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Hoop Dream Come True

When the Boston Celtics meet the press,
Jeff Twiss is the man in the middle

by Jeff Wakefield
photograph by Tracy Powell

The buzz of lights far overhead is the loudest sound in the vast emptiness of Boston’s Fleet Center. With tip-off for tonight’s Celtics-Knicks contest three hours away the arena may be near-silent, but Jeff Twiss ’77, the Celtics vice president for media relations, is well into the rhythm of his own game. He’s distributed a to-the-second, gate-opening-to-the-end-of-the-halftime-show schedule far and wide; brokered an ESPN interview with the Celtics star duo Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker; and juggled the myriad details that go with a nationally televised game. Now, as he does so often but usually not so literally, Twiss attempts to remove obstacles from a place where professional basketball and professional journalism meet.

He is concerned that the long, electronically equipped press tables that flank the basket are not leaving enough of an escape lane for players crashing the hoop. “God forbid an $8 million athlete trip and fall over these wires,” Twiss murmurs good naturedly. Up until now, my function as reporter/writer/lifelong Celtics fan has been mainly to gape starry-eyed at my backstage pass to the NBA. (Confession: I’m in awe of what I’ve seen of Twiss’s life on the job — a world where you walk nonchalantly through the pre-game locker room, not giving a second glance to Coach Jim O’Brien’s plays diagrammed on the blackboard, a world where Knicks color commentator, Walt Frazier, shoots you a quick “Hey, Jeff.”) Now, with Twiss’s encouragement, I actually make myself useful, putting my body into the offending tables like a power forward clearing the lane.

Twiss has built a solid career during 22 years with the Celtics in a job that would be the envy of many. Talk to colleagues about Twiss’s formula for success and you’ll doubt that adage about where nice guys finish.

“You can’t miss his sincerity. It smacks you right in the face,” says Celtics great Tom Heinsohn, the former player, coach, and current broadcaster.

“What stands out is his sheer sincerity and warmth as a person,” concurs Bob Ryan, the Boston Globe’s basketball guru.

“Jeff is the greatest guy in the building and the best in the 42 years I’ve worked here,” says Huzza Howard, chief steward of the Fleet Center’s service corps, through a thick South Boston accent.

The overwhelming evidence says that Twiss is well liked because he’s genuine, considerate to a fault, and makes a habit of going far out of his way for people. But when it comes to members of the Celtics family, Twiss turns on the thoughtfulness afterburners.

Before one game during Walter McCarty’s first season with the team, Twiss noticed that the friendly young forward and defensive specialist was stocking his energy reserves with a Nestle’s Crunch, and singing the praises of the candy bar. McCarty played well that night and the Celtics won. Twiss has carefully placed a Crunch bar on the bench in front of McCarty’s locker for every game since, more than 300.

Athletics and Entertainment

From Bird and McHale to Pierce and Walker, Twiss has seen the evolution of the franchise and the NBA. In the 30 years since the team was coached by the legendary Red Auerbach, the National Basketball Association has undergone a night and day transformation. Not surprisingly, the communications function that Twiss manages also has been transformed.

“When I was playing,” Heinsohn says, “it was a throwback era. We would do anything the PR guy wanted because we were trying to popularize the game. Since the Larry Bird era, these guys are at the pinnacle of attention and we’ve ended up in the entertainment business. Players are a little bit more temperamental about their PR commitments.”

Auerbach is less circumspect about the challenges of dealing with contemporary players. Picture that trademark cigar in Red’s mouth when he says, “These guys have a lot of money guaranteed. They can tell you to drop dead.”

This, one suspects, is where the job gets tough. Being nice is nice, but someone in Twiss’s shoes better have a lot more going for him. He says persuading players to do what is right for them — and the organization — is the most challenging part of his job. At its most difficult, that means getting them to agree to appear on the ubiquitous, content-starved, sports radio call-in shows.

“The print guys go to practices and pretty much get what they need there,” Twiss says. “The radio shows are generally on from noon to three,” before practice starts. “They call in to the Fleet Center and they always want the flagship players, which puts pressure on us.”

Twiss’s people skills are put to the ultimate test in these situations. “I’ll tell a player, ‘It will help you out, it will show that you’re more than a basketball player.’” Twiss also reminds players that a radio appearance will give them an opportunity to showcase their community projects.

“People in Jeff’s job tend to bug the players,” Auerbach says. “They feel they’re going to be made to do something” — an interview or a promotional appearance. “But in all the years he’s been here, and all the players he’ been associated with, not one has had a bad word to say about him.”

It’s a few minutes before the 7 p.m. gate opening, when I see my opportunity to get, if not a bad word about Twiss, maybe something with a little more spice to it. The press is relaxed at courtside, as a a mellow hip-hop beat wafts from the sound system, and a few players warm-up. With a wry sense of humor, The Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett presides over a group of writers. I seize my chance, ask Bulpett if there’s anything behind the PR man’s nickname: “Twister.”

Bulpett is enjoying the question, since there is so clearly no wild side to Twiss, and the two are obviously good friends.

“Let’s see: Ozzie Nelson at home, Ozzie Osborne on the road?,” Bulpett suggests tentatively. He reformulates the question for himself, “What would a wild night on the road be for Jeff Twiss?” After a few moments he has it: “Staying up until midnight and watching the late news.”

At the Patrick Gym Microphone

Jeff Twiss’s fascination with the Boston Celtics began with watching the era of Bill Russell and John Havlicek roadcast on a fuzzy black and white signal to his home in Vermont. The son of a high school principal and superintendent in Stowe and Vergennes, Twiss, like a lot of kids, had hoop dreams of his own. “But one day reality hits you in the face and you realize you don’t have the skill,” Twiss says. He began considering other ways he might have a life in professional sports.

At UVM he worked at his studies and sought out extra-curriculars that would serve his sports aspirations well. He wrote a hockey column for the Cynic, called play-by-play on WRUV, and manned the PA during men’s basketball and hockey games.

Twiss was at the mike for what many consider to be the most memorable game in UVM men’s basketball history – the Cats’ unthinkable 1977 upset of a highly ranked Ohio State team. Pulling himself away from the post-game celebration — “Patrick Gym was bedlam,” he says — Twiss seized the opportunity that had been handed him. He contacted Wynn Elliot at CBS Radio and asked if the network would like a story on the game. Using the studio of Burlington’s WJOY radio, he put together a report. CBS broadcast the tape internationally on its worldwide sports radio program.

Jean Condon was faculty advisor to PE majors in Twiss’s era and remembers him well. In an advising session toward the end of his UVM years, Condon asked Twiss a strategic question: “What happens if you don’t get a teaching job?” — not so unreasonable a query in a market glutted with male PE teachers.

“Jeff would have gotten a job teaching tomorrow — good people always get jobs,” she says, “but there were so many other interests burning in his gut” she wanted him to consider.

To open him to new possibilities, she asked Twiss to write down his dreams on one side of a sheet of paper and the reality of how to get there on the other.

“We had such a good talk about dreams,” she says. “He thought in very small terms — maybe working in a sports information office at a small college.” Condon knew he was a Celtics fan, so she asked how he’d like to work in the front office for the team. “He didn’t think he’d ever be able to do but he was willing to listen to me.”
Condon made a cold call to the Celtics and miraculously landed Twiss an internship. “He was so wide-eyed, sponging everything up, and so excited,” she says.

After graduating from UVM, Twiss got a teaching job at Randolph High School in central Vermont. But after a few years, he again felt the pull of a life in professional sports. A master’s degree program in sports management at the University of Massachussetts led to a second internship with the Celtics.

It was fall of 1981 when Twiss was at the end of that internship. He was driving Auerbach home from a preseason game in Providence when the coach asked. ‘How’d you like to work for the Celtics?’”

“He was reliable, sincere, and direct,” Auerbach, ever the judge of basketball talent, recalls. “I thought he’d be a good addition to the Celtics staff.”

Game Night

For the record, Vermont Quarterly rates a spot between the the Brockton Enterprise and the Cape Cod Times at the Celtics press table. It’s a bizarre experience watching an NBA game at floor level, the realm of Spike Lee, Jack Nicholson, and anyone else with $500-and-some to spend on a ticket to a basketball game. The distance and frame that a television camera provides puts the game’s grace on display. Here it’s all exertion and squeaking sneakers, a five-on-five game at the local Y — with some faces you recognize and some moves you don’t.

Knicks shooting guard Latrell Sprewell is torching the Celtics in the early going, making every shot. Vin Baker jams it twice. Twiss has told me he tries to maintain a professional demeanor during games, “curtailing it a bit,” even when the hometown crowd goes wild. I turn and find him standing stoically at the periphery of the court, true to form.

The Celtics end up winning easily, a far cry from the hard fought battles of the Bird era. After the game, Twiss collects me and again transports me to the NBA’s backstage. I witness Coach O’Brien’s post-game press conference — a surprisingly brief affair that features remarks about Paul Pierce’s basketball mastery from the coach, who wears an unsmiling warrior’s expression throughout. We pass by the Celtics’ locker room, where two clumps of writers have sequestered players hidden from view, presumably Pierce and Walker.

Cinderella had her midnight reality check; I have the 11:30 p.m. “sharp” closing of the lot where I’m parked two blocks from the Fleet. Lost in my waning moments as a basketball insider, I don’t remember this until 11:25. Twiss insists on walking me to my car to be sure all is well.

As we hustle toward St. James Street, all I can think of is Twiss’s outsize thoughtfulness. If I’m locked out of the lot, there’s a better than even chance Twiss will invite me to spend the night at his home. As much as I’ve enjoyed his company over the last seven-plus hours, I’m ready to say my good-byes — and suspect he is, too.
To our joint relief, the lot is open. But while paying up, I fumble my keys in the darkness…and snow. What should be a simple job of finding them isn’t, and the parking lot attendant, to no avail, positions his SUV to shine his headlights on the area where they dropped.

I’m again contemplating overstaying my welcome with a night at Chez Twiss. Then, ever the problem-solver, Twiss rescues us both by spotting the keys in a pile of slush, and he sends me on my way with a friendly pat on the back and a “drive safe.”

Moments later, both exalted and addled from a long day, the highway in my headlights, I begin to compose my story lead. “The Greek philosopher Diogenes, who spent his life looking for an honest man, would have been well served by a trip to the Fleet Center.” I know it’s late, but I’m thinking it could work.