The three banners hanging from the TD Garden rafters are rather bold and stark. Twenty-two numbers and one nickname. No separate flags as in other arenas, for there is really not the room to accommodate them properly. Three.
They are sort of an abridged explanation to the 17 championship banners that reside adjacent. No team has won as many titles as the Celtics, and no team has retired as many numbers.
And, as evidenced by a left tackle (77), pass rushing defensive end (99), strong safety (36) and cornerback (37) on this year's Celt roster, no team has a more limited supply of desirable digits.
It seems a mortal lock that you'll never see another Celtic wear Bill Russell's 6 or that any of the other numbers will find their way back into circulation, but the subject was raised a while back within the organization.
“I brought it up, but I never followed up,” said president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “It's not really been anything anyone else has thought about as much as I have — and that might have been a year ago or two years ago.
“I just thought that it's going to be weird when we have a guy in a triple-digit number, like 103 or something. But as far as using some of those numbers again, I think at some point it will need to happen. I don't know when that is. And anyway that'll be Wyc's decision,” he said, referring to managing partner Wyc Grousbeck.
What's interesting here is that some who've been given the rafters honor don't seem to be bothered by the prospect — though, again, it should be pointed out that this is not a concern for the foreseeable future. And even when it is, no doubt the three iconic banners will remain.
Also of important note is that Marcus Smart, the aforementioned strong safety who landed at 36 after his first two choices were off the board, holds the retired numbers sacred.
“I say leave it for the simple fact that that's our past, you know? A lot of those guys paved the way for us, and they definitely should be honored with the highest honor of having their numbers retired,” Smart said. “They're the ones that started the tradition of the championships in Boston and everything, so I'm fine with it.
“You know, the number don't make us. You've still got to go out there and play, regardless of what you're number is.”
Still, each year there are new players joining the Celtics and expressing disappointment with the small choice of attractive numbers.
“Everybody says it,” said Smart. “But that just shows the bloodline of championships and winners in one city and on one team. You know, when you barely have enough numbers for your players, it shows a lot about your success. At the end of the day, you've got to work with what you've got. I'm sure a lot of players have numbers they don't want or that they didn't want at the time. But it is what it is.
“First in wanted No. 3. That was my number growing up. It was my brother's number. I got it tatted on me because of my brother. When I got to college, I had to change it to 33, because in 2001 the whole basketball team at Oklahoma State died in a plane crash, so they retired every last person's jersey, and 3 was one of them, so I took 33. Then I got here, and obviously 3 (Dennis Johnson) and 33 (Larry Bird) are retired.”
“It does look weird,” Smart said with a smile, “but it's aaahight.”
Said Ainge, “I think the number selection could become a deal. It never has, but it could.”
And before it might have been an issue three years ago, Donna Harris Lewis stepped in with a blessing before anyone could ask.
“I remember that when we were recruiting and visiting with KD (Kevin Durant) that Reggie Lewis' wife was a hundred percent wanting KD to wear Reggie's No. 35,” said Ainge. “She reached out and said, ‘That would be an honor for me and Reggie to have KD wear the number.'
“So I think there's some people that might have that attitude. Some people might not.”
There are more important distinctions for Tommy Heinsohn, still a part of the organization with his role on Celtic television broadcasts. But it wouldn't bother him to be calling a game in the Garden and see a 15 on a Celtic uniform.
“No,” Tommy said. “I don't think it makes any difference. But I mean, many of the guys that have their numbers up there, you can't ask that question to.
“But the era where they won 11 out of 13, they should put stars next to those guys' numbers. These guys that they're putting up now, good luck. I mean, they're really, really good players, but they didn't produce the results that we did,” he said, adding a laugh to the latter portion of that compound sentence.
“I don't think they're going to be putting a lot of people up there anymore. I mean, they've got to win titles. Are you going to put (Kevin) Garnett up there? He was, what, three years here, two years here (actually six), won a title. Basically his whole career was out at the other place. It's way different now. Teams I played on, they players played virtually their entire career here — and were very productive.”
For Dave Cowens, there are more important things than numerals.
“I'm getting to the point where I'm getting older and I don't give a (expletive) about anything,” said the 71-year-old who was a part of championships here in 1974 and '76. “Hey, they're putting role players in the Hall of Fame now.
“I wouldn't really care if someone else wore 18. What's the difference, you know? I think people understand what your legacy's all about. And is it a number. I doubt if very many people knew that I wore No. 18, but they knew that I knocked (Mike) Newlin and down and said, ‘Now THAT'S a foul.' They remember that. They don't remember your number. They remember diving on the floor.”
And regarding a number staying in service, Cowens said, “There's already been precedent for that set with (Jim) Loscutoff. I mean, he was like, ‘You're not going to retire my number; just put my name up there.' Bob Brannum wore it, and then Loscy and Bailey Howell and then me. We were all were the same kind of players.”
That point is illustrated even further in the case of Cedric Maxwell's No. 31. After Max was traded for Bill Walton in 1985, Fred Roberts, Ronnie Grandison, Xavier McDaniel, Joe Johnson and Mikki Moore all wore 31 before it went to the ceiling 16 years ago.
When the subject of re-issuing numbers was raised with him, Maxwell smiled.
“If there's a Team I Don't Give a (expletive), I'm on that one,” he said. “I'd be on that one. It doesn't make any difference to me. Most of those numbers up there, nobody knows who they are anyway. Half those numbers, I mean, the great ones like Larry Bird and Russell, people know those numbers. But most people don't know my number. They might know Robert (Parish, 00), but a lot of those numbers aren't even known, so I really don't care.”
Max raises a good point. Former Celtic general manager Jan Volk was speaking to middle school students in Boston some 15 or more years ago and got blank looks when he mentioned Kevin McHale's name. (The teacher later told Volk it was a generational issue. Then Volk asked him if he knew who Sam Jones was. He didn't.)
So while simply putting numbers up may look cool, there's some thought that including names in a ring of honor or other form may further honor the players and keep their names fresher in fans' minds.
But, according to the person with the power to make the call here, the numbers will remain where they are.
“They're up there for a reason,” said Grousbeck, “and they deserve to be up there enshrined. And it would take a very special circumstance of a very special player and a bond with the former player or the former player's family to cause an exception. But really, they're up there for a reason, and that's where they're going to stay.
“It's been talked about with various players that we've wanted to get here who have certain numbers. And you can always talk to the family, but it would be a very case by case basis.”
As Maxwell put it, “He'd have to be a hell of a player to come in here and put on No. 6. He'd better be a HELL of a player.”
But 31? Max wouldn't find it strange to see another Celtic don it.
“Look, I saw Mikki Moore wear my number the last time, all right?” he said, breaking himself up with the thought. “So if you want to talk about seeing something weird… And then it still gets retired. That's a weird story for you.”