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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

With Banner 17 Hung, Celtics Eye Repeat

Looking To Be Grouped with the Greats in Franchise History, Pierce and Co. Intend to Defend Crown

Hours after the Celtics won their 17th World Championship, a banner was hoisted to the ceiling in place of the spotlight that shone 24 hours a day at the Celtics' training facility in Waltham.

That new banner, 22 years younger than its nearest relative, glows in stark contrast to the 16 flags hung by your father's Celtics, most recently in 1986, 1984 and 1981. Dating as far back as 1957, they all line the walls in Waltham. Some are replicas, others the decaying originals from the eras long since passed, but until June, all of them were showing their age.

Training Camp

At the team's Newport training camp, the focus was all basketball, all the time.
Darren McCollester/NBAE

Burning white and glossy, the 2008 banner jumps off the wall at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint. It's sheen makes it awfully conspicuous, especially if you're one of the guys chiefly responsible for hanging it. However, what really catches the eye of Paul Pierce, the Celtics captain and NBA Finals MVP, isn't the banner that he finally helped to hang after 10 long years.

Instead, it's a series of dingy old banners stained from years of decorating the rafters of the old Boston Garden. They're downright dirty, but that's part of their charm. With the Garden gone and Red Auerbach's passing, those banners are among the few remaining vestiges of a dynasty.

So after spending most of a short summer celebrating the title at a parade through the streets of Boston in front of scores of Celtics fans, back home in Los Angeles among his family and friends (many of whom are admittedly Lakers fans) and in Vegas nightclubs surrounded by his NBA peers, a raspy Pierce, fighting laryngitis, told reporters about the next chapter in the Celtics' journey.

"You ask yourself, 'what's the next challenge?' And as I asked myself, I looked at all of the banners, and I said to myself, all the great players, all the great teams that have been here, they did it more than once," Pierce said during the team's media day. "That's what I thought about during the summer."

"You ask yourself, 'what's the next challenge?' And as I asked myself, I looked at all of the banners, and I said to myself, all the great players, all the great teams that have been here, they did it more than once," Pierce said during the team's media day. "That's what I thought about during the summer."

Those aging banners, hung by the sons of Red, they're artifacts of Johnny Most's gravel-voiced bedtime stories. They starred John Havlicek, Tommy Heinsohn, Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, and given the state of the franchise during the 24-win 2006-07 season, it was getting harder and harder to believe this was the same team. Pierce had heard Tommy, Cooz, Hondo and Russ retell these stories in person at the start of training camp for years.

He'd even heard them from Auerbach himself.

Finally, Pierce has his own story to tell. Carried off the floor in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, it looked like curtains for the captain and the Celtics' title hopes. But he'd return to the floor that night and inspire a Game 1 win that helped lift the Celtics to a six-win NBA Finals victory, and etch his name into the annals of NBA history.

For eight straight years, from 1959-1966, the Celtics won consecutive championships and dominated the NBA. And as much as Pierce is proud of what he and his mates accomplished last season, he knows that to be truly great in the eyes of Celtics fans and the legends who came before him, they have to do it again.

"Once you get a taste of it, you don't want to let it go," Pierce said. On the day the team sized players for rings, Pierce laughed about finally having his own jewelry to show off among his peers after gazing at his friends' hardware. "I've seen Antoine's, I've seen Sam's, and I've seen Posey's. I'm tired of looking at everybody else's ring in the summer."

He wasn't the only one. When they came together in Rome a year ago for training camp, Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were three stars who all had the same hole in their resume: None had won an NBA Championship. So the obvious question, one they heard all summer, was where they'd find motivation with their lifelong goal accomplished. And how would things change now that the Celtics were the proverbial hunters-turned-hunted?

"The bulls-eye is huge. But it's not like we're going to back down from that," Garnett said before the team left for training camp.

Rather than jetting overseas, the team bused about 70 miles down the coast to Salve Regina University in Newport, RI at the end of September, just as the New England foliage was starting to turn and tourist season was winding down. Newport was deserted through most of the week, so the team was felt free to roam town with few intrusions.

Aside from the wide-eyed students who lined up outside the gym waiting to catch a glimpse of the champs as they boarded the bus, there were few distractions during camp. The five-minute bus ride from the team hotel to the campus gym was a welcome change from the hour-plus police-escort voyage through Rome last fall. And without the international media horde that tailed them in Europe, the wonder of the ancient city just begging to be explored and a bevy of league-sponsored appearances that were sprinkled into last year's camp, the focus in Newport was all basketball, all the time.

For those who doubted last year that three superstars could check egos at the door and unite for a common goal, the Celtics had everything to prove and the burden of overwhelming hype. They were media darlings nationwide at the beginning of the season, gracing just about every magazine cover on the rack. The Big Three -- Coach Doc Rivers finally allows himself to call them that -- even had their own media day last fall to handle the influx of media requests that dwarfed anything the organization had ever seen.

"I thought we were the anointed champs all last year. We were on every magazine cover you could ever be on without having done anything. That actually bothered me a lot last year," Rivers said on media day on the eve of training camp. "At least this year, if we are on one, we can say we've done something. And now we have to try to do it again."

Their desire certainly hasn't waned. Much like last season, almost the entire roster was in Waltham a month early staging informal workouts and pick-up games. Rajon Rondo placed calls to many of his teammates, while Pierce took rookies Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens under his wing, leading them through a demanding workout regiment. According to Pierce, "this is the same commitment we had a year ago when everybody got in early."

Ray Allen, who keeps himself in top shape year round, made it clear that the Celtics refuse to settle for being a one-hit wonder.

"Just having a chance to repeat is the most important thing. This season, for us, it's not different than starting off last season," Allen said after a workout this summer. "I don't think we need to do anything different from what we've been doing. We know what the formula was, and we've gotta stick to that."

With that in mind, the team voted to once again carry "Ubuntu" as their motto, and when it comes to goals, the mission is essentially the same. They're looking to win an NBA title and hang another banner.

The early returns are encouraging. Pierce's knee has healed, and Allen, who played just under 36 minutes a game last season, is in top form for preseason. Garnett is as intense as he's ever been, running the length of the floor in one preseason game to block a layup from behind. Rondo says he's added seven pounds of muscle in the offseason, and his backup Eddie House was draining everything in camp.

Tony Allen is showing signs of returning to his pre-injury form. Kendrick Perkins, who had offseason shoulder surgery, returned to the lineup in mid-October. Meanwhile, rookie Bill Walker opened eyes in training camp for attacking the basket and had a pair of huge slams back-to-back in the team's first exhibition game. And tough-as-nails Leon Powe is still doing all the dirty work that made him famous last year.

Does all of this add up to a repeat? We're about to find out, but with the season upon us, Rivers and company are certainly headed in the right direction. The Celtics will officially raise their 17th banner in the TD Banknorth Garden and hand out their rings on Opening Night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Once the ceremony ends, the journey begins anew.

Peter Stringer covers the team for and Parquet Magazine.