Mike Gorman loves to tell the story from the summer of 2007, a few days after the Celtics had acquired Kevin Garnett. The longtime broadcaster was en route to the State House for the team’s Heroes Among Us banquet. It was raining and Gorman was running late, so he did what any of us would have done—he busted out and made an illegal turn.
Out of the darkness a state trooper emerged.
“He’s in full battle array,” Gorman said. “The high boots, the gun, the Smokey the Bear hat. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no, how am I going to explain my way out of this?’ I put the window down and he says, ‘What do you need, Mike?’ I just said to myself, ‘Oh, we’re back baby.’”
Tonight, the Celtics will hang a banner—their 17th—and it will be the culmination of the triumphant 2007-08 season. Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen will all get their rings, fulfilling their career-long quests. Doc Rivers will coach his first game as a championship coach of the Celtics, joining Red Auerbach, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Russell, Bill Fitch and K.C. Jones.
The Celtics are indeed back. But their success on the court is only a part of what the rebirth of the Celtics means for the franchise, the league, the television networks and the city of Boston itself. It has meant record ratings, the creation of a new media outlet and the revitalization of the area around the Garden.
The championship lifted Wyc Grousbeck and the owners into the rarified air occupied by Bob Kraft and John Henry—owners who are beloved because they view their franchises as civic trusts, or “community assets,” as team General Partner Steve Pagliuca called it.
It used to be that you couldn’t find anyone with a Celtics shirt, and if they had one it was a vintage Larry Bird jersey or some other faded relic from the 80’s. Now, the Celtics are everywhere—on the cover of video games, national magazines and on TNT.
It begins in Burlington. Before the Celtics shook up the basketball world with their twin blockbuster trades for Allen and Garnett, the Comcast Corporation was working on its own deal. The cable giant had bought out Fox Sports New England to claim an operating stake in the network, whose primary programming involved the Celtics.
FSNE was something of an afterthought in a saturated media market. For starters, the station didn’t have a dedicated HD channel, leaving home games to be broadcast on the MOJO network, requiring viewers to switch back over to FSNE to catch the post-game show, instead of say, London Live. Road games were in regular definition. Compared to NESN’s aggressive all-Sox, all-the-time, everything-in-HD approach, it felt, frankly, second-rate.
But Comcast Executive Vice President Bill Bridgen had cut his teeth in Philadelphia, where CSN is the undisputed king of Philly televised sports. He felt that with the right team, CSN could become a player in Boston.
As the Celtics raced off to its 29-3 start, CSN made its move. Securing a spot on Comcast’s HD tier was a given, and by February HD broadcast included all road games. The pre- and post-game shows became must-watch viewing for diehards.
“You have to change the brand,” Bridgen said. “Our timing couldn’t have been better because the Celtics are now must-have content and appointment viewing. If you asked people what network the Celtics were on last October, you’d probably get a few blank stares, and I think that is changing rapidly.”
Ratings for regular season games improved by over 100 percent, and then almost doubled in the playoffs. Ratings for the Post Game Live also went up, which was to be expected with a 66-win team.
“We can work as hard as we can and do the best broadcasts we can, but you got to win,” Gorman said. “As soon as you start to win, the numbers will go up. It’s not like you needed to re-seed the lawn. The fan base was there, they were just waiting for it to be fun again.”
Still, Comcast made the most of its increased visibility with a handful of smart moves—notably giving a prominent role to Donny Marshall, who helped give the network a more contemporary feel, and expanding the post-game show in the playoffs, staying on the air until every interview had been completed, dissected and picked over.
This season, CSN has focused its attention on Celtics Now, their magazine-style show which will have Michael Holley as the host. Bridgen added that every aspect of the network’s coverage should be in HD this season and they plan to increase their interactive component.
“You need a great tent-pole product to hold up the ceiling and now we’ve got that with the Celtics,” Bridgen said. “It really is a domino effect. Advertisers want to be associated with a winning team. It’s sponsorships, our relationships with satellite and cable providers. A rising tide lifts all boats and that is directly applicable to our relationship with the Celtics.”
Nationally, the Celtics brand found a ready and willing audience. More Celtics merchandise was sold than that for any other team in the league, and Garnett’s No. 5 jersey was the top individual seller. Garnett also received more All-Star votes than any other player in the league and is on the cover of NBA 2K9, the EA Sports video game.
The team is scheduled to make 25 national television appearances between TNT and ESPN/ABC, including a date with the Lakers on Christmas Day, the marquee national spot. It was only two years ago when the Celtics rated as much national appeal to the networks as the Memphis Grizzlies. Now, they are the face of the NBA again.
Back home, Peter Colton, the owner of The Fours is expecting tonight to be the first of many big nights for his Canal Street institution. In the 22 years since Larry, Kevin and Chief last won a championship, much has changed about the area around the Garden, but The Fours remains the meeting place for fans before and after Celtics games.
“It was great,” Colton said. “It was almost like the old days.”
Colton was one of the few people in Boston who wasn’t sweating the long playoff series. “It extended our season another eight weeks,” he said. And like rediscovering Mike and Tommy on the broadcasts, fans found their way back to The Fours.
On the night the Celtics claimed the title, Causeway Street was transformed into a bustling scene straight out of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Cops lined the streets, shutting off access as fans milled from one tavern to the next. It was like Kenmore Square after a Sox game, only a lot more green.
While these developments have an unquestionable effect on the Celtics franchise, the size of that effect is a little unclear. According to Pagliuca, the team shares the increased merchandising revenue with the rest of the NBA. The ratings for the NBA Finals saw a dramatic increase, reversing a three-year decline, which was as much good news for the Portland Trail Blazers as it was for the Celtics and Lakers.
But certainly having a sold-out building and 14 home playoff games only helps the bottom line of the team’s ownership group, which is led by Grousbeck, his father Irving, and Pagliuca and includes some of the of the town’s star financial players. In separate interviews this summer, both Grousbeck and Pagliuca demurred when asked about the effect of a championship team on the team’s finances.
“You don’t buy these things for profit,” Grousbeck said. “You buy it for love. It’s been a great investment, but we’re never going to sell it, so what’s the difference?”
The Celtics sank over $72 million into the payroll last season and wound up with an $8 million+ luxury tax penalty. From the time the Celtics lost out in the lottery, it was an investment they were more than willing to make.
Grousbeck recalls a meeting in which the owners decided to green-light the moves that ultimately led to the Allen and Garnett trades. “Paul Edgerly said, ‘Whatever it takes. Just send me the bill.’”
That was the concept behind the group, Grousbeck said. When the time was right to make the financial leap, they would be ready to jump. “We are a lucky bunch,” Grousbeck said. “No question.”
“We were taking a financial risk,” Pagliuca said. “But from the very beginning, our goal was to put together a strong ownership group and win a championship. We aren’t running this like a venture capital fund.”
But then, they don’t throw parades after successful deals at Bain Capital. In a decade of Duck Boat processions, the Celtics championship parade stands out for who was there as much as what was being celebrated.
On a stunningly beautiful June afternoon, office workers mingled with day laborers. Suburban kids and those from the inner-city all were on hand to witness their new heroes: KG, Rajon Rondo and a shirtless Big Baby. We tend to over-emphasize the societal effect sports can have on large groups, but for one day, at least, all corners of Boston were out in force.
As the banner goes up tonight, the Garden will be sold out and Peter Colton’s bar will be the place to be once again. The Celtics are back.
Paul Flannery covers the Celtics for WEEI.com.