From now until February 11, Red’s Army will be posting stories about the players behind the Celtics’ 22 retired numbers and that one retired nickname. Stories will be posted in the order that the numbers were retired.
The Cedric Maxwell story can be told in two parts: the things he did, and the things he said.
Max the player is still Boston’s all-time leader in field-goal percentage and he won the Celtics the 1984 championship when told the team before Game 7 to “climb on my back, boys.”
Which segues nicely into his mouth, which he was never afraid to use, sometimes to his detriment. Trash talking was never an issue for Maxwell. Neither was sticking up for himself. On a team with a long history of selfless sacrifice at all costs for the pursuit of a banner, Maxwell’s approach to a knee injury that ultimately paved his exit from Boston stood in stark contrast to players past.
Hold that thought. First, the basketball stuff.
Maxwell’s stellar career at UNC-Charlotte (where his jersey is retired, and a teammate gave him the “Cornbread” nickname because he thought Max reminded him of a movie character with the same name) led to him being drafted 12th overall by the Celtics in 1977. He broke out in his sophomore season in Boston to lead the team in scoring (19 ppg), field goal percentage (58.4%), rebounding (9.9 rpg), and free throw attempts and makes.
Max had little help in what was a very difficult season. The arrival of Larry Bird helped the Celtics turn things around and the moves that brought Kevin McHale and Robert Parish created the group we affectionately know as “The Big Three.”
But Maxwell was the team’s third-leading scorer that year and their second-leading scorer in the playoffs. In the 1981 Finals, it was Maxwell who took over to lead the Celtics to victory and earn the Finals MVP. He was always among the Celtics top scorers and best shooters, but always overlooked as the Big Three became the team’s focal point.
Max had gone from the team’s star to a supporting player in a hurry, but he had one more bit of magic up his sleeve before things fell apart for him in Boston. As the story goes… Maxwell told his teammates to climb on his back before dominating Game 7 of the 1984 Finals against the Lakers. His 24 point, 8 rebound, 8 assist game clinched his second title, and Boston’s 15th.
Cornbread was a hero once again, but then it fell apart.
He suffered a knee injury in the 1984-85 season that caused a significant rift with the team. Red Auerbach essentially called him lazy. His work ethic was questioned. And when Maxwell sat out in Game Six of the 1985 Finals, a loss to the Lakers, he knew his time in Boston was over.
“I remember myself, ML Carr, and Quinn Buckner looking at each other and knowing that we would not be back the following year: we shed some tears,” he would say about that game.
Let’s get back to our previous thought.
The Celtics essentially blamed Maxwell for the loss. While Max said he just couldn’t play, the team thought he was bailing on them, which drove a wedge between them.
“The most upsetting thing about that was questioning my integrity. That was very upsetting,” Max would say. “The crazy part about it was there were still four guys who were Hall of Famers. And I think if there was one thing that I felt was why did I have to be the scapegoat?”
Celtics history is full of guys who put team over self… the pursuit of banners over personal health. And while Maxwell tried to play with what ultimately was torn cartilage in his left knee, he couldn’t.
“I understood we were trying to win a championship. I understood that was important to the cause. But I was going to get healed and I was going to be well in God’s time. Not Red Auerbach’s time, not the Celtics time, but in God’s time. And it just took longer than I wanted and they wanted, and that was just really bad.”
From there Maxwell and Auerbach stubbornly squared off in a battle of wills. Max passed on Auerbach’s invitation to attend the Celtics’ rookie camp and test his knee. In the book “The Last Banner,” Maxwell admits he acted like a stubborn kid stomping his feet and refusing to go. But he also blames Red.
Maxwell wasn’t just moved out of town, he was sent to what he called NBA Siberia… the Clippers. Auerbach went so far as to remove complimentary references to Maxwell from his most recent book. To Red, Maxwell was a distant memory, happily discarded for Bill Walton, who helped the Celtics win their 16th title.
“When Red said the things he said after I left, it bothered me,” says Maxwell. “It was like he was trying to hurt me. Red has the greatest basketball mind that there’s ever been, but I just don’t think that was fair at the end. I don’t think the way it was done was the best. They said things about me, about my integrity, and that’s what bothered me. After everything I had done, they questioned my desire to win. I was involved in two championships and had a lot to do with winning. And to say I didn’t care, and didn’t have a desire to come back, was unfair.”
Racial issues also tinged Maxwell’s time in Boston. The arrival of Larry Bird, and the city’s embracing of him, highlighted a divide which Maxwell was more than willing to discuss.
“The Celtics are a business organization. If they can put more fans in the seats by putting all white players on the team, they would do that, but they have great black players, so that’s not going to happen. I knew there was going to be a certain balance, but that’s justified from a financial standpoint. If there’s going to be one last player on the bench, a black or a white, what’s the difference?
“I enjoyed playing in Boston. It was a great team and a great place to play. I loved the Garden fans. It’s not that anybody hated playing there. We enjoyed playing for the team. But you always had a certain atmosphere there. Why were there never any endorsements for the black guys-other than M.L.
(Carr), who is the perfect example of assimilation? He can be a chameleon. But we had me and DJ (Dennis Johnson) and Robert (Parish), and we weren’t getting any offers and guys like Rick Robey were. Why was that happening? Did you ever see me on TV? That’s just evident.”
I bring this up to highlight Max’s openness to talk about anything and say things as he sees them. What came off as a complaint or criticism was often said as “this is how I see things.” Boston was only a few years removed from violent protests amidst its busing crisis. The historically white NBA had merged with the mostly black ABA while he was in college.
It was a complex time in the city and the league. Racial issues were prevalent. Maxwell saw it, felt it, and ultimately spoke about it.
Loved in Boston, hated most everywhere else. Sometimes, though, Maxwell wasn’t a crowd favorite even among Boston fans. In the early ’80s, Maxwell caught a lot of heat when he said of Boston: “Although it’s OK if you’re an athlete, it’s not an especially nice place in which to be black.”
The heat didn’t bother him. “I say what I believe in, instead of what other people feel I should say,” Maxwell said. “Some people didn’t respect my honesty when I said that about Boston. By being so honest, people sometimes take shots at me because of that.”
Time, as they say, heals all wounds, and it certainly did with Maxwell and the Celtics. A reconciliation between him and Red helped repair the relationship between him and the team. Once Red was ready to move on, Max extended the olive branch.
“The father should not have to apologize to the son. And Red is the father.”
For many years, it seemed Maxwell was destined for a life as the overlooked star in Boston’s storied history. In many ways, he still is. But now, we can appreciate Maxwell for who he was rather than misconception many had of him after his acrimonious departure.
Max was a talker on the court who wasn’t shy to let anyone have it. Before his knee injury, he’d back it up with a virtually unstoppable game within five feet of the hoop.
I was able to knock down some 15-footers, but I remember telling Elvin Hayes that if you cannot stop me from five feet away then why bother going farther away from the basket?!
He’s a Finals MVP and part of two champions in Boston. He’s a guy who loves to talk and loves to have fun with his job… as radio listeners will attest to.
His number 31 was retired 15 years ago and, until Sunday, is the most recent number to be hung from the rafters. Max is part of the team’s fabric now, and we’re better for it. It might have been a rocky road, but that road still led home.
The retired numbers project: