New Court, Old Flair

Like all NBA organizations, the Boston Celtics is constantly subject to change in various capacities. As the years come and go, so do the players, legends, ownership groups and venues.

But there is one constant that persists in Boston: The playing surface that you see every time you turn on your television to watch a Celtics home game.

The parquet floor.

Its red oak is equally iconic as the legends that ran, sweat and bled on its surface, and it’s as emblematic as the 17 NBA championship banners that hang high above it.

With an intricate parquet pattern, a thick shamrock green border, and, of course, that winking, smirking, basketball-spinning Lucky the Leprechaun logo that covers center court, Boston’s parquet floor is easily the most identifiable hardwood surface in the world of sports.

“I think the parquet floor is there with the Green Monster at Fenway and maybe very, very few other places in the world,” says Celtics’ managing partner, governor and CEO Wyc Grousbeck. “It’s just instantly recognizable, unique and soaked in championships.”

However, as one can imagine, a wood surface can only last so long under constant wear and tear.

The original court was a well-traveled, battle-tested surface that lasted the Celtics more than 50 seasons. It first showed face inside Boston Arena during the team’s inaugural 1946 campaign. It was then re-installed at Boston Garden in 1952, before eventually traveling to its most recent home, the TD Garden (formerly known as the Fleet Center) in 1995. Along the way, it witnessed the raising of 16 NBA championship banners above its surface.

It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that the original floor was finally retired; it was replaced by a replica version on Jan. 3, 2000. The new court served as a sanctuary for a fresh generation of Celtics, a generation that would eventually raise the organization’s 17th championship banner in 2008. As it turns out, that would be the only title that particular floor would ever play home to.

Last season the league mandated that every NBA team must replace its floor at least once every 10 years. It wasn’t easy for the organization to let go again, but it was inevitable, explains team president Rich Gotham.

“We had a couple of chips in the floor and we said, ‘You know what? It is getting a little beat up and a little worn down so it’s probably time for a new floor,'” says Gotham. “But anything you cherish, you’re reluctant to let it go.”

The Celtics, being an organization of honor and tradition, were not willing to completely part with the past. When a new court was constructed prior to the 2015-16 season, fresh panels were mixed with floorboards from the original parquet; wood that may still harbor Bill Russell’s sweat, Larry Bird’s blood, and maybe even a few ashes that drifted down from one of Red Auerbach’s victory cigars.

“Engraining some of the original floor in the new floor to keep the DNA going, it just continues the tradition and it makes it more powerful,” says Grousbeck.

It gives the new court some old flair. And it might just be the flair that this young, promising Celtics franchise needs as it begins to carve out a path to its next championship.

A Unique Floor for a Unique Franchise The Celtics have always cherished home-court advantage, and that’s not only because they play in front of the greatest basketball fans in the world. It’s also because there truly is no surface in the NBA like their parquet floor.

C’s legend Larry Bird says that the uniqueness of the floor is “symbolic of the Boston Celtics.”

“I think it’s the first thing that catches your eye,” he says. “Most floors are pretty standard, but when you see the parquet floor it’s different.”

It’s different in various ways.

First of all, the Celts were the first NBA organization to play on a parquet court, and are currently one of only three teams in the league (along with the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets) that have one. There are many forms of parquetry; Boston’s court features alternating panels of wood, which intersect at perpendicular angles to give it an interwoven look.

Secondly, it’s the only floor in the league that is made out of oak; the other 29 courts are derived from maple.

Such distinctions have enabled the Celtics to stand out since the franchise’s inception in 1946. That was not, however, the intention of team founder Walter Brown, as his organization was simply a victim of circumstance during the post-World War II era.

Wood was scarce following the war, so the East Boston Lumber Company provided what wood was available. They were able to piece together uneven scraps of oak, which, unbeknownst to them at the time, would eventually be regarded as one of the NBA’s finest works of art.

The Celtics sustained that oak parquet tradition when they replaced the floor in 2000. And they upheld that tradition when they replaced it again ahead of the 2015-16 season.

“The legacy and the history of that floor dating back to World War II…” gushes Gotham. “The construction of it, being a product of what wood was available in that point in time and that parquet paneling being a result of the size of actually the wood pieces that you could get at that time. That stuff’s all part of the history that we would never want to see changed.”

The Celtics are now closer to that history than they have been since the turn of the century due to the re-integration of those original panels. The original floorboards, however, only account for a minuscule percentage of the lumber needed for the construction a brand new floor.

For that project, the team turned to an old friend nearly 1,200 miles from the confines of TD Garden.

The Milling and Construction Process Being an organization of pride and perfection, the Celtics needed to find a manufacturing company that they could trust to replicate the floor in such a manner that it was indistinguishable from its predecessors. It didn’t take them long to decide, as they called up Connor Sports in Amasa, Mich., the same company that replaced their floor in 2000.

“They’re the same people we’ve been working with for years,” says Gotham. “So it was easy just to say, ‘Listen, they’ve done our floor in the past, we don’t want change, we like the way it is.’ We want a vendor who can do it the same way it was, so that if you’re a fan walking into the Garden you will not know the difference.”

It’s also comforting to know that Connor is led by a team of individuals who fully understand the history and tradition of the Celtics.

“I don’t think there’s any other surface in sports that means as much to a team or to the sport as the parquet at Boston Garden,” says Connecticut native Andrew Campbell, the portables project manger for Connor Sports. “The floor itself is a defining feature, so it’s a pretty neat experience and it’s important for Connor to be a part of that.”

The Connor warehouse is located in a desolate region of the upper peninsula of Michigan. It sits on a vast landscape with an expansive supply of wood, stacked high throughout its yard.

During the last week of August of 2015, a fresh stack of specially graded oak arrived to its grounds, and the employees got to work on the manufacturing the Celtics’ future court.

“When we get [the boards], they’re random length, random width,” says Randy Hansen, Connor’s flooring mill manager. “If it comes green, the first thing that we do is we go through the stacker shed process to get it up on sticks, and then it goes to the yard to get that dry time.”

Once the lumber is dry, it goes through the ripsaw process, which cuts the boards to a desired width.

The wood is then taken to the “defect area,” where they remove all knots, voids and cracks, before it’s finally sent through the regular production line to be graded and fabricated into panels.

The boards go through a tongue-and-groove process along the way, which enables the parquet to be pieced together.

“The tongue-and-groove holding the boards together [is] similar to a puzzle,” explains Jon Isaacs, the vice president and general manager of Connor Sports. “And they’re nailed down just below the surface so you can’t see the nail, and each board is nailed exactly the same way to promote uniformity in installation.”

Those boards, when nailed together, eventually form a single 5-foot-by-5-foot panel. Portable panels are normally 4-by-7 or 4-by-8, but an exception was made in the Celtics’ case in order to replicate the original floor.

Once each of the 264 5-by-5 panels are padded and properly assembled – a process which takes roughly a week – they go through one last trim to ensure perfect measurements.

The wood is then stacked onto two flatbed trucks and shipped off to the finishing site.

Praters Finishes the Job Roughly 950 miles south of Connor Sports is its partner in crime, Praters Flooring, located in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The two companies work hand-in-hand during most projects; Connor manufactures, while Praters completes the finishing touches, such as sanding, sealing, graphics and painting.

Praters was founded in 2003, so it was not in existence when Connor helped replace the original surface; however, that doesn’t mean the company is out of the loop when it comes to understanding the tradition behind Boston’s famed floor.

President John Prater recalls that once the league-wide flooring mandate was established last season, “The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Is the Celtics’ [floor] up for replacement?’ That’s how important it is.”

Prater is prideful of the perfection his company strives for when tackling a project, but he held this particular job in the highest regard. The floor spent more than five weeks in Chattanooga, which is nearly twice as long as an ordinary project.

“Parquet is a different animal,” explains Prater. “It takes a lot more time and attention to sand a parquet floor. Every other board, 50 percent of the floor, is running perpendicular to the court, so it makes it difficult to sand.”

Once the court is sanded and sealed, Praters’ employees apply the court’s striping and graphics.

The striping step is, in essence, the administration of all game lines. Most of those lines, such as the sideline and baseline boundaries, are straight and simple. There are others, however, that are complex, such as the free throw circle and the 3-point arc. For those, Praters uses a hand-held machine that is specifically designed for the taping of game lines.

“This machine has a radius pole that has a fixed point on one end,” explains Mark Frainie, vice president of events/graphics at Praters. “We’re able to swing the machine around a fixed pole while tape is being rolled out under the wheels.”

At this time, Praters also begins the process of manufacturing the on-court graphics. To form the graphics, they use cutting software that traces vectored lines with a razor blade onto a piece of vinyl. This enables them to create a detailed stencil, which can then be painted.

An Ode to Red The Celtics’ floor, like all others in the NBA, has its standard set of graphics. These include the team logo, the league logo and other various inscriptions throughout the surface.

Boston’s parquet floor features one graphic that stands out above others.

On Nov. 2, 2007, one year after the death of Red Auerbach, the Celtics honored their patriarch by naming the court after him. The ceremony also included the unveiling of a special graphic near the Celtics’ bench.

“When Red passed away I said we would put his signature on the floor,” says Grousbeck, whose Celtics went on to win their 17th championship less than eight months after the ceremony. “That’s how much it means to me, because Red Auerbach means more than anybody else really in the history of this franchise.”

The Celtics had Auerbach’s signature enlarged to cover a 9-foot-3-inch section of the court, right in front of the sideline where he held his post for so many years.

“We never put anything on that floor before,” says Gotham. “We thought that was about as authentic a tribute as we could provide, and of course, no one has or probably ever will win as many championships on that parquet floor as Red Auerbach, so he belongs there.”

Auerbach’s daughter, Randy, calls it the ultimate honor.

“To be able to see it every time we look when we turn on the TV, when there’s a game or there’s a press conference or something and you see the signature… you well [up] with pride,” says Auerbach. “Because not very many people have had that honor.”

Now there is a new flare that comes with that distinction.

Every one of those original floor panels that the Celtics sent out to Michigan now lie exclusively beneath Auerbach’s signature. Connor’s Technical Manager Randy Randjelovic indicates that just the thought of working with such history is enough to raise the hair on one’s arms.

“The great players, not only Celtics players, but think of players that were here,” Randjelovic says wondrously. “Great players from other teams that one time or another took shots off those floors, dove on those floors… maybe even a famous Red Auerbach stomp on the floor when he didn’t like a referee’s call. There might have been some cigar ashes right on some of those.”

Once that signature was stamped into place over the old panels, the floor was painted, sealed and cured for 10 days inside Praters’ warehouse. As soon those 10 days were up, it was time for the floor to journey off to its new home.

The Return of Parquet Pride On Oct. 21, a little more than seven weeks after the initial manufacturing process began, the Celtics’ fresh parquet floor was loaded up on two flatbed trucks and shipped a little more than 1,000 miles from Chattanooga to its final stop in Boston.

It arrived to its new home at TD Garden two days later, and representatives from Connor Sports and Praters Flooring were there to assist with the initial installation.

Among them was Campbell, a New England native who was raised to bleed green.

“It’s something I grew up watching on TV, watching the Celtics play, so for me it’s a really neat experience to be here in this building with this floor,” says Campbell. “If you told me 20 years ago that I’d be sitting here in Boston Garden helping to install the new parquet, I think that would be a pretty cool thing to do.”

On any given day, TD Garden’s “Bull Gang” crew is responsible for transitioning the arena from an ice hockey configuration to a basketball surface, and vice versa. The process takes several hours as they cover the ice with 425 sub-floor panels, then bolt down the 264 parquet panels.

“Every panel has a five-foot rod of steel on two sides with a pin that attaches one panel to the next,” explains Campbell. “So we line up the holes and drop the pin in and slide it closed, kind of like a door, and then drop a pin on the other side.”

Once the floor was assembled for the first time in its new home, employees got to sit back and appreciate the work of art they had created.

“When it’s something that we’ve done, that we’ve touched, that we’ve been a part of, there’s really no words to describe the joy and pride that you feel knowing, hey, we made this happen,” says Lisa Vito, Connor’s portable business manager. “And then when everybody else is watching the game, you’re watching the floor.”

Five days after that initial installation, the Celtics opened up their season on the new floor and graced it with a 112-95 win against the Philadelphia 76ers. For the players, it was a neat experience knowing that they were playing on a piece of history.

“Back in the day when Bird and all those guys were playing, the floor was the same parquet floor,” says guard Avery Bradley, the recipient of last season’s Red Auerbach Award, which is given annually to the player or coach who best represents what it means to be a Celtic on and off the court.

“It’s cool to be a part of that tradition,” he adds.

Understanding that tradition, according to Auerbach’s daughter, is what Celtic Pride is all about.

“The Celtics have a unique family and all the players feel it. And I think that’s what Celtic pride is,” she says. “You take pride in the legacy, you take pride in the championships, you take pride in the arena, the team, the whole sense of what was built here, because it was like no other place.”

Now, that pride is enhanced evermore by bringing back a piece of the past.

“The floor is so iconic and to keep that going and to put the little pieces of the old garden floor, I think it’s such a lovely thing,” says Auerbach. “It parlays the legacy into the next generation.”

Adds Gotham, “It’s a great way to marry the history and the tradition with the move forward onto the next championship.”

Perhaps the return of those old parquet panels will be just the fuel these up-and-coming Celtics need to light their fire en route to Banner 18.

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Daily News – February 17, 2016