The Long Island Celtics. How does that sound?
Believe it or not, it could have happened.
Nearly five decades ago, the owner of the Celtics wanted to move one of the most storied franchises in sports history to Long Island.
It was 1970, and the new owner of Boston’s NBA team was a New Yorker named Woody Erdman. According to stories that appeared in Newsday and the Boston Globe that year, he immediately began lobbying Nassau County officials to let him relocate his franchise to the under-construction Nassau Coliseum, which was planned to open in 1971.
So, it wasn’t the county trying to woo the Celtics’ owner to the arena being built on Hempstead Turnpike. It was the other way around.
“I’m a New Yorker, and it’s natural for me to want my teams to play in New York,” Erdman said in Newsday’s March 27, 1970 edition. “I want my teams to play in our Coliseum.”
Imagine that. The Celtics, who had won 11 of the past 13 NBA championships, were considering leaving the aging parquet floor at the Boston Garden (41 years old at the time) for a shiny new home in Nassau County.
Erdman was attracted to New York for several reasons: the size of the market, its television potential and his ties. According to a Newsday profile, his company TransNational Communications owned the radio rights to the Mets and Giants. He hired former New York star athletes, Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford and Giants defensive back Dick Lynch, as vice presidents.
“It’s so utterly incomprehensible now that a team with their reputation and their success was in that circumstance one year after their 11th championship, but they were,” longtime Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan said recently. “They were!”
Don Chaney, a Celtics player at the time who would later coach the Knicks, added: “It’s kind of a scary thought, and I’m saying that only because of tradition.
“It doesn’t even sound right, the Long Island Celtics.”
To understand how the Celtics became wannabe Long Islanders, it’s important to understand the Coliseum and the NBA landscape at the time.
According to stories published in Newsday at that time, Nassau County officials began talking about a new sports and entertainment arena in the early 1960s after the Air Force abandoned a 1,000-acre air base at Mitchel Field. By 1969, construction was finally underway following years of talk of how to best utilize the land, and the county began searching for an operator.
The field of more than 20 potential arena managers was whittled down to seven by the spring of 1970, with Nassau officials saying their primary goal was to attract major-league sports to the area.
Madison Square Garden was involved in the bidding, as was Roy Boe, the owner of the ABA’s New York Nets. But the ABA was still trying to gain its footing, and the Nets were playing their home games at the Island Garden, a 5,000-seat arena in West Hempstead. Nassau wanted more.
Enter Erdman, owner of the Celtics and the NHL’s Oakland Seals.
News that Erdman bid to operate the arena and promised to move his teams to Long Island — as early as the 1971-72 season — appeared in Newsday on March 26, 1970. The story made no secret that this was a longshot for a number of reasons.
Among them: Madison Square Garden would have to waive its territorial rights to the area as the owner of the Knicks and Rangers, and the owners in both leagues — the NBA and NHL — would have to approve those franchise moves out of Boston and Oakland.
Erdman, though, wasn’t concerned. He said he would be willing to pay the Garden in exchange for waiving the territorial rights or else take it to court in an effort to force the issue. He was confident that Nassau officials would pick his group because of the Celtics.
“The name of the game is make money,” Erdman said. “The difference, I think, is we are offering Long Island major-league sports. Madison Square Garden isn’t.”
The Boston Globe wrote six stories that referenced the possibility of the Celtics’ move while also noting that there was precedent, citing the moves of baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1958 and the Milwaukee Braves in 1966.
“The Long Island Celtics, somehow it doesn’t sound right to me,” Boston Garden president Eddie Powers told the Globe. “It sounds like the Foxboro Patriots.”
‘Different world’ for NBA
Ryan, the Boston Globe sportswriter, was 24 at the time and finishing his first season as the Celtics’ beat writer. He said he remembers being somewhat over his head covering this story, traveling to New York City to meet with Erdman and his staff about their intentions.
Ryan covered the Celtics for most of the next two decades before becoming a sports columnist in 1989. He said the story didn’t stand out in his memory despite the impact it could have had on the team. He said the NBA was a much smaller-scale operation in which anything was possible.
The Celtics were about to finish their first losing season in 20 years and in flux.
“The league in those days was still virtually a mom-and-pop store compared to what we know today,” Ryan said. “They made up things as they went along. Annually they would change the playoff format. It was a different world.”
Even during their historic dynasty, the Celtics didn’t draw nearly as well as the also-ran Bruins did. The Bruins missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons from 1960-67, finishing last six times, but Boston was much more of a hockey town.
Ryan remembers spending the season chasing reports that the Celtics were struggling financially. “They were so strapped for cash that airlines and hotels were demanding cash,” he said, and reports in the Boston Globe then support his memory.
Chaney played seven seasons with the Celtics beginning in 1968. He recalled hearing rumblings of a move to Long Island but said he paid little attention to it.
“The Celtics changed ownership so much in those days that your emphasis wasn’t on that,” he said. “I can remember in those early years, when you got your check, you rushed to the bank to deposit it because you weren’t sure it would go through.”
Another player on that team, future longtime NBA coach Don Nelson, said via a text message from his Hawaii home that he had no memory of the rumors, either. Images of the news stories Newsday had run then did not jog his memory. Of course, he acknowledged news traveled a tad slower back then.
This is what sportswriter Will McDonough wrote in the Boston Globe on May 10, 1970: “Obviously, when Erdman purchased the Celtics, he had moving to Long Island on his mind. There’s a big arena going up in that area and it could be a gold mine for a regular tenant. Erdman sees what the Mets and Jets have done on Long Island in recent years and wants the basketball end of the action.”
‘What if’ that never happened
A Globe headline pointed to June 5, 1970, as the day when the Celtics’ “exodus” to Long Island could become official. But by the end of May, Newsday reported the Celtics’ bid had been eliminated by Nassau officials. It proved to be the best-case scenario for all parties.
That December Nassau asked William Shea — the man responsible for bringing the Mets to life — to take over the Coliseum process, and Shea told Newsday his priority was “work on getting the major-league teams” for Long Island. Later that year, the Islanders were born.
As for Erdman, his company fell into bankruptcy in early 1971, and the Celtics were returned to their previous owner. Erdman died in 1997. His family declined to comment.
For the Celtics, their dalliance with Long Island quickly became a distant memory.
“That’s one of the many great ‘what ifs’ that are out there,” Ryan said. “And that’s a great one.”