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May 13th, 1968

This One Was Worth Shouting About

With a coach at center who has mastered his job and a remarkable lieutenant who whirls around him, the Celtics do it again

Frank Deford

 

 

He came out after the final triumph in a coal-black suit, the coat a frock that was cut slim and long, in the style of another era. With the tall, gaunt, slouch figure, the beard and an old, scarred valise, the silhouette he outlined across the California night made a wildly impressionistic tableau, like Abe Lincoln leaving for Freeport to even up the series with Stephen Douglas. The kids chased after him, reaching out to touch him, to snare the frock for a moment. "Loo-oove him," one of them said loudly, hoarse with awe. Bill Russell, the very epitome of ability and victory in sport, and his Boston Celtics had won again. There were some who just stood on the parking lot and watched till his rented car had gunned down the 400 block of South Prairie Avenue and its taillights had merged into the traffic at the intersection of Manchester Avenue.

 

Red Auerbach, his coach for so long, had stood in the balcony at the Spectrum in Philadelphia four weeks ago and watched Russell that very same way. Russell had been warming up then for the fifth game against the 76ers. The Celtics were down 3-1 and, despite all the never-say-die bromides that have been tossed around since then, it is doubtful that at that stage anybody truly believed Russell and Boston would go on to their 10th world championship in 12 years. Auerbach himself, at that dark time, lapsed into the past tense. "There are some people," he said, biting off the words because the notion so angered him, "who have already forgotten how great that man really was."

 

But Russell was about to remind them all. His Celtics beat Philadelphia 4-3, and then last Thursday night in Los Angeles they closed out the Lakers 4-2 in the NBA finals, as Russell achieved a personal accomplishment unique in the history of team sport. Russell coached and he starred but, more than that, as he has for the past 15 years, he positively determined the nature of the game and, in the end, the result. What more is left for him to achieve in his sport? "Well, I don't know, because I never had a goal," Russell said, nodding. "To tell you the truth, it's been a long time since I tried to prove anything to anybody." He paused. "I know who I am," Bill Russell said.

 

"He is an unbelievable man," Jerry West said, shortly after the Lakers had lost the final game 124-109. "To be frank, we gave them the championship. We gave them the first game and we gave them the fifth. But I take nothing from them. There is something there, something special. For instance, twice tonight the ball went on the floor and Siegfried dove for it. He didn't just go for it hard, he dove for it. And they're all that way on the Celtics, and you can't teach it."

 

Whatever it is, an aura, a drive, a tradition, it hangs on the Celtics like a fine early dew. It was typical that without warning in the playoffs Don Nelson, a Laker reject who was once waived by every team in the league, would dramatically emerge as a sixth man in the classic Celtic mold, and that John Havlicek, having himself risen in these playoffs from sixth-man stature, would move all the way into the ranks of the NBA superstars.

 

As the team captain, Havlicek is officially Russell's deputy. He alone stands with Russell, a sidekick, Tonto to his Kemo Sabay, spiriting the offense as Russell does the defense, transmitting Russellian rebuttals and suggestions to the officials.

 

There has been no such tandem on the Celtics since the halcyon days of Russell and Cousy, and while the reserves played out the last seconds of the final game, Russell sat on the bench with Havlicek and in high glee wrapped a taped hand about his captain's shoulders and hugged him again and again. Sitting together—both tall and thin, long-muscled and angular, similar yet most dissimilar—they were reminiscent of the two happy scotties that adorn a Scotch bottle. Havlicek is as white—a pale sea-shell hue—as his coach is black. Russell's shoulders sag while Havlicek's always remain effortlessly high. Little rivers of perspiration are always dripping down the V that is Russell's face, eventually trickling off the tip of his beard, while everyone marvels at how Havlicek hardly seems to break a sweat. He appears to lose more moisture at the knees, which are forever bloodied, like a little boy's.

 

Dry and cool, Havlicek is never fazed by having to shift constantly from guard to forward, a move that is the key to Boston's offense. The transition affects only the opposition. When L.A. Coach Butch van Breda Kolff was ejected from the fourth game his only specific parting instructions to his fill-in, Guard Gail Goodrich, were what changes to make when Russell moved Havlicek.

 

Because Havlicek can play the whole game at top speed and because he can move about the lineup so nimbly, he makes it possible for Russell always to replace whoever is tired or cold with the best man on his bench, regardless of position. Never has a coach had that flexibility. Indeed, using Wayne Embry—who played a vital role against Philadelphia—and Tom Thacker only sparingly, Russell managed to beat the Lakers with one center, two guards, two forwards and Havlicek.

 

This demands a wise and precise rotation of substitutions, and Russell managed it superbly. There was no repetition of the playoff gaffe last year when he apparently completely forgot that Sam Jones was sitting on the bench in one game.

 

" Russell did a fine job of coaching this year," Alex Hannum said after the Celtics had eliminated his 76ers. "He is more aware of situations. Some things he did last year—well, I just had to scratch my head at them. There was none of that this season."

 

Feeling perhaps more secure as a coach, Russell this year was not afraid to solicit Auerbach's opinions occasionally. And, says Havlicek, "right before the season started Russ called a meeting of all the veterans. He closed the door, and he said: 'Look, this is a tough job I have, and I really need your help.' He encouraged us to speak up and make suggestions. There was the feeling last year that we were supposed to do that, too, but it was never explicitly stated to us, and this made a difference."

 

Coach Russell made it clear, though, that he was prepared to make the final decisions. Russell is more of a disciplinarian than Auerbach was, and Auerbach himself was no Mary Poppins. For example, once this season Coach Russell fined player Russell $500 for getting snowbound and missing a game.

 

Russell is capable of all kinds of surprises, in fact. The Celtics bounded exuberantly into their locker room after their final victory Thursday night, and even as the screaming and hugging was going on Russell took charge of the premises. He evicted the team owner, Marvin Kratter, his old teammate, Tom Heinsohn, and even a TV technician, who kept pleading that he could not desert his equipment. The intruders dispatched, Russell called for attention and startled his charges by stating that he felt a prayer would be appropriate before any further exultation. He then turned to Bailey Howell, who had scored 30 points and was reveling in his first championship, and Howell led the Celtics in prayer.

 

Until this final game, a lopsided confrontation, the teams had traded victories in sequence, Boston moving ahead 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, with neither team showing much obeisance to the supposed home-court advantage. In championship play this is an overrated factor anyway, and it was no factor at all on Thursday, when a record playoff crowd at the Los Angeles Forum saw the Lakers turn in their worst game and the Celtics their best.

 

The Lakers threatened to get into the game only once after Singer Johnny Mathis crossed up the smart money and went to God Bless America instead of The Star-Spangled Banner. That spurt came midway in the first half when Van Breda Kolff sent little (6'1") Goodrich into the backcourt alongside West. Havlicek, who was to score a series high of 40 points in the game, Howell and Larry Siegfried had made all of the Celtic first-quarter points and had rushed Boston in front 28-13. Goodrich got the Lakers running, picked up three layups and a free throw and cut the edge to 39-32 after 90 seconds of play in the second period.

 

Then Sam Jones came to life and settled the series. In his first six years as a starter with Boston, Jones had never failed to average more in the playoffs than in the regular season, a feat that is rare. But Jones is almost 35 now, and it has been a decade since he started keeping a diary when he arrived on the team. He figured he would only be around a few weeks and it would make interesting reading someday wherever he settled down to teach school. This year his playoff figures fell off, for he has slowed just enough that he can't penetrate for the good shots. He was scoreless in the sixth game when Russell called for a shift of Jones up front, with Havlicek moving back to guard. Goodrich, guarding Jones, now had to move inside, too, and in there is where six-footers die.

 

Jones got the ball and quickly swished a short shot over Goodrich's stretch. He came right back and banked another in over Goodrich. Immediately Van Breda Kolff's hand was forced, and he had to take out the man who had stirred up his team. It was too late, though, for Sam Jones had switched the momentum to the Celtics. They ran the count to 47-32 before the Lakers called time, and the contest was not at issue after that.

 

The decisive game was not really this one, anyway. It was the fifth, in Boston. That was the 100th league game for the Celtics, making them the first NBA team to achieve this dubious and debilitating milestone. By then they should have been tired, if not altogether wasted. Since the middle of the first playoff round against Detroit, a series in the distant past that only a few Civil War drummer boys can still recall, Havlicek and Russell had been playing virtually every minute. "I'm a 28-year-old man with a 48-year-old body," Havlicek declared. The Celtics survived only because, it now seems, Russell rested himself near the end of the regular season and restricted his and Havlicek's play to a relatively low 36 minutes a game. Since the NBA penalizes teams that work hard for regular-season success, forcing the first-place finisher to meet the third-place team while the runner-up gets the fourth-place club, and since, for that matter and without all the details, the season is simply horribly long, it can be expected that more teams will bench their stars and thus dilute the regular-season product in the future. Russell's Law is clear: blessed are the rested, for they shall inherit the championship.

 

The fifth game was an overtime game, a fitting excess. Boston twice had it won, moving to a 19-point lead in the first quarter behind Don Nelson and, after losing all that, to an 18-point margin late in the third quarter. Splendid in their gaudy royal purple road uniforms—the shade is about midway between the color of an overripe plum and the Archbishop of Canterbury's vestments—the Lakers managed to regroup splendidly, and with reserve Center Mel Counts shooting over a momentarily lulled and languid Russell, Los Angeles came back to tie it at 108 on West's layup with 12 seconds remaining.

 

Late in overtime, West tied it again at 117 all, but Havlicek threw in a 20-foot jumper with 38 seconds remaining. The Lakers now went to Elgin Baylor on the left side. Nelson was guarding him, and Elgin began to yo-yo his old roommate, the classic 1 on 1. Suddenly, with no discernible warning, Baylor whirled to his left and started his shot. It was inches on its way when from out of somewhere, from Commonwealth Avenue or Cape Cod or from 1960, Russell's great arm flew up and swatted the ball to a teammate. Nelson made a free throw a few seconds later that clinched the game 120-117.

 

Jerry West was at last starting to dress after Thursday's final game when Russell, in his frock coat, toting his ancient suitcase, came out through the crowd and began to break through the waves of people, nodding as the cheers rolled along in his wake. "They can talk about individual players in any sport," West said, now almost alone in defeat, "but I tell you what, when it comes to winning, there is no one like him. Some of these guys in other sports, in baseball and football, I know they're great, but in comparison.... I play this game, and I know. I know. What has this man won? Ten championships. Ten championships in 12 years. Has there ever been anyone like him?"

 

"I remember they were calling us old when I came in, and that was six years ago," Havlicek had said. "We were fighting that then." Havlicek has now played on more championship Celtic teams than Bill Sharman did, and remember, Sharman's retirement was going to be the first crack in the dynasty. Everybody said so. Now they're all gone but Russell. He has outlasted every player in the league who was there when he came in. Just consider the Celtics who played with him, won their championships and have gone: Cousy, Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, K. C. Jones, Jim Loscutoff, Andy Phillip, Arnie Risen, Jack Nichols, Gene Conley, Gary Phillips, Carl Braun, Clyde Lovellette, Jack McCarthy, Willie Naulls and Auerbach, too, of course, and Buddy LeRoux, the trainer. The owner, Walter Brown, died, and the owner after him, Lou Pieri. The team was sold and still has gone on, so that now Howell and Embry have their championships with Russell, too.

 

"Is there any greater tribute in sport than the simple one of being a winner?" West asks. "Is there? This guy here is the greatest of them all."

 

Russell moved the last steps through the crowd, and there were children there old enough to be out at night, reaching to touch him or just to call out to him, who had not been born when he and the Boston Celtics won their first world championship.

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