Larry Bird helped the 1979-1980 Boston Celtics make a stunning turnaround from the prior year. Bird joined a squad featuring Cedric Maxwell, Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald and led by new head coach Bill Fitch. Together the team improved 32 wins going from 29 wins the prior season to 61 in ‘79-’80.
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Who played for the 1979-1980 Boston Celtics?
Larry Bird is the big name among the starters, obviously. The Hick from French Lick was fresh off a dominant college career for Indiana State that famously ended with his first showdown with Magic Johnson.
Bird did it all for this Celtics team, as you’d expect. You can see the per game stats above, but Bird had some nice advanced stats in his rookie year as well. He was 4th in NBA in Value Over Replacement Player, 8th in total Win Shares and 1st in Defensive Win Shares.
Something that might surprise younger readers is that Bird was really good on defense too. In the first post on this site, I laid out the case that Bird was a solid defender. He did not make an All NBA Defense in his rookie year, but he would make All NBA Defensive 2nd teams three times in the years ahead.
Cowens is the 2nd biggest name in a list of pretty big names. I have to admit that, as someone who was 6 years old at the start of this season, I did not know Bird and Cowens played together. In my mind Cowens was done by the time Bird started, but that is not the case.
Cowens had somehow served as player/coach the year before this when the Celtics won only 29 games under his leadership. He returned to playing only in this season.
As an aside, it is fascinating to see just how short the careers were for a lot of players of the past. Cowens was only in his 10th season in ‘79-’80 but he was certainly past his prime and would retire after this campaign.
Compare that to today’s players: I pulled up Kevin Durant randomly. KD’s 10th season was his first, of three, in Golden State. He has since left the Warriors, missed a season to a major injury and is now in his second highly productive season with the Nets and still close to his prime.
In any case, Cowens was still putting up good numbers as you can see above but he was removed from his peak when he led the Celtics in every category: points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals! That happened in ‘77-’78, the first of two down seasons that put the Celtics in position to draft Bird.
Cowens, of course, had led the Celtics to two titles in 1974 & 1976, was a former league MVP, a 3x ALL NBA 2nd team selection, an 8x All Star, including this season, and made All NBA 2nd team defense this season to add to two prior All Defensive Teams selections. He was one of three Hall of Famers to start for the 1979-1980 Boston Celtics.
Nate “Tiny” Archibald
Not a bad squad when a Hall of Famer gets 3rd billing. Red Auerbach had acquired Tiny in a trade the previous season that had sent out the OTHER Celtics first round pick in 1978, Freeman Williams, and a bunch of other players, for Tiny and a 2nd round pick that would become Danny Ainge.
Tiny had averaged 34 points and 11 assists per game just 5 seasons prior to the trade and had scored over 20, with a bunch of assists too, every season since then that he had played. But he was coming off 1+ missed season(s) because of a major achilles injury, and, as I discussed with Cowens, careers were short and injuries were often fatal to them.
This was Tiny’s post-achilles peak as he won Comeback Player of the Year, made the All-Star team and was 2nd team All-NBA in this season.
Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell
You had a damn good team when Cornbread Maxwell was your 4th best starter. He may have been the 2nd best in reality as Tiny was coming back from injury and Cowens was rounding the bend.
Max was in his prime in his 3rd year in the league. In addition to being the 2nd leading scorer and rebounder for the team, he led the league in field goal percentage in this season. Max was an extremely efficient scorer and the modern metrics that love efficiency unsurprisingly rank him highly.
Max had the highest offensive rating in the league in ‘79-’80 at 123.5, was 4th in offensive win shares, 5th in total win shares and was ranked 9th in the league in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).
The following year was probably Max’s absolute peak when he won Finals MVP in the first of his two title-winning seasons.
Chris Ford made the first three point shot in NBA history in the Celtics first game this season! On October 12, 1979 Ford lined up and drilled the first triple in league history. The 3-point line had just come into existence and was a bit of a novelty still.
Ford was also a good player who averaged 15 points per game for the Celts the prior season and was in the 8th year of a nice NBA career of which you and I could only dream. But he was in deep waters in this starting lineup!
Three Hall of Famers, an NBA Finals MVP and Chris Ford. Someone had to start next to Tiny. Chris Ford went on to coach the Celtics after winning a title with this team the following year.
The big name off the bench was clearly Pete Mavarich. The team had 4 Hall of Famers! But I guess at one point the Lakers had Karl Malone and Gary Payton alongside Kobe and Shaq. It matters when you have them too!
Pistol Pete was only 2 seasons removed from averaging 31 for the then-New Orleans Jazz. But knee problems had limited his ability to play. The Jazz’ coach had a strict no-practice, no-play rule and sat Mavarich for 24 straight games before the now Utah Jazz waived him in January of this season.
Another thing that is incredible to me is how much leeway and power coaches were given as opposed to star players in the past. The guy had averaged 31 points a couple seasons before – you’d think he’d get some understanding.
Pistol Pete was near the end and would retire after his lone Celtics season. He was one of three bench players who averaged just about 11 points per game, but he was only able to play in 26 games for the Celtics.
The two other leading bench contributors were M.L. Carr and Rick Robey, who both averaged 11.5 points and played 24 minutes per game. Carr, of course, was a defensive specialist who had led the league in steals the prior year.
He was most famous for his towel-waving bench presence and brought a lot of enthusiasm to the team. He would later coach and serve in the front office for the team.
I listed Robey as one of the biggest busts of the 1978 NBA Draft because he had been picked so highly by the Pacers in the 3rd overall slot. This season was about his highwater mark as he averaged nearly 7 boards to go along with the 11.5 points.
The 6’11” center out of Kentucky would tail off in all numbers as his career went on but he did snag a title with this team the following year.
Gerald Henderson, Jeff Judkins, Don Chaney and Eric Fernsten rounded out the bench. Chaney had a great career but was only playing 8 minutes for this team while Henderson would last all the way until 1992 in the NBA but in this, his rookie year, he averaged only 6 points per game.
Who was in charge of the Boston Celtics in 1979-1980?
Owner: Harry T. Mangurian Jr.
This one is probably going to be news to you, as it was to me. The Celtics had been owned by a man named Irv Levin (and others) in the mid 1970’s. He wanted to move the team out west, but the league was never going to let the Boston Celtics become the San Diego Celtics.
So Levin swapped teams with Buffalo Braves owners John Y. Brown, Jr. and Harry T. Mangurian, Jr. The trade of teams was accompanied by the Tiny Archibald trade I discussed earlier. The teams swapped a bunch of players along with trading franchises.
Brown would sell his share the following year leaving Mangurian as the sole owner for this season. He would own the team for 3 more seasons before selling to the first ownership group I remember: Don Gaston, Alan N. Cohen, and Paul Dupee.
General Manager: Red Auerbach
What can I say about Red Auerbach? If you asked me who is the face of the Boston Celtics, my mind goes to Larry Bird. But that is because of my age.
If you asked some fair-minded judge of history to do the same, Red might be the right answer.
Of course, being the Celtics, you could honestly say it should be Bill Russell too. But Red is right there as one of the two most important people in the history of the franchise.
He coached his way to 938 wins and 9 NBA titles. In 1979 – 1980 he was in the midst of his incredible run as general manager of the Celtics that would last from 1966 – 1984.
During this season he would be named the greatest coach in history by the basketball writers association and he would win executive of the year. He got that last award for his moves shoring up the team in advance of the ‘79 – ‘80 season.
Among those moves, and among Red’s best moves ever, was snagging Larry Bird with the 6th pick in the 1978 NBA Draft after his junior year. I tell the complete story here, but the short version is that Red was always looking for an edge.
Red also snagged Tiny in that complicated owner’s swap and signed M.L. Carr as a free agent. The following year he would somehow acquire Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in one trade. The man knew what he was doing.
Head Coach: Bill Fitch
Bill Fitch was the Celtics head coach. He was known as a tough coach, as so many of them were in those days. Fitch was legitimately a former Marine Corp drill instructor and that seems about right.
I wrote here about Bulls coach Kevin Loughery benching Reggie Theus the year after Theus averaged 24 per game and wrote earlier in this post about the Jazz’ coach refusing to play Pete Mavarich because he couldn’t practice. It was NOT a player’s league!
Fitch was chosen as one of the 10 greatest coaches in NBA history when the league chose the best 50 players ever in 1996. Far be it from me to think I know better than those voters, but Fitch never seemed like anything special to me.
His biggest skill seems to have been to be hired by the Celtics when they acquired Larry Bird and then by the Rockets when they grabbed Hakeem Olajuwon. Those are pretty nice situations to fall into.
But coaching is hard to judge if I am being honest. The best coaches can’t lead poor players very far in basketball.
Fitch had come over from nearly ten years with the Cavaliers where they did a lot of losing and had one magical season where they lost to the Celtics in the Conference Finals. In this season, he would give Larry Bird the nickname Kodak because he could see the game as if he had a camera for a mind.
Fitch would also win Coach of the Year this season. He would lead the Green to their next title the following year before being forced out after the ‘83 season for the more player-friendly K.C. Jones.
Assistant Coaches: K.C. Jones and Jimmy Rodgers
In addition to players Chris Ford and M.L. Carr, both assistant coaches would go on to become Celtic head coaches in the future. Considering that Cowens coached them the prior year, this team featured 3 players and 3 coaches who did, had or would be head coach of the Boston Celtics. That has to be some kind of record!
K.C. Jones was first. After the ‘81 title, the players could not take the drill instructor anymore and they wanted a new tune. K.C. provided it. The man knew how to win: he won an NCAA championship, an Olympic Gold Medal and 8 NBA titles as a player.
He would go on to win two more titles as a head coach for the 1984 & 1986 Celtics.
Jimmy Rodgers would stay by K.C.’s side during the 80’s championship runs before taking the head job himself in 1988. He lasted two seasons, both featuring first round Celtic playoff exits before being fired.
Rodgers went on to be the head coach for the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves for a couple of seasons before resuming assistant duties during the Bulls title run.
How did the Boston Celtics do in the regular season in 1979 – 1980?
It sure has taken a lot of words to get to this, the whole purpose of this article. The Boston Celtics made a remarkable turnaround in the 1979 – 1980 regular season.
The prior year the team went 29 – 53 while this season they posted a 61-21 mark.
At the time, the Celtics 32 game improvement in regular season records was the greatest in league history. The 1997-1998 Spurs would improve 36 games with the addition of Tim Duncan and the return of David Robinson from injury to eclipse the Celtics mark.
But Bird’s Celtics are still one of, if not the, greatest turnarounds in sports history. They came right out the gate firing, winning their first four games and going 16-4 in their first 20 including a six game winning streak from late October into November.
They went 14-6 in their next twenty and were buoyed by 3 overtime victories in this stretch. The ‘79-’80 Celtics reached the ½ way point of the season without ever losing more than two games in a row, and they did that only once.
They were 15-5 in their next twenty games, including a 7 game winning streak in late February. The Green Team repeated their 15-5 mark in their next twenty games including two “home” wins in Hartford, Connecticut. The team regularly played pre-season games there when I was a kid but I guess they played regular season games in Hartford for a long time as well.
The Celtics split their last two regular season games in 1980, defeating Cleveland at home before falling to the Sixers on the road in a foreshadowing of what was to come for them in the playoffs.
Again, the 1979-1980 Boston Celtics finished 61-21 in one of the greatest regular season turnarounds in the history of sports. The Celtics won the Atlantic Division of the Easter Conference finishing 2 games in front of the Sixers.
How did the Boston Celtics do in the playoffs in 1980?
Division winners got first round byes in 1980, so the Celts and Central-Division winners Atlanta did not play in the first round of the playoffs.
The Sixers swept their best of 3 first round series vs the Washington Bullets while the Houston Rockets defeated the San Antonio Spurs 2-1. Both of those teams would soon be in the Western Conference.
The Conference Semifinals saw the Sixers roll past the Hawks 4-1 behind Dr. J, Darryl Dawkins and Mo Cheeks.
The Celtics got their first playoff action vs the aforementioned Rockets. That team featured Calvin Murphy, Moses “Big Mo” Malone and someone I don’t really remember: Robert Reid. He had a nice series scoring 20 per game. Big Mo added 25 points and 11 boards, but it wasn’t to be as the Celtics swept them.
Larry Bird led a balanced attack with 20 points, 8 boards and 6 assists per game. Max scored 19 per game as well. The games were not too close as the Celts won each by nearly 20.
The Eastern Conference Finals matched up two Atlantic Division foes in the Celtics and Sixers.
The Sixers won game one by three while the Celtics won game two by six points. After a two point win in game three, the Sixers pulled away and won the last two games by a dozen or more to take the series in five games.
The difference was probably experience as Julius Erving and the Jones brothers: Bobby and Caldwell, were all in their late twenties prime. While the Celtics had some strong experience in Cowens and Tiny, their best players, Bird and Maxwell, were still just starting out in the NBA.
Who were the announcers for the 1979 – 1980 Boston Celtics?
The local games were broadcast on WBZ. Roger Twibell, of whom I have no memory, was the play-by-play man. Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy was the color commentator.
I did not watch the games much at this point, being far too young to care, but I did get to watch games with Cousy as the color man later on. I loved him. He really offered great insight into the game in a way that others didn’t.
Not to pick on him, because I came to absolutely adore him, but Cousy was totally different from Tommy Heinsohn. Heinsohn’s style was to bleed green and let you know. Cousy was a Celtic, of course, but offered a lot more insights into what was happening in the game from my memory.
Roger Twibell did the sports for WBZ’ newscast and called the games for 3 years in the late 70s. I know little of him beyond his wikipedia page.
WBZ also had the radio rights for Celtics games in 1979-1980. The play-by-play man for this season was the same legend who called the games for most of the 50’s, all of the 60’s, all of the 70’s and most of the 80’s: Johnny Most.
I loved Most. I am sure if I grew up somewhere else, he’d be a bit of a mystery to me: he didn’t have the golden pipes or smooth play-by-play style of modern announcers. But he WAS the Celtics.
Johnny Most loved the team like you did. And he felt, and talked, about their opponents the same way you did. I ate it up as a kid. I used to do a horrible impression of him that my friends loved.
Baseball gets a lot of love as a sport to be listened to on the radio. It’s well-deserved. But basketball on the radio is underrated. It’s a long season and you probably can’t watch all the games. But you can have the game on in the background while you do other things.
Growing up with Johnny Most is what drove my thinking about how great it is to listen to basketball on radio. It was often more fun listening to him call the games than it was to watch them.
Gil Santos, who I remember much more as a Patriots radio guy, was the studio host and is listed as the color man as well. I am not sure how much color he could’ve provided as an announcer himself.
I assume it was similar to when Glen Ordway started working the games with Most. Let’s just say I liked Most more.
What happened to the Boston Celtics after the 1979 – 1980 Season?
The future was bright for the Celtics at the end of the 1980 season. The next year would see the team return to glory with the creation of one of the greatest frontcourts ever in Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
Dave Cowens would retire after the 1980 playoffs, but the team still had Cedric Maxwell and Tiny Archibald in addition to the Big Three.
Bill Fitch would lead them to another great regular season record in 1980-1981, winning 62 games this time. The playoffs turned out a lot better. The team fell down 3-1 to the same Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals before coming back to win in 7 games.
The Finals saw the Celtics claiming another title, this time over the Houston Rockets, with Maxwell winning the aforementioned Finals MVP.
Summary: 1980 Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics of 1979-1980 pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of sports. Larry Bird joined a team already featuring Dave Cowens, Tiny Archibald and Cedric Maxwell. Together with new head coach Bill Fitch, they improved from 29 wins the prior year to 61 wins in the ‘79-’80 regular season. The team was easily defeated by the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals but put themselves on a path towards the title they would win the following year.
Check Out My Other Larry Bird Articles
I am not just a writer. I am a fan. A Celtics fan. You can tell by just how many articles I have written about the 1980s Boston Celtics, and Larry Bird in particular. Check them out below!
I wrote about Larry Bird’s defense here. He was better than you think!
I wrote about his college years at Indiana State here.
I wrote about Larry’s time on the Dream Team here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s draft class here.
I wrote about his rookie season here.
I wrote about his best teammates of all time here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s prime here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s Finals record here.
I wrote about Larry Bird’s championships here.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Adapted from: “Bernard Cardinal Law, Larry Bird and Mayor Raymond L. Flynn” by Boston City Archives is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.