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February 25th, 1963

v.s. Los Angeles Lakers: Basketball At Its Toughest

A real feud is a rarity in pro sports, but one now rages between the champion Boston Celtics and the exuberantly menacing Los Angeles Lakers

William Leggett

 

THEY WANT AT EACH OTHER—BAD

 

It was one hour before the Boston Celtics were to play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first of two important National Basketball Association games last week when Bob Cousy walked into the Celtic dressing room at Detroit's modernistic Cobo Arena. He was carrying a suitcase in his left hand and a copy of the Boston Traveler in his right. He took off his black wool coat with the alpaca collar and the Kelly-green team blazer that bears the gold Celtic emblem on its breast pocket. Then he sat down, almost savoring the attention that his very silence had drawn to him, opened the Traveler and looked at a headline that said: L.A FEELS CELTS ARE WASHED UP. Cousy leaned forward and began to read. Three other Celtics, Bill Russell, Frank Ramsey and Tom Sanders, came to Cousy's side, and they too looked at the story. No one spoke, until finally Sanders nudged Russell and whispered, "Oh, great and noble bearded one, we have a job to do tonight."

 

Cousy said nothing at all, but as he put on his uniform he began to blow nervously into his fists. For 13 years Cousy has been the leader of the Celtics, and for 13 years when he has wanted to summon that reserve of talent that seems to be his alone he has blown into those fists. "I've worked hard to build the image of Bob Cousy," he said. "It has gotten terribly difficult for me to get myself up for every game, to keep the image. But for a few specific games, I still can." Any game against the Lakers puts Cousy to blowing on his fists.

 

Fifty yards from where Cousy was dressing, the Los Angeles Lakers were walking into Cobo Arena, swinging their baby-blue gym bags at their sides. There is a touch of Sunset and Vine about this team. Its players come from places like Brooklyn, Gary, Ind. and Cabin Creek, W. Va., but they have all developed a distinctive, exuberant flair, the kind of thing Bostonians by nature don't like. Elgin Baylor, the Laker star, looked out on the court and saw three Celtics—Sam Jones, Clyde Lovellette and Dan Swartz—starting to practice. Baylor unbuttoned his magnificent raglan overcoat with the red lining, took a penny from his pocket and tossed it at the Celtics—the gesture that bored customers once used to drive bad vaudeville acts off the stage. Baylor then turned and walked to his dressing room with a confident smile on his face.

 

Field of unfriendly strife

 

Thus the scene was set for still another round in as fierce a grudge match as pro basketball has ever known. The Celtics, old, experienced, unbeatable for years, just don't like the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers, young, brash and good enough to challenge anybody, just don't like the Boston Celtics. And that is what both the talk and the action demonstrated on successive nights in Detroit and Boston last week when the Celtics beat the Lakers, the Lakers beat the Celtics and pro basketball showed everybody that it is a game that is played for real.

The two games were important to both teams, though each has all but clinched its division title. First, there was the NBA rule that gives the team with the best over-all season record $2,000 and an advantageous schedule for the playoffs. The Lakers' record was 46-14, the Celtics' 43-18. There was also the matter of the Lakers' attempt to break the NBA record of 60 wins in a season, a mark set just a year ago by, naturally, the Celtics. Finally, and most important, there was the unalloyed pleasure each team would get from beating the other.

 

The last time the teams met, the pleasure had been the Celtics'. That night a stray Los Angeles elbow caught Bill Russell on the business end of his beard and laid him out like a seven-foot throw rug on the floor of the green and gloomy Boston Garden. This made the Celtics so angry that they vowed on the spot to win this one for poor Bill. Poor Bill, meanwhile, was back on his feet in no time winning it on his own. So the Celtics charged from behind to a 133-121 victory and broke an 11-game Los Angeles winning streak as well.

 

"The Lakers," says Red Auerbach, the volatile Celtic coach, "are a tremendous team but they, and too many other people in Los Angeles, have a feeling that the Lakers are better than we are. There are a lot of people who are already saying that the Lakers can beat the Celtics for the championship. [Last year the Celtics beat the Lakers out of the title in an overtime period of the seventh and final playoff game.] So far the Lakers aren't the champions of anything. The Celtics have great pride and great talent and we don't lie down and die for anyone. The Laker organization has said that ' Los Angeles is the Basketball Capital of the World.' Los Angeles has been in this league for two years and it's the basketball capital of the world!" To this summary Auerbach adds a short, heartfelt obscenity.

 

Nor is Fred Schaus, the coach of the Lakers, lost for words on the subject of Boston and Auerbach. "The Celtics have a great basketball team and Red Auerbach has done a great job of coaching them for years," he says. "I respect Auerbach as a coach. But I don't like him. I just plain don't like him. And he knows it." Fred Schaus and Red Auerbach do not speak. Though they are often drawn together in arenas, airports and hotels, they turn away from each other or sit in distant seats. At one point last week they were side by side for over an hour, yet they refused to say hello.

 

Detroit's Cobo Arena was packed as the Lakers and Celtics got ready for the first game in their 24-hour vendetta. The biggest crowd ever to see a professional game in that city's history (11,028) screamed from the multicolored seats on all four levels of the hall. A high school coach from West Farmington, Ohio brought his team on a 300-mile round trip in 12 weather just to see the two teams meet. Even the players competing in the second game that night—Detroit and San Francisco—came in time to see the first game, like guest gourmets at a feast. "This is one I wouldn't miss," said San Francisco's Wilt Chamberlain. "I want to look over these ball clubs once. I think that the Lakers will probably beat the Celtics in the playoffs but the more I consider things the more I'm not so sure. Both of them have great starting teams, both have good benches and, you know, they want at each other. I want to watch 'em, man."

 

Hardly had the game begun when Elgin Baylor reached back and stuffed an elbow into Tom Sanders' stomach. It was meant more as a firm and informative maneuver than a malicious one, the pros being accustomed to inside play worthy of the Green Bay Packer line. Sanders immediately reached down and tugged hard on Baylor's trunks, pulling him out of position for a perfect pass. Sanders continued to bump Baylor, forcing him away from the action, and Baylor was having difficulty scoring. In the first quarter he had only two field goals. Baylor, as any basketball follower knows, usually has little trouble scoring 35 points a game against anyone.

 

The Celtics began to run away from the Lakers, and a fan in the seats shouted, "You are all bums without West." Jerry West, the Lakers' top playmaker and second highest scorer, had been missing from the Los Angeles lineup for nine days because of a pulled hamstring muscle in his left leg. He had been left home in L.A. The Lakers needed him, but the fan didn't realize that it was the wound-up Celtics that were making the western team look bad.

 

Cousy was so determined that he threw passes that even he had never tried before. Near the end of the first period he cocked the ball like a discus and fired it the length of the court to Bill Russell, who simply jumped and deflected it into the basket. Russell, Sam Jones and Sanders came back down the court with huge smiles on their faces.

 

Shortly thereafter the Celtics called time out, and discovered that Red Auerbach was unable to talk to them. He was limping around the sidelines with a charley horse. "It wasn't the excitement," he protested, but he never did explain exactly what it was.

 

Cousy continued to throw one beautiful pass after another until, near the end of the first half, his knees began to buckle from exhaustion. He hollered to Auerbach, "Get me! Get me! I've had it." By that time so had the Lakers, and Boston won in a romp 120-93.

 

"This game," said an elated Cousy afterward, "was my best of the season. We would have beaten them even if they had had West. We would have beaten anyone tonight because we were right all the way through. If only we didn't have to play the Lakers again tomorrow night, because this is the kind of a victory I could savor for a long, long time. We wanted this one and we would have done anything to get it."

 

Red Auerbach paced the corridor outside his team's dressing room, marveling at Cousy, Russell and his whole team. "That ought to take care of those——-," he said of Los Angeles. It should have, but it didn't.

 

The door of the Laker dressing room stayed closed. Later Fred Schaus repeated what he had been saying to his team. "I told them that there was a plane leaving for Boston the next morning," he said. "I told them that if anyone felt he couldn't play better tomorrow night than he did tonight he should fly back to Los Angeles instead. I said those who wanted to really play ball could meet me in the hotel lobby at 7:30 the next morning." After that the Lakers disappeared into the Detroit night.

 

The Celtics, meanwhile, were enjoying being the Celtics. Tommy Heinsohn, the rugged corner man, cut into a steak an hour after the game and said to Cousy, "Cooz, let me see those matches again." Cousy took out a book of matches with the presidential seal on the front and a picture of the White House on the back. "Cooz got these when we visited the White House last week," said Heinsohn. "He's become the only match dropper in the world. He won't go anyplace without them. We were just supposed to go on a tour of the White House, but the President saw our name on a list and invited us in to see him. He asked us how everything was going. When we lined up to shake his hand and say goodby I saw that Satch [ Sanders] was a little nervous. By the time he got up to the President, Satch was so flustered he just put his hand out and said, 'Take it easy, Baby.' "

 

Heinsohn then started to talk about the Lakers. "Sure," he said, "we're mad at them. Why shouldn't we be? They're after what we've got. It's that Hollywood stuff and everyone is on their bandwagon and off ours all of a sudden. Just about every story you read says that we've had it, that we're old and done. All those stories didn't just come out of the smog. The Lakers had something to do with them. We are not the oldest men alive and we showed them tonight what we can do. When they play us they better be ready, because we love to beat them."

 

It was 7:15 the next morning when Fred Schaus walked through the lobby of the Sheraton-Cadillac—right past his players. They were all there waiting for him. "Well," he said, "it looks like they all want to go East for one reason or another."

 

At the airport Bob Cousy was at a counter having a stand-up breakfast of orange juice, coffee and a sticky bun. He was carrying a book, Total Empire, and never noticed the Lakers' Dick Barnett walk past with a newly purchased copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare . Johnny Most, the Boston announcer, stood by Cousy and said, "You beat them by 27 last night. Let's beat them by 40 tonight." Cousy said nothing.

 

At the Boston Garden that night a sellout, hometown crowd was anticipating with relish the prospect of seeing the Celtics crush the presumably demoralized Lakers. Cousy was down in the dressing room blowing into his fists again. But not far away Hot Rod Hundley, the player who seems to typify the Laker attitude, didn't look exactly demoralized. He was generously slapping after-shave lotion all over his chest, sweetening the Boston atmosphere.

 

The game began, and Cousy threw in a push shot, then another, then another. With Boston leading 6-0, he ran down the court, raised his clenched fists high above his head and slammed them down through the smoky air. It looked like a rout was on. Moments later Dick Barnett started to drive for the Boston basket. He ran into Frank Ramsey full force. Ramsey reached out, grabbed Barnett by the chest and the two started swinging. Both benches quickly ran to the fight. Auerbach and Schaus stood for an instant screaming at each other, their first conversation in weeks. Play resumed, and the Celtics quickly pounded off to a 17-point lead.

 

The Lakers were in serious trouble. To begin with, the injury to West and the fact that Forward Ron Horn went to Indianapolis to be near his critically ill younger brother reduced the squad to eight men. ("Seven men and Hundley," says Forward Rudy LaRusso in mock humor.) Now their shooting was poor. But near the end of the half they came back to within 10 points, 67-57. "Just keep after them," said Schaus at half time. "They can't shoot as well in the second half as they did in the first [27 for 58]."

 

At the beginning of that second half, Laker Center Jim Krebs began to rebound well. "There are nights," says Baylor, "when he can't jump high enough to get a half dollar under his feet." The Lakers cut the Boston lead to five points, but Boston rallied to move 12 ahead with only seven minutes to go.

 

It was about then that Heinsohn and Barnett crashed into one another under the Laker basket. Each went sprawling to the floor, dazed, and stayed there a moment before finally getting up. When they did stand up, it was into a different ball game. The Lakers, maybe sore, maybe just getting hot at last, ran off 13 points to Boston's two. With 1:13 left, Los Angeles took the lead for good, and kept moving. "You just watch," Hundley had said before the game began. "I'll betcha $5 Heinsohn gets a technical foul called on him tonight just like he did last night. He's so crazy, he always does against us." With 30 seconds to play, a technical was called on Heinsohn for swearing at the referee, adding another point to the Lakers' margin. The final score was 134-128, and the feuding giants had split their two games.

 

"Well," said Hundley in the L.A. dressing room, "we got by the easy one."

 

Bob Cousy sat quietly in the near-silent Celtic dressing room. "Just wait," he said.

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