Salute to Cedric
He has had the nicknames of, "Cornbread" and "Bread", and a hand-painted banner that used to hang over the first row of the upper balcony in the old Boston Garden read, 'Mad Max', but sharp Celtics fans young and old simply know him as, "Max". And, like all great Celtics players of the past, "Max's" number is up!
On ceremonies to be conducted at halftime of the Minnesota Timberwolves game on Monday, December 15, the Celtics will honor Cedric Maxwell by retiring his familiar #31 jersey to the FleetCenter rafters. His number, the 22nd overall to be retired, will be the sixth on the third retired number banner, joining #3 (Dennis Johnson), #33 (Larry Bird), #32 (Kevin McHale), #35 Reggie Lewis and #00 (Robert Parish).
But before we fast forward to December 15, we should reflect back to the beginning.
Now, "Max" was not known for any bone-jarring picks, any slick behind-the-back ball handling or any being 'the man' running the offense. No, not now and not then.
What Cedric Maxwell did was become the perfect role player and consummate teammate for the Green and White teams of the late 1970's and early 1980's. Did he usually have to guard the opposition's top scoring forward? Yes. Did he have to box-out and fight for his position down low almost every trip up and down the court? Yes. Did he speak his mind and confront issues? Yes. Did he keep his teammates loose and laughing in those tight and white-hot pressure times? Yes, he did.
Cedric Maxwell is a unique man, a 'character' at times, but he also possessed character in a rare form of personality that, quite often, left people either scratching their heads in bewilderment or rolling-in-the-aisle with their sides splitting from repeated doses of laughter over something hilarious that "Max" had either said or done.
A classic example of this came in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (Round 2) series of the 1984 playoffs, against the New York Knicks. Max and his teammates knew they were in for a battle. The Knicks had quality players: Bill Cartwright, Leonard "Truck" Robinson, Ray Williams and… Bernard King. King, a 26.3 points per game scoring machine during the regular season, was Max's assignment. In the First Round of the 1984 playoffs against the Detroit Pistons, King torched the Pistons averaging 42.6 points per game in the five-game series. He posted games of 46, 46, 41 and 44 points in the last four games of the series. But Max, being Max, proclaimed to his teammates that 'Mr. King was not going to score 40 on me.' And King didn't score 40. He scored 43 and 44 points in two of the seven games, respectively. But Max and his teammates held on and won the series 4-games-to-3.
As a collegiate standout at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Maxwell's achievements and accomplishments set the precedent for his future success with the Celtics.
Throughout his brilliant four-year (1973-77) college career, he averaged 16.2 points and 9.9 rebounds in 112 games. He was superb his senior year, averaging 22.2 points and 12.1 rebounds in 31 contests. No shock that he finished as the school's top scorer and rebounder.
Despite being virtually unknown in his junior year (while averaging 19.9 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), he managed to win the National Invitational Tournament (N.I.T.) Most Valuable Player award. Along the way to garnering the MVP hardware, "Max" just happened to set a tournament record by connecting on 20 consecutive free throws. However, it was Maxwell's performance in his senior year (1976-77) at UNCC that launched him into the public eye, where he has since remained to this day. "Max" and his 49ers team stunned the basketball world by taking the post season to new heights and making it to the NCAA Final Four, where a buzzer-beating basket by tournament champion Marquette eliminated his gallant squad.
The Celtics, rebuilding and in need of front court assistance, selected the Kinston, North Carolina native in the first round (the 12th pick overall) of the 1977 NBA Draft.
Another North Carolina native and recent Hall of Famer, James Worthy, shared his thoughts on Cedric, "I grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina and Cedric played at UNCC-Charlotte, which was about ten minutes away from my house. So I grew up watching and admiring Cedric Maxwell. I actually saw he and Robert Parish play against each other in 1974-75 and those two were instrumental in my early thought process about the game."
And what about those Celtics-Lakers rivalry, James? "He guarded me a lot during my early years with the Lakers. And, he was a handful, because he was not only a great physical talent but he knew how to get into a young players head with the conversation," concluded Worthy.
Can't you just hear Johnny Most say, "That Maxwell is unbelievable! He gets killed out there by these big guys who outweigh him by 40 to 50 pounds and he looks like he is only put together with rubber bands and pipe cleaner wires! Yet, somehow, he finds a way and gets the job done."
Game after game, Max would draw the assignment of having to guard the opponent's top scorer. Can you remember the classic battles with Julius Erving or Adrian Dantley or Bernard King? Talk about pressure night-in and night-out, and trying and neutralize a player who averages over 20 points per game! No small feat.
Most people perceived Max as a defensive 'stopper', which he was. But the man could score effectively because he would twist, turn and slide his way through the traffic of bodies in the paint for a, seemingly easy-looking, two points, which was, usually, followed with a free throw attempt.
"Max had the uncanny ability to know exactly where his defender was at all times during a game," explained Celtics President Arnold 'Red' Auerbach. "He had long arms, excellent head-and-shoulder moves and he was a player who got terrific position in the low post."
Another long-time Lakers foe and a Hall of Famer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, added, "I thought Cedric was a great competitor who had a great college career and he came and made the Celtics a complete team. He gave them bench strength or if they needed him to start, he was there to do that. He was really a versatile and competitive player who had a great work ethic."
In just his second season, 1978-79, Max established a Celtics record (that stood until 2002-03 when Paul Pierce broke it) when he made 574 free throws out of 716 attempts. The following season, he set the Celtics single season record for field goal percentage, shooting an astonishing .609%. In fact, he led the entire NBA in field goal percentage in consecutive seasons (1978-79 and 1979-80) – one of only twelve players in NBA history to accomplish this achievement.
In the early 1980's, with the addition of players like Bird, Parish and McHale, the make-up of the team changed but Max was Max - consistent and dependable game after game. This was never more evident than in the post-season play when, in 1981 against the Houston Rockets, Max averaged 16.1 points and 7.4 rebounds in 35.2 minutes per game while shooting 58% from the floor and 82% from the free throw line. He was deservedly named the Most Valuable Player.
Post-season example #2 came in 1984, Celtics vs. Lakers and the focus was on the first Bird and Magic NBA Finals since their NCAA championship battle in 1979. June 12, 1984, series tied at three games apiece, one team goes home a winner and other team goes home, game 7 at the Boston Garden. Prior to the start of the game, Max in typical fashion, uttered his famous phrase, 'just hop on my back boys, and I'll take you on in.'
A man of his word, Max did just that. He poured-in 24 points to go with 8 rebounds and 8 assists in the 111-102 victory and clinching the franchise's 15th world championship title.
The man who shared the Celtics frontcourt for several seasons with Maxwell and a recent Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Parish (whom Max dubbed 'The Chief", after Chief Bromden, the silent giant of a man in the movie 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'), fondly reflected on his teammate saying, "Cedric was the ultimate teammate. He was a professional with a great work ethic. He always showed up for the big game when we really needed it most. He put his ego aside for the betterment of the team. He made sacrifices, which is tough to do for a professional athlete. I have always admired Cedric Maxwell because before we all came down… he was 'the man'."
Max retired from professional basketball after the 1987-88 campaign. He began his career in radio and did some coaching as well. In 1995, Maxwell was named the Celtics radio analyst and today, along with Sean Grande, form the best radio tandem in the NBA. The love and knowledge of the game of basketball combined with humorous and personable interplay between the two announcers makes it easy to see why they are successful and enjoyed by Celtics fans everywhere.
"He used to say he was going to retire and then spend all his time driving around Kinston in a Cadillac, but he was knowledgeable and extroverted enough that he couldn't get away from the game," explains Patriot Ledger and veteran Celtics beat writer Mike Fine. "It was funny when he was coaching the Long Island Surf and everyone ribbed him about the "Smurfs." I think that whetted his appetite to stick around, and he was a natural for the radio analyst job. He grew into it slowly, but I think he's as entertaining and honest as any analyst out there."
Cedric Maxwell enjoyed an 11-year NBA career, eight of which were spent wearing Celtics green and white. He remains the Celtics all-time leader in field goal percentage, shooting an impressive .559 from the floor.
Former teammate Larry Bird, perhaps, summed up Max and his career the best with the following thoughts, "It was an honor for me to play with Cedric. He was in the league when I got there and he taught me a lot. Cedric was a great teammate and I am happy that he is being acknowledged by the Celtics in this special way."
Enough said. Max, your number is up, your time has come and on December 15 the celebration will unfold.