Yesterday, the C’s played an exhibition game in Hartford, a small step in renewing what was once a strong connection between team and arguably the least-heralded state capital in the country. All but the youngest of us remember the C’s playing a few regular season games in Hartford every year during the Bird Era, a tradition that ended in the mid-1990s when the Fleet Center opened and a court case allowed Hartford-area residents to watch the Knicks on TV, as the Hartford Courant outlined in a nice story this week.
But there is one tiny bit of Celtics-Hartford history I had forgotten until a friend jogged my memory the other day. Below is an excerpt from near the end of Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s oral history of the American Basketball Association. The person talking is Jim Bukata, an ABA public relations guy, and he’s explaining the final merger negotiations between the ABA and the NBA in the mid-1970s:
Our original proposal to the NBA was for six teams to get in, everyone but Virginia. But the NBA didn’t want Kentucky or St. Louis. Kentucky talked about about moving from Louisville to Cincinnati, but that still didn’t interest the NBA. St. Louis said it would move to Hartford, but the Celtics went crazy, saying that violated their territorial rights.
I’m not sure how serious these talks ever got. Chances are it never got past the “hey, we could move to Hartford!” stage. The C’s were and are a powerful lobby with the NBA, and the Spirits were the most dysfunctional team in all of sports. The NBA would have been crazy to take them. (Seriously—the section on the Spirits in Loose Balls is so funny I often laughed out loud on the subway a few years ago when I was reading it. You literally can’t believe the stories. The book is worth it for that section alone. If you like stories about toothless players wearing mink coats, carrying guns into the locker room and disappearing for weeks before turning up in a pool hall in Dayton, Ohio, this book is for you).
I grew up in Connecticut. There are two ways to look at the possibility of having an NBA team in Hartford during my childhood. First: Can you imagine how sad my sports fan life could have been had I been forced by geographic proximity to cheer for what surely would have been a sorry Hartford Spirits team instead of the Celtics? My father grew up in New Hampshire and is rightfully a Celtics fan, so perhaps I would have taken on his loyalties in any case. But you never know. Kids are really dumb.
Two: Connecticut could have had an NBA team! We have no Big Four professional sports teams since the always pathetic Hartford Whalers gave up and moved to freaking North Carolina. And it was only 10 years ago that Hartford believed—actually believed!—the Patriots were going to move there because of a dispute over stadium funding in Massachusetts. The city signed a (meaningless) deal with the team and everything!
Ugh. My home state always gets screwed on the sports scene. Sure, we’ve got an absurdly high per capita income, some of the nation’s best school systems and dozens hedge funds making the ultra-rich even richer. But can you imagine how much better the life of a Connecticut resident would be if they could drive 90 minutes to Hartford (often referred to as the Baton Rouge of the North) for a Spirits game? Who doesn’t love sitting on I-95 all day and night?
Who am I kidding? I would have been a Celtics fan anyway. How could a little kid growing up in the Bird Era with a C’s fan father choose otherwise?