John Y. Brown was a successful owner in the ABA. His Kentucky Colonels did win a championship, after all. But he just can’t put his ego aside long enough as owner of the Boston Celtics to let Red Auerbach do what he does best: build championship basketball teams. So Auerbach presents the minority owners with a choice: get rid of Brown, or he goes to New York. They have no recourse. Auerbach becomes president of the New York Knicks in 1979.
And the first move he makes? Stealing back a draft pick he made earlier. Auerbach knows just how weak Brown is to star power, so he dangles aging All-Star Earl Monroe along with the No. 3 overall pick Boston originally traded New York (in a Bob McAdoo trade Auerbach never approved when he was with the Celtics) for the rights to a player the Celtics were struggling to sign anyway: 1978 first-round pick Larry Bird.
In fairness, the Celtics make good use of that pick, nabbing Arkansas’ Sidney Moncrief. But the Knicks make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals behind Bird and emerging star Micheal Ray Richardson. They hover around that area for the next few years, losing to Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers three times in the playoffs. But Auerbach finally pushes his Knicks over the top by moving Bird to power forward. And, trading Richardson to Golden State for Bernard King.
That deal gives New York the best offense in the NBA. Bird and Bernard are practically unstoppable together, and the Knicks take back-to-back championships. Injuries to King knock the Knicks out of major contention for the rest of Bird’s career, as his back gives out on him in the late 80s and neither player is the same. But the two banners Auerbach hangs in Madison Square Garden equal the two won by Red Holzman in the 70s. And, Bird goes down as the greatest Knick of all time. Not too shabby.
Who replaces New York at the top of the East? That’s a constant battle between Isiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons and the duo of Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing in Indiana. Both teams win championships in the late 80s before eventually ceding the conference and the league to Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
And the Celtics? Brown sells the team quickly after Auerbach leaves, realizing he does not in fact know how to run a basketball franchise. He is the most reviled sports figure in Boston since Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankee. No new executive or coach is able to lead the Celtics back to prominence for over 20 years.
It takes the great history and lore of the franchise to convince their savior to come to Boston. So after his third championship at the college level, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski can no longer resist the lure of the NBA. Thus, he agrees to become the head coach and President of Basketball Operations of the Celtics. The entire region prays that he can be the 21st century’s answer to Auerbach. That he can build and coach his way to title after title. When he uses his 2001 No. 1 overall pick on center Eddy Curry, the city is convinced they’ve found their new age Bill Russell.