On the night of June 28, 2006, Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations, was, like everyone else involved in the NBA, watching the league's annual draft unfold.
The lottery teams, of which the Celtics were one, had all made their picks. Ainge went into the draft with the No. 7 pick, but had dealt it to Portland in a deal that brought Sebastian Telfair and Theo Ratliff to Boston. The Blazers took on Raef LaFrentz's bloated contract, Dan Dickau and then came out of the draft with Brandon Roy (whom they got via trade from Minnesota for Randy Foye).
As the first round entered the late teens, Ainge couldn't help but notice that one of his favorites was still on the board -- a sophomore guard from Kentucky by the name of Rajon Rondo. There were two problems. The Celtics didn't have another first-round pick and had no second-rounder either. (They later would make a deal with Denver for a second-round pick that yielded Leon Powe.) And they were exceedingly money-conscious at the time, staying away from the mid-level exception and the luxury tax. A first-round pick meant spending three years of guaranteed money.
But Celtics principal owner Wyc Grousbeck knew how much Ainge liked Rondo and also knew that Ainge had saved the franchise a ton of cash in the LaFrentz deal. He trusted Ainge's instincts. So it was Grousbeck who posited to Ainge the challenge that resulted in one of the greatest draft picks in the history of the team.
"I told him, if you can find a team, go buy a pick and take Rondo," Grousbeck said. That was enough for Ainge. He found a taker in his old team, the Phoenix Suns, who were sitting on No. 21. Phoenix agreed to draft Rondo if the Celtics would surrender a first-rounder in 2007 (which Ainge had procured from Cleveland in a deal for Jiri Welsch) and take on Brian Grant's contract.
Ainge agreed on both counts. The teams waited for Isiah Thomas to make the Knicks' pick at No. 20, and Thomas went with Renaldo Balkman from South Carolina. The Suns then made the Rondo pick for the Celtics and completed the deal.
At the time, the acquisition of Rondo was viewed as the undercard to the main event, the arrival of Telfair, who was supposed to be the point guard of the future. No one knew then that the speedy Rondo would develop so quickly into one of the league's top players, making Telfair, Delonte West and any other potential point guard candidate in Boston utterly irrelevant.
Rondo was available at No. 21 because there had been some red flags at Kentucky. He had had a brilliant freshman season at Kentucky, only to slump a bit as a sophomore. He clashed with Tubby Smith, his coach at Kentucky. He couldn't shoot from the outside and was a terrible free throw shooter. But he could defend. He could rebound. Boy, could he rebound! And he had a fire that Ainge liked and, as a headstrong player himself in his day, could identify with and understand.
"Sometimes not getting along with your coach is not a bad thing," Ainge said.
In terms of what the Celtics got and where they got it, Rondo ranks as the greatest unexpected draft bonanza in the history of the franchise. Nothing really comes close. (Only five years earlier, the Celtics passed on Tony Parker at No. 21 for Joseph Forte.) Ainge himself was a great pick, but he had the baseball issue hovering over him. Reggie Lewis (No. 22) might have ranked as the greatest steal had he lived long enough.
To get someone at No. 21 and have him turn into an All-Star in this day and age is almost unprecedented. In terms of value for the position, it has to rank at the top. In terms of overall picks that required risk taking or maneuvers, I put it in the top six. (I don't consider the drafting of Paul Pierce a risk pick. He fell into the Celtics' laps.)
And of the five ranked ahead of Rondo, all were top-10 picks coming off full collegiate careers.
The greatest draft picks in Celtics history:
6. 2006: Rajon Rondo
We've already covered the backroom intrigue. On the court, this kid is improving at a meteoric clip to the point where his name can be included in the same sentence with Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Parker without an accompanying laugh track. If he stays a Celtic and is surrounded by decent players, he should shatter Bob Cousy's team record for career assists. He has already passed the Cooz for the single-season record for assists and established a new mark for steals in a season, supplanting Rick Fox. (Quipped Fox, "I feel bad for the guy. When I broke the record, I passed Larry Bird. When he broke it, he passed me.") The Celtics' career mark for steals also is a certain bet for Rondo, as is an annual spot on one of the league's all-defensive teams.
These are the 10 players taken directly ahead of Rondo: Mouhamed Saer Sene, J.J. Redick, Hilton Armstrong, Thabo Sefolosha, Ronnie Brewer, Cedric Simmons, Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams, Oleksiy Pecherov, Quincy Douby and Balkman.
5. 1970: Dave Cowens
Few had heard of this 6-foot-8 human eddy when the Celtics drafted him No. 4 overall. But the Sporting News had him as a second-team All-American and he averaged 19 points and 17 rebounds a game at Florida State.
He joined a rebuilding Celtics team and soon would emerge as one of the toughest, fiercest competitors in the game, not to mention a co-Rookie of the Year and the 1973 Most Valuable Player. He was a major part of two championship teams (1974 and 1976), but his career ended in Boston in bizarre fashion, first as a player-coach on a bad team and then when he announced his retirement during the 1980-81 exhibition season, denying himself a possible third ring.
4. 1980: Kevin McHale
This pick was part of what may go down as the most one-sided deal in NBA history. This was Red Auerbach at his best. He had the No. 1 and No. 14 picks in the draft, but was not enamored of the consensus No. 1, Joe Barry Carroll. He already had been rebuffed by a Virginia freshman named Ralph Sampson, who elected to stay in school rather than declare for the draft, where the Celtics would have taken him.
So Auerbach arranged a deal with the Golden State Warriors, who had the third pick, and also an underachieving, soon-to-be free-agent center named Robert Parish. The Celtics got Parish and the No. 3 pick for picks No. 1 and No. 14. The Celtics took McHale at No. 3. The Warriors took Carroll at No. 1 and Rickey Brown at No. 14.
3. 1962: John Havlicek
Havlicek had had a storied career at Ohio State, but it was played mostly in the shadow of the great Jerry Lucas. He either went ninth (if you count the two territorial selections) or seventh (if you count just the picks) in the draft. Everyone taken ahead of him with the exception of Dave DeBusschere, a territorial pick of the Pistons, was a center or power forward. Havlicek was the last pick of the first round, as there were only nine teams in the NBA.
Auerbach had had his eye on Havlicek for a while. He also liked Bradley forward Chet Walker, who ended up going in the second round to the Syracuse Nats. All Havlicek did in his 16 years with the Celtics is win eight titles, capture an NBA Finals MVP award in 1974, make 11 All-NBA teams and 13 All-Star Games. He is the Celtics' career leader in a number of categories, from games played to points scored.
2. 1978: Larry Bird
Another Auerbachian coup. Bird was still in college in 1978, with a year of eligibility remaining. He told anyone and everyone he would play that final year, regardless of what happened in the draft. But his original college class was 1978 so he was eligible to be drafted. Any team that picked him had a year to sign him. If it did not do so, Bird would go back into the 1979 draft.
It was an enormously risky proposition, but Auerbach didn't flinch. Five teams passed on Bird for various reasons, be they financial or for fear of wasting a pick because he would not sign. Bird held all the cards. The Celtics had the sixth and eighth picks in the draft. Portland had the first and seventh. Auerbach was convinced the Blazers would use No. 7 on Bird so he picked Bird at No. 6.
The Celtics suffered through a terrible season waiting for the new Messiah. Bird did not disappoint. He led the Celtics to three of their 17 titles.
1. 1956: Bill Russell
When you engineer a draft to procure the single greatest winner in the history of team sports, that move ranks at the top. This is non-negotiable. History will show that Russell, coming off back-to-back NCAA titles at San Francisco and an Olympic gold medal in Melbourne, was selected by the St. Louis Hawks with the third pick and traded to Boston. This was, like Rondo, a prearranged deal. The Celtics forfeited their first-round pick that year to use a territorial selection and draft Holy Cross' Tom Heinsohn. Then the draft began.
The Rochester Royals picked Sihugo Green, but, behind the scenes, the Celtics' owner at the time, Walter Brown, promised to send Rochester owner Les Harrison some ice shows, which were huge revenue makers, to not take Russell. Then St. Louis, wary of drafting an African-American, took Russell and promptly traded him to Boston for Ed McCauley and the draft rights to Kentucky's Cliff Hagan.
Russell won an NBA title in his first year in Boston and his last year in Boston. In between there were nine others in 11 years.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.