Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Celtic's image problem

I'm referring to the Boston Celtics, my home-town basketball team.

This page shows the team history, decade by decade.
Notice that they haven't done anything worth writing about during the current decade.

The team and the fans

The social contract

Every sports team depends on loyal fans to support it, and the Boston Celtics are no exception.  Teams pay millions of dollars to each of their players.  Some of the players receive tens of millions of dollars.

Money doesn't grow on trees.  Every team has to ask their fans to support the team by offering them good entertainment in exchange for the money that fans pay to watch the team live in a building like the Boston Garden, now rebuilt and renamed.  Fans who watch a game live also support the team when they buy food and drinks during a game.  This money goes to the food vendors, who pay a fee to sell the food and drink inside the team-owned building.

Even fans who don't watch a game live can support a team through their cable-TV or satellite-TV fees, through the sales of team merchandise, and through advertising on radio broadcasts, printed newspapers, and sports blogs.  None of them would have much of an audience if the team wasn't popular with their fans, which leads to the real problem.

The Boston Celtics aren't popular with the fans.

Past Celtics glory

The team isn't losing games year after year because the Celtics have poor-quality athletes on the team.  They can't be compared to the New York Mets baseball team, which went many years without any winning seasons.

The Championship team photo, 1981
They were the champions of the National Basketball Association in 1981.

Please notice the curly-haired kid sitting second from the right in the front row.  His name is Larry Bird.

Larry is one of the reasons why the Boston Celtics won three championships in the 1980s.

Watch some of his highlights in this video.

I still remember hearing a radio broadcast one day when Larry was a member of the team.  As reported by the sports reporter for that radio station, at the very beginning of a practice session for the team, the coach told Larry to go to the center of the basketball court with a basketball.  When he got there, the coach said to Larry that if he could make a basket on his first try, the whole team would be able to skip that practice session.

Larry made the basket, and the coach kept his word.  He sent the team home for the day, and the whole team got a big boost in their confidence level.

Two other reasons why the Boston Celtics won three championships in the 1980s.

Dave Cowens, on the left, and John Havlicek

They were professionals on- and off the court.

The team is losing games because they don't have an enthusiastic fan base.

There is a specific reason for this.  The Boston Celtics have a bad reputation.

The source of their image problem

The thrill of victory ...

In the 1986 draft, they liked and wanted to select a man named Len Bias.

He was an exceptionally good player.

Look at him participating in this dunking contest.

Look at his basketball highlights as a college player.

... and then, the Celtics made the biggest mistake in their history ...

Copied from a story on the ESPN website:
NBA commissioner David Stern is handed a piece of paper and walks to the podium.  He unfolds the paper.  "With the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft," he says, "the Boston Celtics select Len Bias, University of Maryland."

Bias, the ACC Player of the Year who averaged a league-leading 23 points and seven rebounds during his senior season, grins shyly as he rises from his seat and walks proudly across the Forum and onto the stage.  He is cool and confident, not displaying his excitement outwardly.  For he knew he was going to Boston, that he was going to be a Celtic.  He had become close to Celtics president Red Auerbach, a friend of Bias' coach at Maryland, Lefty Driesell.  Bias had even spent a week the previous summer at Auerbach's New England basketball camp, working with young players.

... the agony of defeat

Unfortunately, Len Bias had a problem.  Unlike Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, and Chris Havlicek, he wasn't a professional off the court.

Soon after Len Bias was drafted by the Celtics, even before he played in his first game as a Celtic, he died of a cocaine overdose.

Copied from the same ESPN story:
As Bias walks out of Madison Square Garden, the glare of bright sun forcing him to squint, he heads toward a taxi on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue with his father, James, his agent, Bill Shelton, and Steve Riley from the Celtics' front office.  Children on the sidewalk ask Bias for his autograph.  "The Celtics still aren't going to beat the Knicks," one of the children says with a smile.  Bias is amused.  "We'll see," he says, smiling.

He gets into a taxi and heads off to La Guardia Airport and an Eastern Shuttle flight to Boston to meet the media and visit Reebok's corporate offices, where he is discussing a five-year endorsement package worth $1.6 million.

Later in the day, tired, weary and excited to return home, Bias and his father board an evening flight and land at Washington's National Airport at 10 p.m.  They drive to the family home in Landover.  At 11:30 p.m., Bias leaves and heads to his dorm suite in College Park on the University of Maryland campus dorm room that he shares with teammates Jeff Baxter, Keith Gatlin, David Gregg, Phil Nevin and Terry Long, a friend and former Maryland basketball player.

It's midnight, June 19, 1986.  Bias arrives at his dorm room in Washington Hall.  He is met by various teammates and friends, including basketball players Gatlin, Gregg, Long, Baxter and Keeta Covington, a defensive back on the Maryland football team.  They laugh, talk, and munch on crabs in the dormitory suite until 2 a.m.  They talk about Bias' future as a Celtic, the spectacular opportunity to play with the greatest and winningest organization in the NBA, the incredible break to play with a legend like Bird, and a championship core of players in McHale, Parish, Ainge and DJ.

But Bias is edgy, frustrated.  He becomes sick of talking about himself, his newfound wealth, his fame and the expectations with the great Celtics.  He suddenly feels a mountain of pressure.  He decides to escape.  "I'm getting away from here," he says to the gang.  He abruptly leaves the dorm and takes off in his new Nissan 300ZX.  "I figured he was going to see a lady," Covington would later say.

Bias speeds toward Cherry Hill, just off the Maryland campus.  He stops by a small party and talks to David Driggers, a friend with whom Bias has often played pickup basketball games.  Soon, Bias departs.  It is 2:30 a.m. At 3 a.m., Bias returns to his campus dorm room.  Suddenly, reports will later reveal, cocaine is being passed around the room on a small mirror.  For the next three hours, the small group of friends and teammates snort cocaine.

At 6 a.m., while sitting in a chair talking to Long, Bias closes his eyes and begins breathing heavily.  His body begins to quiver and shudder.  Shockingly, a series of seizures wreak havoc on his 6-foot-8, 210-pound body.  "Lenny! Lenny!", Long screams.  He doesn't get a response.  Bias passes out and slumps back in the chair.  Long and Tribble begin screaming.

At 6:32 a.m., a hysterical Tribble dials 911 as Long and Gregg try to revive Bias.  The dispatcher answers the 911 call and Tribble screams, "It's Len Bias.  He passed out.  His body his shaking.  You have to get here fast.  You have to save him."

The commotion awakens Baxter and Gatlin, who see Bias on the floor, his body convulsing.  "I was in a state of shock," Gatlin would say later.  "I was so scared."

Long begins to administer CPR.  The ambulance arrives at 6:36 a.m.  Paramedics find Bias, in a blue Reebok shirt, jeans and sneakers, collapsed in a chair.  They try, desperately, to restart his heart, to no avail.  As paramedics quickly wheel Bias out of the dorm, roommates and other teammates and friends in the dorm follow.  The ambulance speeds off to Leland Memorial Hospital, just a few miles away.

At 6:45, Gatlin calls the Bias home in Landover. Bias' mother answers.  "Len had a seizure and they're taking him to the hospital," he says.  She drops the phone, races out of the house and heads toward College Hill.

Dr. Edward Wilson, chief emergency room physician at Leland Memorial, injects Bias with drugs designed to help his heart recover from cardiac arrest.  Five drugs are administered: sodium epinephrine (a form of adrenaline), sodium bicarbonate (to normalize the acidity in the bloodstream), lidocaine (to control hyperactivity and an irregular heartbeat), calcium (to stimulate the heart muscle) and bretyline (a secondary drug to control irregularity of the heart).  It doesn't help.  Bias is still unconscious.  Electric-shock treatment is then administered.  Still no heart beat.  A pacemaker is implanted after Bias' heart registers a flat line on the monitor.  There's no heart beat.  He never begins breathing on his own.  He is pronounced dead at 8:50 a.m., due to cardio-respiratory arrest.

These are the first five paragraphs of a June 25, 1986 Los Angeles Times story.
BALTIMORE — University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of "cocaine intoxication" after ingesting an unusually pure dose of the drug that stopped his heart within minutes, Maryland's chief medical examiner said Tuesday.

Dr. John E. Smialek attributed Bias' death last Thursday morning directly to cocaine, "which interrupted the normal electrical control of his heartbeat, resulting in the sudden onset of seizures and cardiac arrest."

The 22-year-old Bias "was a very healthy individual" who showed no evidence of heart disease, Smialek said at a crowded news conference here Tuesday afternoon.

Smialek said there were no indications that Bias had used alcohol or taken any other drug in the hours preceding his collapse in his Washington Hall dormitory suite on the College Park campus.

He said that the autopsy conducted on Bias' body showed no evidence that Bias was a long-term user of cocaine and that it was "possible" that the fatal ingestion was the All-American's first encounter with the drug.

These are the first four paragraphs of a July 10, 1986 Orlando Sentinel story.
WASHINGTON — An assistant Maryland medical examiner said Wednesday that the autopsy of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias indicates Bias most likely smoked the cocaine that killed him and that the drug may have been purified through a process called free-basing.

Dr. Dennis Smyth, the assistant state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Bias, said that redness in Bias' windpipe and the high concentration of cocaine found in his blood suggest he did not ingest the drug in powder form through the nose as had been previously disclosed by the chief medical examiner.

''It all points to the most likely route of the cocaine was by inhalation,'' Smyth said.

The high concentration of the drug in Bias' blood stream -- 6.5 milligrams per liter -- also indicates that he did not snort the drug.  ''We've never seen people snorting get levels that high,'' Smyth said.

This is how a professional team in any sport deals with a tragedy

  1. They find out what happened.  According to Maryland's Chief Medical Examiner, as reported on June 25, 1986 by the Los Angeles Times, "University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of 'cocaine intoxication' after ingesting an unusually pure dose of the drug that stopped his heart within minutes."

  2. They find out what mistakes were made that allowed this tragedy to happen.

  3. They change their procedures so that this mistake doesn't happen again.  I would like to see every NBA team have a retired player mentor every new draftee, in order to help him adjust to being a professional basketball player.  I would also like to see every current player and every draftee be subject to a random, unannounced medical test for illegal substances in his body.

  4. They do what they can to reassure their fans that this tragedy will never happen again.  This means telling sports reporters and the team's fans about the changes that the team has made in their procedures.

Any team that does this is maintaining the social contract that they have with their fans, despite the sadness of the tragedy.

In fact, any team that does this during a tragedy deserves to have more fans because they have demonstrated, during a tragedy, that the team cares about their fans.

The Boston Celtics have never completed this process.

When they found out that their number two draft pick had died, they talked with the team's medical staff.  They talked with the hospital doctors.  They read the autopsy report.

That completed step one.

They had long discussions behind closed doors about team policies and procedures, and the policies of the National Basketball Association.

They discussed and debated whether they, as a team, should be more strict with the standards of conduct that they impose on any person who is (or will be) on their team.

That completed step two.

And then they halted this very necessary process.

The Boston Celtics never made any changes to their procedures.  Players who have a drug problem can still play on the team.  College players who have been drafted by the Celtics can still have parties with drug dealers before their first game.  The public has no assurance whatsoever that any of their players will show up at their next game because there is always the possibility that any of their players may die of a drug overdose.

And the team has never, ever reassured their fans, not once since 1986, that the team will even find out if any of their players has a drug problem because they don't even take the vital step of drug-testing the players.

How many times have the Boston Celtics won an N.B.A. Championship since 1986?

(clickable link)

Now you know why.

Has the Boston Celtics fan base increased or decreased since 1986?

It has decreased, because the Boston Celtics violated the terms of their social contract.

I have a challenge for every person who is intellectually honest and who considers himself or herself a fan of the Celtics.  It's in the form of two related tasks.
  1. Count how many pieces of team-licensed pieces of clothing you see tomorrow.

  2. Remember how many pieces of team-licensed clothing you saw daily before Len Bias died.
Another way to perform this task is to compare the unit sales of team-licensed clothing at an authorized retail store with the same statistic from the same store from 30 years ago.

This is what you will see.

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