Cedric Maxwell: A Late-Bloomer Who Made Good, 1981

[Here’s a nice profile of Boston Celtic great Cedric Maxwell, written shortly after he was named MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals. The Boston Globe’s Larry Whiteside did all the excellent reporting and writing for this piece, which ran in his newspaper on June 20, 1981. The article was reprinted in the magazine Basketball Digest in March 1982, and that’s where we found it.]


Coach Paul Jones was talking about one of his favorite former pupils when suddenly the loudspeaker interrupted him. “Donald Davis, report to the office,” the voice of reality intruded in a very harsh tone.”

“Never will get used to all that noise,” said Jones, the head basketball coach at Kinston High School, which has been relocated to the outskirts of Kinston, N.C., a town of approximately 28,000.

“This school is only a few years old,” continued Jones. “And I’m amazed that anybody can find this office, with all the wings we have on the building.”

Cedric Maxwell had found Jones’ tiny office. He had floated through the halls and corridors, being recognized only occasionally. Returning heroes have their place in the academic world. But Max? Well, he was just one of those local boys who made good and had dropped in for a visit. 

Moments after his prized protege left his office, Jones, who coached Maxwell during the only year he played high school basketball, said, “There were some people around here earlier from the Chamber of Commerce trying to plan some kind of day for Max. I told them he wouldn’t want that. He’s not interested in that kind of publicity in his hometown. 

“I don’t believe I’ve ever had a kid that has accomplished as much but has pretty much kept the same attitude. He’s never really changed that much. I’ve never seen anybody who has stayed at such a level as he has. 

“When he was here, we didn’t have an outstanding club, and it was his development that made us as good as we were. The fact that he was being recruited by the University of North Carolina—Charlotte didn’t affect him one bit. He didn’t try to put on a show for anybody. His main interest all along has been what he can do for the team he is playing for. Ironically, I read an article about Max in a Raleigh paper critical of me because I had to cut him from the team as a junior. But the thing I’ll never forget after I asked him to come back for a senior year was the way he worked and worked. You could see his improvement on a day-to-day basis. It was almost unreal. 

“It may just be hard for people to accept the fact that a guy who was cut from his high school team as a junior would suddenly wind up as MVP in the pro World Series. The thing that impressed me watching him on TV in the playoffs was the way he played defense against Julius Erving. That showed me the tremendous amount of work that he has done to make himself what he is today. It’s totally in keeping with what has become his history.”

It was a Sunday afternoon last summer, and when Cedric Maxwell pulled into town after a three-and-a-half-hour drive from his offseason home in Charlotte, it was as if time had stopped. His four-door BMW was a rare sight, to be sure. But until he honked his horn and waved to a few friends, there was little recognition, and then only on a strictly personal basis. Cedric Maxwell was just a guy back home, not the star forward of the NBA champion Boston Celtics, who had earned national attention when he was named the most valuable player in the playoff finals. 

“Cookie Man,” said Maxwell to one greeter. “What’s going on in this town?”

Cookie Man, whose real name is Lindell Williams, was a fellow whom Maxwell had known and played basketball against on the playgrounds of Kinston. He had not been as lucky as Maxwell, passing up college to work in one of several factories in the area. 

“Same old, same old,” he said. “Kinston doesn’t change. Looked for you at the church this morning. Your mother said you might come by. Maybe I’ll see you again before you leave. Check you later.”

“I come home and spend a few days visiting around. It’s good. But I can’t stay here very long,” says Maxwell. “I live in Charlotte and Boston, where I have condominiums. You can get lost in both of those cities.”

The homecoming was brief but warm. At the door was his father, Manny, who says he’s 54 going on 34, and his mother, Bessie, the real strength of the family. Brother Ronnie, 21, was in the combination family room-trophy room. Sister Lisa, 17, a recent graduate a Kinston High School, joined the group later after a tennis date. In a few minutes, Cedric was just one of the family trying to figure out what to do. 

Cedric Maxwell has always been a slow starter, and when fame catches up with him, it always seems as if it is an afterthought. “You know what is amazing?” he said. “It finally happened. I got to the semifinals of the state high school tournament and didn’t win. I made it to the finals of the NIT and Final Four of the NCAA and didn’t win. But when I finally did go all the way, it was the biggest prize of all—MVP on an NBA championship team.”

Much has gone into the making of Cedric Maxwell, the very efficient power forward for the Celtics who emerged as one of the NBA’s superstars with his brilliance in the playoffs. His recent acclaim would lead one to believe that he is an overnight success story. 

But when you trace the story to its roots, you realize that is hardly the case. It is a legend that even the people of his hometown take for granted, for he hardly seems much different to them now from the young man who grew up here. 

The combination of luck and circumstances that made Maxwell the player and person he is now, at 26, has been developing for many years. But don’t expect the typical Tobacco Road rags-to-riches story, even though the tobacco industry plays a vital role in this area. And don’t expect a storybook tale about the poor kid from humble beginnings. 

“My father has always been the silent leader of our family,” said Maxwell. “A good man to look up to. He was a Marine drill sergeant until he retired. He has a way of getting his point across firmly. If I could deal with him, I should have no trouble dealing with [Celtic coach] Bill Fitch. 

“Actually, it was my mother who pushed me along in sports. She played basketball and was a good player. When I was young, she didn’t hesitate to give me a few pointers. When I was cut from the team as a junior, it was she who called the coach and asked what was the problem. She’s a very good judge of talent, and she was upset that I didn’t make it.”

Without luck, Maxwell might still be in Kingston, working in the tobacco industry or for DuPont or one of the other major companies in this eastern North Carolina area. Without luck, he might have had a career in the military. 

“I remember once while Ced was a sophomore at UNCC, I asked him if he considered the military since the school had a ROTC program,” said Manny Maxwell, who now works in a civilian job at Camp Lejeune, about 40 miles from Kingston. “He just looked at me and said, ‘No.’ I knew from that time on that he wanted to play basketball.”

Kinston, N.C., is a regional center for a giant company (DuPont) and the tobacco industry. It has its own jet airport, plus a growing suburban base. Eastern Carolina is not like the rest of the South because of its large black population base. In 1970, for instance, the population was listed in the US Census Bureau at 23,020, and further research breaks that total down to 56 percent white and 44 percent non-white. Today, with more of its white population moved to the suburbs, the breakdown is 51 percent non-white and 49 percent white. Yet it is a town minus most of the racial turmoil associated with many Southern communities.  

“We’ve had problems,” said Mike Kohler, editor of the Kinston Free Press. “But I think we’re a community that licked most of them, not that we don’t still have people on both sides who still harbor hard feelings. We have some run-down housing on the other side of the tracks. Both black and white live there. Our division traditionally hasn’t been black and white. It’s been primarily economic. 

Cedric Maxwell knows all the roads leading into, around, and through Kinston, N.C. He drove his BMW past the Vernon Park Mall, where he would go as an adventure when he was a youngster. Then he guided the car past Grainer High School and the William Mock Gymnasium, a snakepit in Max’s day. Grainer was the white high school until 1970, when full integration was ordered, and black students left Adkins High School, which ironically was the newer of the two buildings. However, blacks had been going to Grainer on a voluntary basis since 1964, Kohler recalls, although not in any great numbers.

“See this neighborhood?” said Maxwell, driving through a particularly fashionable section of Kinston. “This used to be where the rich white people lived. We very seldom got to this part of town, except to go to the school. A little ways up the road is the shopping center. Man, that was a big trip. Going to the shopping center . . .

“See that park? I can remember a time when you would never see any black kids in there. Now look at it. Look at the homes around here. They still look nice.”

Paul Jones has no particular reason for recalling the day he saw Cedric Maxwell for the first time. He just does. It was the winter of 1970.

“We had a ninth-grade team,” he said. “And I just happened to be at the game, in which Max was playing. He was just a skinny kid. We were trying to get the kids from the white and the black schools to play a little bit because we knew it was just a year or two before the two schools would get together and be totally integrated. He came to us as a sophomore and didn’t even come out for the team. When he came back as a junior, he was 6-foot-3 and 140 pounds. It just so happens that we had a few people back from the team before that had won a league and division championship. We were a running, gunning, pressing team. Also, I already had two seniors who looked like they were good centers. Max was slow and really hadn’t developed. His mother did call and asked if Cedric had done anything wrong. I just told her no, and added that he couldn’t help us on this club this year.”

By the time he was a senior, however, Jones had changed his tune.

“I first noticed him in a phys-ed class, and he was up to 6-foot-6. I said, ‘This kid is still growing,’ and urged him to work on a weight program. I told him he needed to play basketball all the time. He was just the kind of kid who just worked and worked and took a basketball with him everywhere. When he reported the next fall, he was up to 6-foot-8 (his present height), and his arms gave him an extra three inches. 

“Even early that season, he was a slow and awkward kid, except for his stuff around the post. There he became fairly good, because he worked at it so hard. We went to a double-post situation, and one post would break out. We kept Max around the basket, and if we got him the ball, there was no way they could stop him. Basically, his pattern as a college player, where he was a center, and as a pro has been the same way ever since then.”

Maxwell was a late bloomer at UNCC, which suffered an identity crisis for the first two years he was there. The club, coached at the time by Bill Foster, had records of 22-4 and 23-3 and couldn’t get a tournament bid. After Lee Rose arrived, UNCC posted records of 24-6 and 28-5, making it to postseason tournaments both years and losing to eventual NCAA champion Marquette, 51-49, on a last-second basket in the semifinals of Maxwell’s senior year. UNCC was 58-0 at home during Maxwell’s four years, including 40-0 at the Mineshaft, the team’s tiny on-campus arena. UNCC was 18-0 at the Charlotte Coliseum, and the only sellout in the history of the 11,666-seat arena was for a game in 1976 when UNCC beat Centenary (La.), led by one Robert Parish.  

“I don’t know how I held Parish to 30 points and 17 rebounds,” said Maxwell. “He was a great player then, and how ironic that we would wind up on the same championship team in Boston. That not only was the first sellout, but it was the game that propelled us into the NIT because they [Centenary] were highly ranked.  

“I’m really happy I went to UNCC. They were the only major school to show any interest in me when I was in high school. It was far enough away from home that I felt comfortable. The team we had there reminds me a lot of the Celtic teams we’ve had here for the last two years. They were a good bunch of guys who happened to come together at the right time. They were intelligent and unselfish. I’ve always enjoyed playing in an atmosphere like that.”

As a scorer and rebounder in college, Max will follow his characteristic pattern: slow but steady progress. In four years, he averaged 16.2 points (1,824) and 9.9 rebounds (1,117). But as a junior, Maxwell averaged 19.9 points and 12.0 rebounds, and he posted figures of 22.2 and 12.1, respectively, as a senior. He was the MVP of the NIT in 1976 and got an invitation to the Olympic Trials, but he had to withdraw because of plantar’s warts on his feet. In 1977, he was named to the all-tournament team in the NCAA finals. 

He had begun displaying his prowess inside, where he continues to enjoy success as a professional. In two of the last three seasons, Maxwell has led the NBA in field-goal percentage, and he finished third last year (.588, 441 for 750), primarily because of the emergence of Parish as an inside threat for the Celtics. 

“I’ve always found something attractive about shooting the ball from inside,” said Maxwell. “When I was in high school, and even in college, I could take advantage of players inside. In high school, my arms were not thick, and it seemed I wasn’t strong enough to get them up to shoot the jump shot. So, I worked on getting loose around the basket. I’ve always been quick, ah my long arms helped me. I can put the ball to the floor, and the guy guarding me doesn’t know what I’m going to do. 

“I began taking more outside shots in college, in anticipation of going to the pros. But I also began shooting the hook shot. It’s a shot you can use without setting up, and the only thing you have to worry about is the guard dropping in to steal the ball if you put it on the floor. When I first saw guys like Kareem and Wes Unseld, I wasn’t sure I could operate inside as I did in college. But as I played around the league, I began to have more confidence in myself.”

Manny Maxwell considers his son Ced a very lucky man. The Boston club he joined in 1977 was only a shell of the Celtics’ team that had won a world championship two seasons before. As a rookie, Max spent most of his time on the bench while the club posted a 32-50 record. Things got worse the following year when Boston hit rock bottom at 29-53. 

“If a youngster goes to an athletic program and is not needed,” said Manny, “sometimes it doesn’t work out. Ced got to Charlotte at the right time. For a while, it looked like he arrived in Boston at the wrong time, but it just worked out.”

At the heart of the problem when Maxwell arrived in Boston was the breakdown at the management level. Along with it came the shattering of the so-called Celtic mystique, a situation that threatened to tarnish all that Red Auerbach had helped build over the previous two decades. 

These were two years of frustration for the Celtics’ fans and for coaches Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, and Dave Cowens. Not until Fitch showed up in 1979 did some sense of order return, and the Celtics immediately took off on two 60-victory seasons. 

Maxwell spent the tough years under Irv Levin and John Y. Brown, hardly models of NBA ownership. The worst offender was Brown, who engineered the 1978 Celtics-Braves franchise swap that killed pro basketball in Buffalo and nearly did the same in Boston and San Diego. Who would have suspected then that a little man named Harry Mangurian, in the background at the time, would play such a large role in the Celtics’ destiny—and Maxwell’s? 

“It was very difficult,” Maxwell recalled. “I felt after we won it this year that I’d survived four years of waiting, four years of going through turmoil, a couple of years of animosity just thinking about being traded, and having all the media pressure on you because of it. It’s not easy to work under three or four coaches.”

Being a rookie and trying to fit into the Celtics with veterans like John Havlicek, Sidney Wicks, and Curtis Rowe was no easy assignment. It was Heinsohn’s last year as coach, and while he loved Maxwell’s offensive ability, his shortcomings on defense forced Heinsohn to play other people. 

“I think I could have played more,” said Maxwell. “But that was the coach’s decision. It’s true that a player needs to be somewhere where he is needed. I liked Sidney Wicks as a friend. He was a good player. But it was like he didn’t seem to fit into what people thought a Celtic should be. They blamed him instead of realizing that we were a team with a whole lot of problems that year.”

If the Wicks-Rowe era under Levin was bad, the one that followed under Brown was worse. The firing of Sanders 14 games into the ’78-79 season didn’t cure the Celtics, and replacing him with Cowens might have shortened the all-star center’s career. Havlicek retired, and the Wicks-Rowe era faded into the Billy Knight-Marvin Barnes fiasco. Knight was eventually traded for Robey. Barnes vanished under his own burdensome weight. 

But of all the problems that erupted during Cowens’ short tenure as coach, none seemed to touch Maxwell as much as the handling of Bob McAdoo, a close friend, whom the Celtics obtained from New York in a John Y. Brown special. Cowens and McAdoo were contemporaries and should have gotten along well. But the two were products of different offensive philosophies, and they clashed. 

That Maxwell and Cowens are friends today is ample proof that bygones can be bygones. For some reason, the players resented Cowens’ blasts at practice, which were no worse than those of Heinsohn and Sanders. 

“Bob was not in a good situation,” said Maxwell. “And everybody knew it. I didn’t think he was being treated fairly, and I still think he is a very good player. I’m a professional, and I didn’t like what was being said about him. He was a professional, too.”

The first time Cedric Maxwell saw Larry Bird, he had to admit he wasn’t impressed. Maxwell was feeling his oats. He’d come off a season in which he led the NBA in field-goal percentage. And he was going into the final year of a three-year contract. 

When he came to his first Boston Celtic training camp in 1979, Bird already had been hailed as the next Great White Hope, but that fact didn’t mean that much to Maxwell. “He was going to have to show me that he could play in the NBA,” said Maxwell. “And we battled and battled every day in training camp. As time went along, my respect grew. I wasn’t worried about how much I got the ball. I had confidence that we wouldn’t have problems, and we haven’t. If I’m open, I get the ball from both him and Tiny [Archibald]. They operate in different ways, but they are both great passers and unselfish, as is everybody on this team.”

A year ago, Maxwell was pondering whether to sign with Boston. Playing with Bird was fine, and nobody was suggesting anymore that Max be traded. But the Celtics also had picked up the 7-foot Parish in a trade with Golden State and had drafted Kevin McHale, another center-forward.

With Cowens returning, the distribution of playing time appeared to be a major problem. Undaunted, Maxwell signed a four-year contract, and lo and behold, Cowens suddenly retired. Parish became the focal point of the Celtics’ inside thrust. But Maxwell still benefited in that he no longer had to worry about facing 7-footers, who had to concentrate on his teammate. And he proved an unstoppable offensive threat once again down low, while also becoming the club’s top defensive forward. 

That he was able to rise higher than most Celtics during the playoffs was reflected in the MVP award that he received. Beyond that, his performance established him as more than just a role player. “I might have had greater success if I’d gone somewhere else last summer,” said Maxwell. “But would I have been on a championship team? You’ll never know, really. Overall, the strength of the team is its unselfishness and the fact that everybody plays a role, whatever it is. 

“For us to be a success [this season], I believe I have to come out and play the same way. I’m sincere when I say that I might be the key for next year. I can’t come out thinking that just because I was an MVP, I’ve got to be a 20-point scorer . . . not on this club. The same chemistry that we had as a team and which just happened this year has to happen again next year if we want to win again. And it will, provided we stay intact and don’t have any major injuries.”

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