaway and Shawn Kemp. More blame has been passed for this pick than for Watergate, but it's pretty clear that Auerbach weighed in with the final say (at draft day, he compared Smith to Larry Bird). Smith was an absolute bust. "That was a pivotal mistake," says Murphy. "They had a real chance to get someone for the future, and they took a guy who was out of the league in two years."
Finally, the team erred after Shaw's promising rookie campaign in 1988, refusing to renegotiate his contract. When Shaw threatened to play in Italy, the Celtics laughed. The joke was on them. During the 1989-'90 season - while Shaw ate pasta in Venice and played Italian-league basketball once a week, and Ainge was exiled to Sacramento - the Celtics were left with a gaping hole in their backcourt. Four years had passed since Lenny Bias's death. Nothing had gone right for the Celtics except the play of Lewis, who seemed to be God's compensation to Boston for taking Bias in the first place.
With Auerbach settling on the periphery and the owners quarreling, the Celtics desperately needed a basketball guy. Somehow they lured Dave Gavitt to Boston. Without exaggeration, Gavitt was probably the most respected man in basketball - a former Olympic coach who had created the powerful Big East conference in college basketball - and his hiring was hailed as the return of Celtic Pride. Gavitt scored early by nabbing the exciting Dee Brown in the 1990 college draft, promoting Chris Ford to head coach, luring Shaw back from Italy, and sticking with the Big Three for one last run. He also won over the players - refurbishing Boston's practice center at Brandeis and hiring a character plane for road trips - and everyone deemed Gavitt's regime an immediate success.
The revamped Celtics became the hot story of the 1990-'91 season. For a brief time they looked like a title contender again.
"January 1991," says Bob Ryan. "The Celts are 27-5. Gavitt holds a press conference and says Larry's not flying to the New York game because of back spasms. Draw the line right there. That's it. Nothing good has happened to this team since. That's why we are where we are now."
Ah, bad luck. Bird's fragile back finally gave out. McHale injured his left ankle a month later and was hobbled for the season. Shaw fell out of favor with Ford. The team stumbled into the playoffs, squeezing by Indiana before losing to Detroit in six hard-fought games. Bird had surgery over the summer to fix a herniated disc, but the problem returned during the second month of the 1991-'92 season. He never played another pain-free game, and retired the following summer. Bird's on-again, off-again status clouded those years for a team talented enough to take Cleveland to seven games in the 1992 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
"They were just too old," says Murphy, who thinks the Celts should have traded one of the Big Three when they had value. "How many players hold up for as long in the NBA as McHale and Bird? One guy had a bad back, the other had hideous ankles. How far can you go with that?"