[When Bostonians today wax nostalgic about the great Celtics teams of the 1970s, the name Jim Ard rarely, if ever, enters the conversation. But the 6-foot-9 Ard, who spent parts of three seasons in Boston (1974-1977) was always a capable backup to Dave Cowens. He also came up clutch for the Celtics during the 1976 NBA Finals, knocking down two free throws against Phoenix in the final seconds of the Game Five triple-overtime thriller that propelled Boston to the league championship. Ard’s free throws put Boston ahead 128-122, providing Boston’s final two-point margin of victory in this NBA classic. That alone should entitle Ard to free beers for life in the Bell in Hand Tavern.
But Ard, a journeyman forward/center, had to scratch, claw, and just plain wish for his three years on the Celtics roster. This article, published in the Boston Globe on November 7, 1974, details Ard’s first night scratching and clawing to remain a Celtic. Reporter Peter Gammons writes a first-rate story to capture the moment, shared by so many basketball journeymen past and present. Don’t for a second feel sorry for Ard, though. He handled his business just right off the court. After his last hurrah with Chicago in 1978, Ard shined as a top sales rep with a number of prominent corporations. Interestingly, his first sales gig was with Honeywell in the city whose pro basketball team will forever rue his two clutch free throws—Phoenix.]
The day began with a quiz show, and, as best Jim Ard remembers, it was “Hollywood Squares.” Followed by Jack Chase and Shelby Scott and the Channel 4 news team and on to Carol Wayne and “Celebrity Sweepstakes.”
Not that Ard really watched any of them, from the game shows to the celebrities to the daytime hospital dramas. He lay there in his bed in the Holiday Inn, Burlington, thinking about one thing.
“I decided,” Ard was to say an hour after he and the Celtics had finished with Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers, 128-110, “that I had to change my routine. So, I stayed there in bed, watched television, and ordered myself a late meal. Usually, I get up a lot earlier and go out and do some errands, but not today. I had to change, to get my mind clear about things I might have to do or he might try to do to me.
“I knew I had to have a good game—for the team. We needed it, and to beat Portland you had to do something with Walton. And, for myself, every game is very important.”
For Jim Ard, these three or four weeks before Dave Cowens’s return are very important. When Cowens is able to play, it is probably going to come down to this: either Henry Finkel goes or Ard goes. And Finkel has been here six years and knows the Celtic system. He throws the right picks, plays the big centers, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, and Nate Thurmond, well. To the Celtics, the brotherhood of professional basketball, to have served hard and well means something.
For Ard to stay around, he has to really show he can play. And it is not that easy, especially with an if-he-is-so-good-how-come-he-got-let-go-so-often stigma hanging over his head.
After his final All-America season at the University of Cincinnati, Ard was the first draft choice of the Seattle SuperSonics and the New York Nets. Six-foot-9, 230 pounds, quick, agile, he chose the Nets.
It was a major ABA coup. “They said: ‘If you sign, you’ll get a lot of time to learn.’ They weren’t specific as to exactly how much learning time I’d get, but I’d get a lot.
“I got it.” He tapped three times on a bench in front of his locker. “Right here.”
By the middle of last season, he was playing for the Memphis Tams (still being paid on the three-year contract by the Nets), but the Memphis Tams were: 1) owned by Charlie Finley; 2) drew referees, players, and almost no one else; and 3) were almost as good as the team Walton was playing for at the same time—UCLA. In February, Ard was released and took his wife, five-year-old daughter, and new baby back to Cincinnati. To school.
“I contacted some teams, including the Celtics, to see if they’d be interested in a big forward or quick center. The Celtics said” ‘Yeah, sure.’ but I got a contract in Philadelphia. So, I went there first.” He failed in Philly and ended up in Buzzards Bay, Mass., a 26-year-old refugee from the Tams and 76ers.
Then, in the preseason, Cowens was hurt, and because Ard has surprised everyone, the opportunity was there. But nothing has been said to tell him it’s not a lame duck position. “I know,” he said. “I know very well this might be the last-ditch opportunity for me, so I have to run out there every day and do what I can. Someone might be watching. You never know about tomorrow. You never know when a Cowens gets hurt.
“Pressure? I don’t feel it from sportswriters; I don’t feel it from fans. If there is pressure, and maybe there is, then it comes from one place—Jim Ard.”
They announced No. 34, Jim Ard, center. Then John Kiley played the national anthem, and it began so well. The Memphis refugee won the jump from the millionaire Walton, raced down for a tip-in basket—2-0.
There were some other very good moments, like his little push jumper from about 20 feet to make it 16-10 Celtics. Or a sweeping hook through all sorts of traffic—24-20.
But there were some bad moments, too. With 14 seconds left in the opening quarter, Ard fell into a daze; Walton rolled down the lane and jammed. And Ard went down to the other end and hurried what was to be a quarter-ending play. Then 63 seconds into the second quarter, High Henry checked in. To a High Henry ovation. And the Celtics reiterated that somehow somewhere Jim Ard gets lost for a minute or five.
“I was a center in high school (in Harvey, Ill., just south of Chicago) and all but one year at Cincinnati, the year Rick Roberson was there. But, in New York, my experience at center was in maybe 50 percent of the games, then maybe a two- or three-minute blow, while Billy Paultz rested. And that’s it. So, this is a learning process for me. This team is fantastic to me. Guys, when you’re playing or when you’re on the bench, tell you things, give you advice. I have to remember them.”
But those moments, the bad moments, do happen. Like the time Walton glided through the air, unmolested, enroute to a glorious jam. “Look,” said Ard, “Walton is very tough offensively, very quick. I wasn’t expecting him to do what he did and got caught.
“Those things happen offensively, too. As one can see, most of the time I’m playing with my face to the basket. Now, when Dave Cowens is in there, they have a lot of plays for him to go low, get the ball down there. I wish we had a little more of that, where I knew where I was supposed to be, because now, every once in a while, I find myself drifting out to the perimeter, where I can’t rebound, and my percentage shot is poor. But there’s a lot to learn to play with this team.
“You know something, it’s also a lot different when you’ve been playing for a last-place team, and you go to a first-place team. That’s quite a mental adjustment.”
Two quick (and questionable) fouls, numbers three and four, sat him down early in the third. But Ard came back to play the entire fourth and played well. On the night, Ard played 28 minutes, in which time Walton had eight points. He had 14 points, six rebounds, three assists, a couple of steals.
In his time on the floor, the Celtics had outscored Portland, 80-62. The margin of victory. But, as it ended, PA announcer Jim McAloon’s voice boomed out through the Garden. “We have two winners of the Panasonic Celtics MVP award tonight . . . First, for a tremendous defensive performance, H-E-N-R-Y F-I-N-K-E-L.” And the 12,134 roared deservingly.
“I know there’s this competition thing,” Ard said, “but I don’t like to think or talk about it. I’m not an All-Star one-on-one player. I’m not Rick Barry; I’m not Julius Erving. I can run; I can rebound; I think I can do a good job. And I think this team is a perfect situation for me.”
One reporter stood scribbling as Ard dressed, and soon there was a whole circle. Wanting to know what it was like to play against Walton. What Ard thanks about Walton.
“He’s going to be nice. He’s got some great moves—putting it on the floor and bringing it up so quickly. He’s got a helluva touch; in fact, I’d like to see him shoot more, but it’s not in his nature, I guess. He passes well, and his teammates know if they give the ball to him, they’ll get it back.
“Defensively? Not extremely quick, but quick. He was telling me he likes to drop back, not block my shot, just bother me. But, after I shot, he was really aggressive going to the boards. And he really gets it out there to the outlet man fast. A couple of times, they got it down the court faster than the Boston Celtics. He’s got a lot of talent with him, but what they need is a Don Nelson or a John Havlicek. They need that kind of player.”
Ard talked about how he had planned to run as much as possible against him, but a couple of times made the mistake of waiting as Walton came slowly up the floor. “Next time,” he said, “I’ll try to run even more. I don’t want him to catch me. First time around, I really didn’t know what to expect. Next time, it’ll be a little different.”
Next time. Ard isn’t really worrying. He’ll finish up his degree in marketing this summer. “Then, if I need it, I’m ready for 9-to-5. Wall Street. And I may need it.”
But, for the time being, he is putting all the ifs and buts out of his mind. His wife, daughter, and now nine-month-old son are arriving tomorrow, and, when the furniture gets here, they’ll move into an apartment he’s rented in Peabody.
“Anything,” he said, “can happen. After all, after three years on the bench in the ABA, I’m here. Right? We beat Portland tonight. Right?”
And Bill Walton, too.
Bonus Coverage: This video mentions Ard’s two clutch free throws in Game Five of the Phoenix-Boston 1976 NBA Finals. Ard makes his cameo appearance at around 6:19.)