Larry Siegfried : STRAIGHT SHOOTER
The Larry Siegfried Interview
By: Michael D. McClellan | Tuesday, May 16th, 2006
He was a high school phenom, a Paul Bunyan in basketball shorts, and a player who could score points in bunches from all angles on the court. His 176-point eruption in a one month span during his senior season at Shelby High remains laced across the record books in the State of Ohio, a testament to his telekinetic court presence and deadeye marksmanship. Few at that level have ever played the game better. Fewer still would argue that claim. He was a virtuoso in high tops, equally adept at pulling down rebounds and dishing out assists, and the kind of player perfectly suited to join John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas on a championship quest at Ohio State. That Larry Siegfried would follow Havlicek to professional glory with the Boston Celtics is hardly surprising. Siegfried’s sweet shooting touch and trip-hammer release translated well from high school to college, and then again into the pros, and his presence on the Celtic roster helped keep basketball’s greatest dynasty rolling through the close of the 1960s.
Siegfried’s story begins modestly, on the rolling farmland just outside of Shelby, Ohio, where his father worked in a local factory and Siegfried spent countless hours shooting baskets against the family barn. The ball and the hoop were relatively inexpensive toys for a blue-collar family on a budget. Siegfried often shot alone, honing his jumper, playing imaginary games against All-Americans like Ralph Beard and Alex Groza of Kentucky, or Dick Schnittker of Ohio State. It proved to be the perfect training ground for an eager young athlete blessed with an abundance of God-given natural talent.
While the young Siegfried’s game seemed to improve daily, it positively blossomed during his standout prep career at Shelby High School – especially in 1957, when no Northern Ohio League scoring record proved safe. With a coach determined to make the most of his talents, Siegfried found himself playing both inside and out, rarely resting on the bench during his phenomenal senior season. And for good reason; the All-State guard was strong enough to battle for position under the boards, yet quick enough to take his man off the dribble at the top of the key. The constant movement was a headache for opposing coaches tasked with slowing him down. Siegfried averaged a whopping 38 points-per-game during that final campaign in ‘57, leading Shelby to a state basketball championship. He was named co-recipient of Ohio’s player-of-the-year in the process, an award won the next season by future Ohio State teammate Jerry Lucas.
For Siegfried, playing for his home state Buckeyes seemed a match made in heaven; the team was a national power, and recruiters were promising a system built around his athleticism and versatility. Adding to the allure was the presence of head coach Fred Taylor, easily one of the top coaches in the nation, and the prospect of playing close to home, in front of family and friends. Siegfried eagerly signed with Ohio State and headed off for Columbus. He spent his freshman year attending classes while acclimating himself to the Buckeye basketball program. Almost immediately, Siegfried began to question his decision; life under Taylor differed vastly from the picture painted by the recruiters, as his sophomore season (under NCAA rules of the day, freshmen weren’t allowed to compete in varsity sports) was one spent competing for playing time and adjusting to a one-dimensional role within the Buckeye offense. The situation was made more pronounced the following season, with the arrival of Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, both of whom would go on to storied NBA careers.
Unhappy with his compartmentalized place in the OSU basketball universe, and yet firmly convinced that the 1960 team would be something truly special, Siegfried kept his mouth shut and kept his mind focused on helping his team realize its full potential. The Buckeyes roared to the 1960 Big Ten Championship that season, fueled by its five starters – all who would become future NBA players: Siegfried, Lucas, Havlicek, Mel Nowell and Joe Roberts. Things only got better in the NCAA tournament, as Ohio State dominated California 75-55 to win the 1960 national championship.
"I had a love affair with those kids," the late Fred Taylor would say years later. "They weren't very sound defensively at the start of the season. As they progressed, they could play pretty thorny defense."
Siegfried rejoiced with his teammates over the historic victory, but those closest to him understood the uneasy disconnect between player and coach. Taylor was a strict tactician with a military background. He stressed defense first, followed by a precision offense, and his teams were always among the most fundamentally sound in the nation. Siegfried worked well within this system, but he also felt unable to fully utilize his talents while on the floor. He wanted to showcase all aspects of his game. It frustrated him to play such a specialized role, but he was a team player above all else, and not the kind to poison a locker room. Winning was his main thing.
There would be plenty of winning the next season, Siegfried’s last as a member of the Buckeyes. The team would finish the regular season undefeated, capture another Big Ten Championship, and then make an encore appearance in the championship game. OSU was 27-0 when it landed in the 1961 final. Awaiting them was intrastate rival Cincinnati. The 6’-4” Siegfried averaged 15.2 points in the 27 games prior to the showdown with Bearcats, second only to the 24.9 averaged by Lucas. With a second consecutive national championship squarely in their sights, the Buckeyes forged a 1-point halftime lead, 39-38, and then found themselves deadlocked with Cincinnati, 61-61, at the end of regulation. The Bearcats then pulled away, 70-65 in overtime, behind the play of Bob Wiesenhahn and Tom Thacker, ending OSU’s dream of repeating as national champs.
For Siegfried, the loss was hard to swallow. His selection (along with Lucas) to the All-Tournament team did little to dull the pain, nor did his freshly minted status as a collegiate All-American. The Cincinnati Royals nabbed him with the third overall selection in the 1961 NBA Draft, opening up what was to have been an exciting new chapter in his life, but the stinging loss to the rival Bearcats still resonated. He did not want to play in that city, that soon, not after such a bitter defeat. So he sat out the 1961-62 NBA season instead, playing for the ABL Cleveland Pipers, turning him into Cincinnati’s Public Enemy No.1. He also refused to don a Royals uniform the following season. Cincinnati finally gave up on Siegfried a year later, during the 1963-64 regular season, dealing him to St. Louis. Once there, he was cut loose to make room for a highly-regarded draft choice.
Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics were kings of the NBA when Siegfried hit the waiver wire, winners of six championships in a seven-year span, including five in a row. With Bill Russell dominating the league in a way no player had done before, the Celtics were clearly the class of the NBA. But there were concerns; with Bill Sharman’s retirement in 1961, followed by Bob Cousy’s departure two years later, the Celtics were a team in need of depth in the backcourt. Sam Jones and KC Jones were playing All-Star basketball, and were arguably as good as any combination in league history, but Auerbach knew that Boston was an injury away from relinquishing its stranglehold on basketball’s biggest prize. Paying the $1,000 waiver fee to take a chance on an unproven player made perfect sense; if it didn’t work out, he could cut Siegfried loose and try to find another backup point guard. If it did, then Auerbach had another savvy playmaker who could help his team repeat as world champions.
Siegfried joined the Celtics – and former OSU teammate John Havlicek – midway through the 1963-64 regular season, missing out on Auerbach’s legendary training camp, and averaging 3.3 points over 31 games. Ironically, the Cincinnati Royals would await Boston in the Eastern Finals, providing Siegfried with an added measure of motivation. He played sparingly in that series, but he played well when called up, and the Celtics rolled to a 4-1 victory and a chance to win a record sixth consecutive NBA crown. Three weeks later the Celtics would defeat the San Francisco Warriors 105-99 in Game 5 of the 1964 NBA Finals, and Siegfried would add an NBA Championship to the collegiate title that he had won at OSU.
The following season a mature Larry Siegfried eased comfortably into his niche. With the benefit of a full training camp under his belt, and with a newfound trust placed in him by Auerbach, Siegfried played in 72 games and upped his scoring average to 6.3 PPG. Loathe to fill a specific roll at Ohio State, he was now the first guard off of the bench – and loving every minute of it. The Celtics stormed to a 62-18 regular season record and into the 1965 Eastern Finals. It was there, in Game 7, that John Havlicek made his incredible steal to preserve a 110-109 lead and send the Philadelphia 76ers packing. Siegfried, now an official part of the Celtic Family, found himself in a second consecutive NBA Finals. A 4-1 dispatching of the Los Angeles Lakers brought yet another championship to Boston. The Celtics, with Siegfried in tow, were now on an undeniable roll of near mythic proportions.
The 1965-66 season would be Auerbach’s last on the bench. With it came an eighth consecutive NBA crown, and a greater roll for Siegfried. He finished the season as the team’s third leading scorer (13.7 PPG), this despite not starting, and burnished his reputation as an all-around talent off of the bench. A year later his average increased yet again, to 14.1 PPG, but the Celtics’ championship run was history. Wilt Chamberlain and the 76ers were the new kings of the NBA. Boston, led by player-coach Bill Russell, looked old and unable to continue its dominance of the 1960s.
All of that changed a year later. The 1967-68 Celtics went 54-28, and then upset the heavily favored Sixers 4-3 in the Eastern Finals. A 4-2 defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers gave Russell & Co. an incredible 10 titles in twelve years. Siegfried averaged 12.2 PPG. More importantly, he now had four NBA championships in five years with the Celtics.
Another championship would follow in 1969. Russell and Sam Jones would bow out as champions, and the team would go into rebuilding mode. Tommy Heinsohn would take over as head coach, and the team would select All-American guard Jo Jo White from Kansas in the 1969 NBA Draft. A year later the Celtics left Siegfried unprotected in the NBA expansion draft. He would play parts of two seasons for the San Diego/Houston Rockets, and then finish his career after 21 games with the Atlanta Hawks. Through it all he remained a Celtic at heart, thankful for his place in history and his role on greatest dynasty the NBA has ever known.
Celtic Nation is honored to bring you this interview.
You were born on May 22nd, 1939, in Shelby, Ohio. Please tell me a little about your childhood; your family, your friendships, and some of the things that led you to the basketball court.
Well, first of all, I was raised on a farm, so I spent most of my youth around the farm on working on the farm. We also had a small house in Shelby, which is where I was raised. I guess I started playing basketball because it was something that I could do by myself. I came from a very modest family. My father worked in a factory. I didn’t have all of the toys that everyone else had, so I had to figure out something that I could do on my own. Basketball was a cheap play and didn’t require anyone else to be there, so that’s kind of how I got started. Dad bought me a basketball and put up a hoop. I remember playing alone, for hours on end, out there by the garage.
You played high school basketball at Shelby High School – please take me back to this period in your life; what memories remain with you after all of these years?
Being a farm type of kid, I had a pretty good work ethic. Being competitive also helped. My senior year was a wild experience, because we got beat in the regional finals and I averaged over forty points per game. It was fun because my versatility helped to carry us that far. As I look back, my high school coach was smart enough to recognize that I could do a lot of things real well. At that time I was 6’3” or 6’4”, and I played center, forward and guard. And my coach always used to say that if I was going to make it in college, then I was going to have to make it as a guard. So he structured the offense in a way that allowed me to play outside as well as inside. From that experience I was able to learn all of the positions of the game of basketball. It helped the team because, at that time, a 6’4” guard was unheard of at the high school level. Heck, even when I was at Ohio State, there weren’t that many guards in the Big Ten that size. Oscar [Robertson] played forward in college. He may have brought the ball up the court because he had that ability, but he wasn’t what I’d call a legitimate guard. I played guard.
On the one hand, being able to do a lot of things as a high school basketball player was a very positive experience. But as I progressed to the next level, I ran into more specialization. Specialization has its place, but it becomes a liability to a player who is capable of doing a variety of things on the court. That’s exactly what happened to me at Ohio State.
Let’s go back to the month of January, 1957. On January 4th you scored 58 points against Willard High School. Seven days later you scored 60 points against Galion High, and on the 29th, you scored 58 against Crestline. How much attention did this generate for you, and what was like to produce three huge games like that in the same month?
As I stated earlier, I had the ability to play inside as well as outside. The offense was structured so that if you put a big man on me, I ended up on the perimeter. If you put a little man on me, I ended up inside. If you played a zone, it gave me plenty of opportunity to shoot the ball. As far as the points themselves, a lot of them came from offensive rebounding, foul shots and shots at the top of the key. It wasn’t like I was just someone just standing outside and shooting three-pointers. It was a cumulative effect. I was actively involved in all facets of the offensive attack – rebounding, shooting free throws, driving to the basket, shooting from outside – it wasn’t like having a big man who was camped out under the basket all the time. I was fully engrossed in the entire game. So the points came as a result of that. There were some nights when I would shoot twenty free throws because I was getting the ball down low. To this day I always felt that if I got the ball in the low post area, that I was going to either score or get fouled against anybody in the game of basketball. And that’s because I learned to play down low in high school.
With that said, I was able to score all of those points because the coach structured his offense to take advantage of my talent. You could not pigeonhole me in any one given spot. It’s like in football – you have this kid, Reggie Bush, who was just drafted by New Orleans after a spectacular collegiate career at USC. As a coach, you want to get him the ball in as many positions on the field as you possibly can…as a flanker, as a wide-out, as a tailback, as a slot-man. You do that so you can’t pigeonhole him. I was the same way in high school. Nobody could lock into where I was going to be. And I’m not talking about anything complicated. I had the ability to play inside. I could play a corner as a forward. I could play outside. If I played the wing and you put a guard on me, invariably he was going to get sucked down inside someplace where I would have the size advantage. Again, I give my high school coach all of the credit for utilizing me that way. At the time, I really didn’t understand what he was doing. I was just a hard-working kid who happened to be competitive and aggressive, and someone who just played hard all of the time. And the secret behind all of those points? The offensive structure, coupled with my natural athletic ability, allowed me to score all of those points.
Please tell me a little about your head coach at Ohio State, the legendary Fred Taylor.
First of all, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I had problems with my college coach. And then I’m going to tell you that he was also an asset. Let’s go backwards for a moment. When I was a high school player, I had this versatility that we were just talking about. I went to college, and I was recruited as that individual. Are you with me? Shooting, rebounding, passing…that whole concept. When I went to college, it was my understanding that the offense at Ohio State would resemble the system that I’d played in high school, and that I would be able to utilize my talents all over the court. Freshman weren’t allowed to play varsity ball back then, so a whole year passed before I started to see what was really happening. As a sophomore, I was either one or two in the Big Ten Conference in scoring, but I was gradually being moved away from what I had done in high school. The key word is gradual; I got a taste of varsity ball that sophomore season, and while it wasn’t exactly what I’d been doing at Shelby, I was still somewhat of a focal point in the offense.
The following year is when [Jerry] Lucas and [John] Havlicek came into the program, and all of a sudden we’ve got all of this talent. Suddenly, my role and responsibility on the team took me so far away from where I was as a high school player. Remember what I told you about playing at Shelby – I was all over the place. As a sophomore at Ohio State, I was moving away from all of that, but I was still getting enough touches that I really didn’t have a lot of problems. Then, my junior year, Lucas and all of those other kids come in with all of that talent. Suddenly, I become just a guard. I was so frustrated.
Take Luke [Lucas] for a second. Luke was a great high school center. He went to Ohio State and he was a great college center. His role really didn’t change much from one level to the next. My situation was different. In high school, I was doing everything, and suddenly as a junior at Ohio State I was just a guard. It was a terrible, terrible experience for me, because I’d had all of this freedom in high school and suddenly I’m playing a very specialized role in the system at Ohio State. Now, was I recruited wrong? Was I used wrong? There were a lot of people who questioned whether my talents were utilized to the fullest in college. What happened to me was this – at Ohio State I ended up becoming more of a playmaker, a complimentary piece, if you will. Our other guard, Mel Nowell, was an outstanding college player. We had Havlicek and Joe Roberts, and all of those guys had all kinds of talent. Well, all of a sudden I become just a playmaker type of guard. Think for a second what I was doing in high school – I did very little of that. I became so frustrated, and from that standpoint I had a lot of problems at Ohio State. Not that I wanted to shoot the ball every time. That was never, never how I wanted to be utilized. I found out later that all of the guys were frustrated, because we had all of that talent and only one ball. Here I am, getting six shots a game, after getting twice that as a sophomore.
I communicated that frustration to Fred. Luke was good on the high post, because he was such a good shooter from the perimeter. I said, ‘Fred, play Luke at the high post once in a while, and let me go down low and post up.’ But he never allowed me to do that. To me it didn’t make sense. As a 6’4” guard in the Big Ten, that size was unheard back then. I had guys guarding me that were 5’10”, 5’11”, so most of the time I had a great size advantage. At Ohio State it was like having a fly nipping at my feet all game long. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t go down low and overpower my man. In high school I was able to do that. If I had a smaller man on me I’d go low and score. If the opposing coach adjusted by playing someone bigger, then I’d go back outside and score from there. But Fred didn’t want to run that high post, which I never understood. If we ran it, I could go low and take the ball to the basket. And if the opposing center had sagged off of Luke to help guard me, I could have kicked the ball back out to Luke for a shot at the top of the key. He had great range, and as a pro he proved that he could scored from the perimeter. He would have hit that shot all night long.
And all of this isn’t sour grapes – I’m just being honest with you. I don’t know if I was utilized properly. We won, so I guess everybody’s happy. But I’m telling you that I was frustrated. And maybe I’m wrong. But the thing that I question is whether the coach made the most of my ability. I go back to Reggie Bush – it’s like drafting him and then making him run the same play every time. The opposition is going to start keying on that play and shutting it down. And yet we won, so people say that this is all sour grapes on my part. I don’t mean it that way. That’s not what I’m saying. And I discovered later that other kids on the team were frustrated because of similar issues that they were dealing with.
Bottom line, I wanted to win. Was I happy with the way I was being utilized? No. But would I have wanted to do all of the other things on the basketball court and lose? No way. I was a team player who cared about winning. That was the main thing above all else. So I tried to do what I could do within the context of how I was being utilized. I tried to take advantage of my ability at all times, given the situation, and I tried to do my part to help the team win.
Now, let’s flip over to the other side of the coin. I give Coach Taylor all of the credit for developing the defensive aspect of my game. And defense was what really won the national championship for us. Fred talked to Pete Newell, who coached at California, and he got a lot of information from Pete on how to build team defense. This was the summer prior to that 1960 championship team. He got all of us kids to buy into that thing. And I think from that concept, the thing that I learned the most was how to play solid, fundamental defense. And now [former Ohio State teammate Bob] Knight has taken that whole thing up a notch, to a higher level. But he got it from Ohio State, from Fred Taylor, and Fred Taylor got it from Pete Newell. So, between those two things, that’s what I remember the most about playing basketball at Ohio State – the frustration that I had, and the defensive fundamentals that I was able to take with me to the next level.
1960 was a magical year for you, as the Buckeyes won both the Big Ten and the NCAA Championship. Please take me back to 1960 – what was it like to win the national title as a member of your home state Buckeyes?
I was ecstatic, because winning covers up a multitude of sins. It was great. The following year – my senior year – I accepted my role because it was my last season of collegiate basketball. Maybe I’m off base, but I still feel that I was never utilized properly. One of my assistant college coaches told me one time that in the recruiting process, the thing that you don’t want to do is overdo recruiting. Sometimes you can pull in too much talent, and you find that the pieces don’t fit. When I say they don’t fit, I mean that they’re not a healthy fit. We had so much talent at Ohio State that I’m not sure it fit, but we made it fit because we had good kids. You know what I mean? There wasn’t a bad kid on the floor. As soon as we stepped on the court we all played together. But as I look back, there was a lot of frustration on that team. Maybe we had too much talent.
Again, that is neither here nor there. We won the championship in 1960, so everyone was happy. And that was our goal. We wanted to go out on the floor each game with the idea of getting better, and with the goal of coming one step closer to winning a national championship. We knew we were that good. That’s the flipside to having all of that talent. We knew we had more talent than any team that came up against us. It was just a matter of playing together, and playing within Fred’s system. That meant accepting your role for the team, even if it didn’t make the most of your talent. It also meant playing the kind of defense that Fred and installed after working with Pete Newell. And because it was such a good group of kids, we were able to put egos aside and come together for that common cause. Winning that championship was by far the most rewarding part of my career at Ohio State.
The following season, Ohio State battled Ed Jucker’s Cincinnati squad for the national championship. Please take me back to that tournament in general, and that title game in particular.
We were undefeated going into the final game. In my opinion, we would have beaten that team nine out of the ten times that we played them. We were the defending champions, so the pressure was clearly on us. We were 31-0 and we played the title game in Kansas City. At that particular time, there was a preliminary game played in the NCAA Tournament, and then there was a championship game. So you had four teams in the finals. The two losers played the consolation game for third place, and then the two winners played for the national championship. That’s the way it was structured.
Like I said, the tournament was held in Kansas City, and there were no locker rooms in the facility. You had to dress at the hotel, and then walk across the tunnel connecting the hotel to the stadium. Now remember, we were the defending champions. The previous game, the consolation game, I think it went into two or three overtimes. When you’re the defending champions, I believe that you’ve got to prime the pump and be ready to play, because the pressure is on you. Do you agree? We were supposed to start the championship game at 7:30PM – that’s when we were supposed to take to the floor. Well, the consolation game went one overtime, then two, and then three. By the time we walked onto the floor, we had lost that momentum. I know what people are going to say, but I believe that with all my heart. When we were ready to go out, someone came over and informed us that there was overtime. Mind you, the coach has the team primed and ready to go on the floor to compete. And we were ready. We were ready to go out and get the job done. By the time we went onto the floor, we were already out of synch. And I remember walking out there, standing on the court, and being unable to find the basketballs. They were nowhere to be found. It was just something else to jolt us out of rhythm, and to me, we never got started. From there the whole game was just an uphill battle.
Now, that is just my personal opinion. It’s like the analogy of a racehorse. The racehorse is all primed to race, you take him to the gate, and then you pull him away. You take him back again and pull him away. After the third or fourth time, the horse is confused. You load him into the gate and the race begins. What’s going to happen? The horse is just going to stand there because it doesn’t know what’s going on. I think that’s exactly what happened in that game. I give Cincinnati all of the credit. They beat us fair and square. But Tom Thacker told me one time when we were together in Boston that, to a man, Cincinnati never expected to beat us in that championship game. But I give them credit. They went out and beat us.
You were honored as an AP, UPI, and Helms Foundation All-American. What did these honors mean to you then, and what do they mean to you now?
At that time you’re a kid, and you really can’t comprehend it. And I’ll tell you again, I really struggled at Ohio State. But I will say this – as I look back, the awards and accolades don’t mean much to me anymore. It’s what I’ve learned from those experiences – the things that I carried into my life, the things that have become a part of my existence and my being – that mean the most. The awards and all of that other stuff – all of that stuff doesn’t mean anything to me. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that it doesn’t matter at all, because it does to a certain degree. But being named All-American doesn’t define who I am as a person. I’ll tell you this right now – the man that I am today is a result of the experiences that I’ve had, good and bad, pros and cons, and that does matter. I am who I am today because of those things. And I think people who know me, know that I mean what I say. I’m a straight shooter. I owe a lot to Fred for what he taught us, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he and I had it peachy-peachy. Because I struggled. And I’m not ashamed of it.
Two of your teammates were also honored as All-Americans – Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. Please tell me a little about each of these men.
Luke was a great college center. He was a very talented big man. He had great hands, good jumping ability, could run the floor, could pass the ball. He was a good shooter, a good rebounder. He was just a great, great college center. His high school and college career is second to none. He took Ohio State to the national championship game three years running. That speaks for itself. As far as John, in my opinion John was a better athlete than he was a basketball player. Now I don’t mean that in a negative way, but what I’m saying is that Luke was a basketball player. I would consider myself a basketball player. John was a great athlete who was a basketball player. There’s a difference between the two. There are guys who can play basketball who aren’t great athletes. John was a great athlete. He was drafted to play football. He could play baseball. He was an outstanding athlete. Now, could John dribble and do all of the things that a pure basketball player might be able to do? No, that’s no John. But he had a good work ethic, played well, played unselfishly, and had great career. In fact, I think he had a better pro career than he did in college. That’s my opinion. He blossomed as a pro – he ran wild and shot the ball. But in college, maybe he never reached his full potential. Maybe it’s the same thing that I’ve been talking about. But those two guys were really great teammates. Of course you had Joe Roberts and Mel Nowell and all of those other guys. You can’t discount them. They were great teammates and a big part of our success. All of those kids were good kids, and I think that was why we were able to win.
The year we won the national championship, I think our starting five averaged a 3.6 GPA out of 4.0. I’m not saying that we were high IQ, but we were kids who worked hard, studied hard, and did well in the classroom. Now, Luke had that amazing memory – he memorized the entire bible – and I think he was a perfect 4.0 student. The thing I’m saying is that the team was a very intelligent club. So, when Fred got the information to teach us, the kids that we had were able to learn it, absorb it, and play it. I would say that there are very few clubs that could carry out and execute a game plan like that group of kids. Not only because of the athleticism of the team, but also because of our intelligence.
You were the third overall selection 1961 NBA Draft, chosen by the Cincinnati Royals. Please take me back to this period in your life.
That’s a simple matter. In ’61, the University of Cincinnati had beaten us in the finals for the national championship. There was so much turmoil between the two cities and universities because of the basketball rivalry – it was back and forth, back and forth. In fact, Ohio State and Cincinnati are just now starting to rekindle that relationship between the schools. There was so much hatred going on between the schools at the time – painting statues on school grounds, vandalizing classrooms…you just wouldn’t believe some of the things that were going on. And to be honest with you, that’s the main reason that I didn’t play professional ball in Cincinnati. There was no way that I was going to play ball in Cincinnati. No way. If it had been any other place than Cincinnati, I would have gone.
Well, what happened was that they were starting that other league in Cleveland. At that time, my NBA options were Cincinnati or nothing. So I signed to play for the Cleveland Pipers in the American Basketball League. The team was owned by George Steinbrenner. John McClendon of Tennessee State was the head coach, and he practically brought the entire Tennessee State team with him. So that kind of pushed me out the door. I really didn’t get an opportunity to play. That was the first season. And then the second they folded.
Red Auerbach nabbed you for the $1,000 waiver fee. Tell me how this played out.
Well, after the league folded I started teaching school in Columbus. As I said, I wasn’t going to play for Cincinnati. I taught, and I also played with an independent basketball team, and we played preliminary games on college campuses. About halfway through the season, I got hooked up with another small league with teams in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. By then, Havlicek was in Boston playing for the Celtics. He called, and he said that he wanted me to travel to Cincinnati because Red wanted to talk. So I went into the locker room prior to the game between the Celtics and Royals, and Red asked me if I’d be interested in playing for the Celtics. I said sure. In the meantime, Cincinnati had traded my rights to St. Louis. They knew that they weren’t going to sign me, and so they just threw me into some deal that they’d done with the Hawks.
After talking to Red, I wanted to go straight to Boston – but I couldn’t, because now my rights belonged to St. Louis. I went to training camp, but their first round draft choice that year was a guard. There was no way the Hawks were going to keep me over him. And that’s what happened. Even though I had a great training camp, they still cut me. That’s when Red offered me a contract. And that’s how I ended up in Boston.
In Boston, you were reunited with Ohio State teammate John Havlicek. What was it like for you to win that first NBA championship?
When I went into Boston, I was going into a situation that had been established over a period of time. It was basically the situation that I was trying to get through my head at Ohio State. So when I went to Boston, I was excited about the way they did things. I was awed at not only the championships, but how they played together as a team. Again, it was that team concept. I was absolutely mesmerized, and to this day I hold those Celtic teams up as the prime example of the team concept. That was what defined them. I tell people that it was the easiest place in the world to play if you were a team player. If you were selfish you wouldn’t last five minutes there.
That first championship just extended what the Celtics were all about. It was a great thrill to win the title and to experience what that was all about, but the big thing for me was to be a part of that team and play with a group of guys who always – and I mean always – thought about the team ahead of themselves. I’ve been watching sports for a long time, and there has never been another situation like that. It was truly a special place to play basketball.
Red Auerbach’s training camps were legendary. What was it like to meet Red for the first time, and what was that first training camp like for you?
You know what we did the first day of camp? We pressed, man-to-man, from one end of the court to the other. That was the whole scrimmage. First day of practice. What Red wanted to do was find out who was in shape, and who really wanted to be there. And if someone got sick, that person would come out and you’d play five-on-four. That was Red’s philosophy. He wanted a team that was in superior shape. See, he didn’t have to worry about the team concept stuff, because most of the players that he had up there had come from championship college teams. They knew how to win. They had the talent, and they knew how to win. He didn’t have to deal with all of the other stuff that everybody else in the league had to deal with.
Sam and KC Jones learned the Celtic Way while playing behind two hall-of-fame guards, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. When you arrived, it was the Jones Boys who helped keep the Celtic Dynasty running. Please tell me a little about Sam and KC.
You’re exactly right. First of all, they were both outstanding players. Here again, I’m talking about the team concept. Personally, I’m not interested in the All-Star stuff and all of that other garbage. Sam and KC were outstanding guards. They played well together. KC was an outstanding guard who probably wasn’t the shooter that Sam was, but he was probably the better defensive player. He was a winner. Sam was an outstanding player who could shoot the lights out. He knew how to win. For me, playing behind those two guys was a thrill because I learned a lot from watching them. Back then, nobody came in off the street and jumped into the Boston Celtics’ starting lineup. You sat behind veterans. You sat, you listened, you learned, and you gradually worked yourself into the rotation. That was the Celtic Way.
Walter Brown passed away on September 7th, 1964. Please tell me a little about the late, great Mr. Brown.
I don’t know a whole lot, other than I knew that he entrusted Red with all of the details of running the club. It was Red’s baby in terms of the finances, contracts, things like that. Red negotiated all of the contracts, and Walter totally entrusted Red with the day-to-day operation of the Boston Celtics. Aside from that, Walter Brown was an owner who really cared about his team. They were winning and that didn’t hurt, either. He wanted to go first class in everything, and it was a first class operation. He was low-key. He was not around that often, and not one to be seen all of the time. You knew who he was, and you respected him because he was the owner. But he wasn’t like some of these guys that you see today, like the owner of the Dallas Mavericks [Mark Cuban], who is on TV every time you turn on one of their games. His ego didn’t work that way. In many ways Red was the face man for the Boston Celtics, and not Walter Brown.
The incomparable Bill Russell was the heart-and-soul of the Celtic Dynasty. What was it like to have him as a teammate, and do you have a fond story that you would like to share?
We could go on for days about Bill Russell. One time, on ESPN, someone asked me about Lucas as a center and Russell as a center. I said that Jerry Lucas was a great, great college center. And then they asked me about Bill Russell. I said, ‘Now wait a minute – you’re talking about light and dark here, buddy.’ Bill Russell was, in my opinion, the greatest team player who ever lived. I’m going to tell you why; because the team game is about championships, and Bill Russell has the most championships. Some people will point to Wilt Chamberlain as the best center ever. But who has the most championships? Russell. Eleven championships in thirteen years, and nobody in the NBA will ever surpass that. You’ve got free agency, you’ve got salary caps, you’ve got all of these things to contend with today. People talk about Michael Jordan as the best basketball player ever, but again, the bottom line is championships. Bill Russell has the most championships of any team player. And he was the focal point of everything the Boston Celtics did as a team – he was the defensive stopper, he was the trigger man for the fast break, he was the one who made the Celtics so tough underneath the basket. When he was right and when he was healthy, you could not beat him. You could book that. The only time the Celtics lost an NBA Finals during Russell’s career was in ’58, his second season in the league. The Celtics were up on the Hawks early in that series, but then Russell sprained his ankle and St. Louis went on to win the championship. That was the only time. Otherwise, you simply couldn’t beat him. You’re not going to beat his team. It ain’t going to happen. The rest of the league found that out pretty quick, and it was something that you could count on for the better part of thirteen years.
The beautiful thing about Bill Russell was that he was a defensive player. He didn’t need a ton of shots to be happy, like some of these guys you see today. He was a team player. That’s what made it exciting. The whole thing about the Boston situation was the philosophy of team. Bill Russell epitomized that. I’m a firm believer that, in order to win, two things need to happen – you have to play defense and you have to move the ball. In Boston, the ball always moved because the focal point was defense. It was never offense. And the offense a derivative of the defense. If you wanted to watch the game from the bench, you didn’t play defense. And if you played defense, you were going to score because defense generated ball movement. It was a very unselfish situation. Today, the situation is often reversed. If a guy is shooting well, then he’ll play defense. And if he’s not shooting well, he won’t play any defense at all. It was just the opposite in Boston.
You want a story? Let’s talk about Russell’s last championship. I’ll never forget when Russ told me that the spark wasn’t there anymore – I was sitting in a whirlpool in LA prior to Game 7 in the 1969 NBA Finals, and he said that this was it, that he just didn’t think he could get up for the big games anymore. Deep down he knew that he had one more in him, and he did – we won Game 7 and won the championship. And then he walked away. I’ve always admired that. He had the courage to say, ‘It’s time to get out.’ He could have probably hung around and did his thing, maybe played a few more years, but that wasn’t what Bill Russell was all about. He had to win. And I repeat; when he was healthy, and when he was right, you could not beat him. Never. I’ve seen him on nights when he was unstoppable. You and I could talk for days about Bill Russell. I just feel very fortunate to have played on the same team. I wrote him a letter one time, and I thanked him for allowing me to be a part of his team. You understand what I’m saying? He allowed me to be a part of that. And it wasn’t like being there when Jordan scored 50 or 60 points, or Kobe going off for 80 – that’s not what I’m talking about. It was Russell’s show, but he didn’t have to have the ball to dominate and influence the outcome of the game. He was the ultimate team player – he wanted everyone else involved at all times, and that’s how he took over games. He took them over by involving his teammates more and more in the flow of the game. Some nights he’d get thirty, forty rebounds – guys today get eight, ten rebounds and they think they’ve done something special.
You want more about Russell? There was a time when we were playing Philadelphia, and the Sixers had the ball with a few seconds left. Russ called timeout – he was the player/coach at that time – and he said, ‘If everybody boxes out their man, I’ll get the ball.’ And that was it. End of conversation. We did our jobs, Russ got the ball, and we went down the court and scored and won the game. Now, if you want to get raked over the coals in that situation, you don’t do your job. You let your man get by you and score. Russ expected you to take care of your assignment, and if you did that, then he was going to take care of the rest.
Another time, we were playing Los Angeles in the NBA Finals. Somebody had stolen the ball at half court and went the other way to lay it in. Russell was at the foul line, and he took off, and he raced down the floor. And when that kid – I can’t remember who it was – laid the ball up on the board, Russell came from nowhere to block the shot. The next day, the picture in the paper showed Russ parallel to the floor, arms extended, as he flicked the ball off the board before it ever touched the glass. It was the single most amazing play I’ve ever seen in my life.
Russell’s imprint was everywhere with that team. There were nights in the Boston Garden, when Red would press with a small lineup For example, he might put me, KC, Havlicek, Sanders and Russell out there, and order us to press on every possession. There were nights when teams literally couldn’t get the ball past half court. I was a part of that – you can’t imagine the pressure. Put yourself on the opposing team; we steal the ball, make the shot, and you have to bring the ball up the court. And we’re right there in your face. Then, if you’re somehow able to beat us, you know the chances are pretty good that you’re going to get your shot blocked. The next time you don’t take it inside because you’re afraid you’ll get your shot blocked by Russell. So you sag back to get a little breathing room, and then we apply even more pressure. And that’s the way we won. And all of that pressure was possible because of Russell.
Red always used to say that whenever we had offensive lapses we had a defensive problem. We weren’t focusing on defense. We were too preoccupied with offense. So how did he rectify that problem? He’d call timeout and go to full court pressure, which would eliminate the offensive focus entirely. Trust me, you can’t press like that and focus on your offensive game. It was come as a result of the defensive pressure – points off of turnovers, quick baskets, whatever. And if you weren’t out there pressing, then you were coming out of the game. It was that simple. It was a great weapon for us. And all of that pressure was magnified tenfold with Russell on the floor. He was that good. There will never be another Bill Russell.
The '65 playoffs produced one of the most dramatic moments in NBA history, as Johnny Most makes his legendary radio call: "Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!" Please take me back to that series in general, and that game in particular.
I wasn’t in the game at that time – I was watching it from the bench. We were playing the 76ers, and at that time they had Wilt Chamberlain, Luke Jackson, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham. They had an outstanding basketball team. Let me tell you, that series was a war. It was an absolute war. And that particular night it happened right in front of us. Philly scored and we had the lead by one point. Time was running out. All we have to do is inbound the basketball, go up the court and the game’s over. What happened was this – in the old Boston Garden the baskets were supported by guide wires that held the baskets up. Russ threw the ball down court on the inbounds play, and it hit one of those guide wires. And it dropped straight down. Well, Philadelphia got the ball back, and was able to inbound it under their own basket with maybe five or six seconds left on the clock. Red calls timeout. Russell and the guys come over to the bench, and I remember that the place was going crazy. Well, after the timeout Philadelphia ran their play – Hal Greer inbounded the ball, and Havlicek got his hand on it. He deflected it to Sam Jones, who took off, and that was the ball game. You just can’t imagine the response from the crowd, because everybody expected Russell’s pass to go down the court, and then it hit that guide wire and dropped straight down. And then the place really went crazy when Havlicek stole that pass from Greer. It kept the dynasty alive, and we were able to win another championship.
Red Auerbach would bow out the following season with yet another championship, the team's eighth in a row. Looking back now, what does it mean to be an integral part of perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of sport?
Here again, it wasn’t about the winning. And I’m being very honest with you about that. Am I proud of what we were able to accomplish? Yeah, sure. That’s not what I’m trying to say. What I learned from my experiences at Ohio State, even with all of the frustrations, and then what I learned with the Celtics – those were the things that helped me to become a better player, and those were the things that helped win championships. I say that because everyone on that team was shaped by their experiences, both before and after arriving in Boston. To me, winning those championships were simply a byproduct. Those other things – my time at Ohio State, my time with the Boston Celtics – have been burned into my being, and I will carry them to my grave. I preach them and talk about them because I’ve lived them, struggled through them, and learned the lessons. I’m thankful for those experiences.
You asked about the championships and the trophies, and I don’t even know where the stuff is because that part is meaningless. Someone wrote a book at Ohio State, and the author came up to my house to talk basketball. And he wanted to know one thing – why were we able to win the national title? Why were we able to win it, when there were three other teams with just as much talent? He had done a study for the book, and then he came up here and spent eight or nine hours with the guys from that team, and what do you think he found as the common denominator that enabled us to win? I’m not talking about talent – you’ve got to have that just to have a chance. But what was it that separated our team from the other three? The family structure that was in place on that team. Winning was simply a byproduct of that structure. That goes back to the family, the home, the morals, all of that stuff. Those are the things that gave the coaches the opportunity to instill a philosophy that enabled us to win.
Now, let’s take this thing to Boston. All of the kids that played in Boston were kids that came from successful basketball programs. Were they the most talented? No. You had KC and Russell out of San Francisco. You’ve got Bailey Howell out of Mississippi State. You had John and I out of Ohio State. Clyde Lovellette out of Kansas. All of those kids came from great programs. Now, if you put it all together; if you take the family structure, which gives you the potential, and you add in a great basketball program to get the most out of that potential, then you’ve got all of the ingredients to create a winning team. And that is the thing that I am most proud of, and I preach it every day of my life. Do the championships make a big deal? Nah. It’s all of the other things that you carry with you that make it special. And if you happen to win without that family structure, and without that true sense of team, then you don’t have anything. Zero.
Kids today are so concerned about the end result that they don’t enjoy the journey of getting there. And that camaraderie and sense of team? That gets lost because everyone on the court is looking to do for themselves. It’s all about self. And that goes back to the family structure and the upbringing of these kids. Their home environment. What they’re learning. Who they’re getting their examples from. What they’re seeing on TV and in the movies. The role models that they pattern themselves after. Just look at sports on TV – look at the wild celebrations after someone scores a touchdown. Or look at how they act after catching a simple five yard pass. Or how they act after a quarterback sack. Basketball is the same way. And these kids don’t have the family structure to keep them grounded. They want to do it bigger, louder, and more sensational than the last guy. It’s all me, me, me. Look at me. Look at who I am and what I’ve accomplished. The team concept just goes straight out the window.
Now, let’s go back to my high school team. Of that starting lineup my senior season, three of those guys went on to become doctors. Why were they able to do that? The family structure was there – these kids came out of respectable homes. And then I went to Ohio State, and those kids at Ohio State came out the same type of home environment. Just look at their majors. Look at their GPAs. This stuff is written down…this stuff is in concrete. Then I go to Boston, and they have Russell, who can’t shoot the ball. But he’s a winner from the moment he picked up a basketball. And they have Bailey Howell, and John and I, and KC and Sam Jones, and you say to yourself, ‘Is this a coincidence?’ No. Those guys all came from strong homes and were able to build upon their physical talents. The family structure was the foundation around which everything else was built.
I hear people talk about who the best player is on this team, and who the best player is on that team. And when that subject comes up about the Boston Celtics I just cut them short. Because you can’t divide our team like that. You can’t carve it up in those types of slices. We were a true team in every sense of the word. When I was in Boston, we had the best basketball team in the world. Did we have the most talent? No. Did we have the best team? I repeat: We had the best basketball team in the world.
Red chose the great Bill Russell as his head coaching successor. How was he able to manage the dual roles of player and coach?
Very simple: A good team will run itself and coach itself. The only thing you have to do is worry about the substitution patterns and things like that. Russ had no assistants – he was the player/coach. Today, teams have ten assistant coaches and all of this other stuff. For what? Today you’ve got to have a manager and an assistant coach for every position. We made our own adjustments on the floor and in practice. I tell everyone the same thing – if you’ve got a good team, all you have to do is manage it. I don’t want some coach running down my ear trying to call the plays. I know what’s going on. And that’s the way we handled it as a team. We made our own adjustments. Red always felt that Russell could control himself, and that Russell was the only person really suited to coach Russell. And that was part of Red’s genius. Red was smart enough to know that he didn’t want someone coming in there and disrupting the team. A lot of times, coaches will over-coach. Why? Because they don’t know what they’re doing, or they don’t have a good team that will coach itself. So they’re on the sidelines, standing up, calling every play…for what? Russell didn’t do that. He knew himself, and he knew his players. He knew that we were going to take care of our responsibilities, and that we were going to go out there and do our jobs. So all Russell had to do was worry about guys getting tired, rotations, fouls, things like that. He didn’t have to tell Havlicek to be in a certain spot at a certain time. He didn’t have to tell Sam Jones where to be on the fast break. He didn’t have to tell Satch Sanders how to play defense. These things were going to take care of themselves. Why? Because we were a good team. We were mature and we were responsible. We looked out for each other, and we did our jobs.
The Celtics championship streak was snapped in 1967, and many thought the aging Celtic Dynasty had come to an end. How satisfying was it for you to prove the experts wrong and win two more rings?
We didn’t have to prove nothing. All we had to do was regroup and do what we needed to do. Winning was so simple and so easy because we played defense, we moved the ball, and we had a good team. Think about it. What you’re doing is beating the team that doesn’t play good defense and doesn’t move the ball. They may have better talent, but they’re not the better team. So all we had to do was regroup. It wasn’t that complex. The thing that amazes me today is that everyone talks about talent . Well, you can assemble a ton of talent, and sometimes it backfires. Sometimes talent alone doesn’t get it done because that talent isn’t playing together with the same goal in mind. You have a high-priced collection of talent, and they’re playing with five different agendas on the same court. They’re not a team. The team, the family, the community – it’s all a part of the culture that makes a winner, and to a large degree we’ve lost that.
Just look at what happened recently in Los Angeles. You had the pieces in place for a dynasty, but the feud between Shaq and Kobe broke that apart. That would never have happened in Boston. You would have never seen Russell and Sam Jones ending up like that. No way. That would have never happened. On a good team, you may have differences, but things would never reach the point that they did in Los Angeles. Never. Basically, what happened there was the result of two self-centered people who claimed that they had a team. No, there was no team. There were talented individuals playing in the same uniforms, but both of them had their own agenda. And it tore the team apart. It couldn’t win. Stop and think about this – the team, whether it be the community, or the family, or a sports team…the team is a vanishing thing. We say we have a team. It’s like saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a marriage. We’re married.’ And then you look at how most marriages end up. You ain’t got nothing. Today there are almost as many divorced couples are there are married couples.
So when you ask that question, how satisfying was it to win two more titles, I have to say that the most important thing to me today is the thing that we’re talking about right now. The rings don’t mean a thing. The memories that I have of playing with my teammates – those are the things that mean something. And everywhere I go, I sing my song about this.
Muhammad Ali told me this one time, years ago in Boston – and I don’t know why, other than I think he followed me in college – but it was almost prophetic; he said to me, ‘Larry, years from now you’re going to have something to tell people.’ And you know, he was right. Because how many people today know, and have experienced, what we’re talking about right now? How many people really know what the true meaning of team is all about?
The Celtics defeated the Lakers in that 1969 NBA Finals, winning that memorable Game 7 in L.A. Please take me back to that classic series, and to Don Nelson’s jumper that rattled home to win Game 7.
That was the last championship for Russell, and for that team. That’s what made it so special. Russ told me that the reason he got out was because he could no longer get up for the games. Mentally and physically, he could no longer get up to the level needed to win championships. So he knew that it was time to get out. Think about it: Every single night, everybody wanted to beat Boston. Why? Because we were the world champions.
The Celtics finished fourth place in the Eastern Division in ’69 and barely made the playoffs, and then faced the Lakers in the Finals. Los Angeles had home-court advantage. We played two games out there, and we were beaten pretty handily. We came back to Boston and won two at home to even the series. Then we went back to LA and lost, and then came back to Boston and won. That put the series at 3-3 with the deciding game in Los Angeles.
I remember after Game 2 in LA, Russell had a locker room meeting. He admitted that he hadn’t played up to his standards, and that he wasn’t ready to compete in that game. He asked us to forgive him, and he told us that we were going to prevail in this series. That we’d somehow find a way to get it done. This was when we were down 0-2. I remember sitting in the locker room prior to Game 7, and he looked at everyone and said, ‘Well, what did I tell you? We’re back, and they’re not going to beat us. We’re going to win this game.’ And the game itself was a nail biter. I think Sam Jones had fouled out, and I had hit two free throws to close the gap to one point, and then Nelson hit that shot on the next possession and we ended up winning the championship.
Russell played all forty-eight minutes in that game. Afterwards, he was spent. Mentally and physically he knew that he couldn’t do it anymore. But he had one more game left in him that day, and he played great. He was a special, special man. He ran guys completely out of the league. I remember reading an article recently about Chris Webber. Webber’s father introduced him to Bill Russell, and he just looked at his son and said, ‘Son, this is Bill Russell. This man would have held you scoreless in a game.’ And you know what? Inside, he would have. I’m telling you, you couldn’t get a shot off inside against Bill Russell. That’s hard to believe, that that’s the truth. And it was fun for us, because offensively it was an easy place to play. All you had to do was dig in defensively – the stats were not important.
One year Sam Jones led the team in scoring with 19 points-per-game, and then there were another five guys bunched together beneath him. Red believed in ball movement. The ball moves, you move, and if you get the ball in an open spot, you take the shot. If not, then you move it to someone else. And it worked. The focus was right, and everything else followed.
Final Question: You’ve achieved great success in your life. You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA. If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?
It’s not about winning championships, it’s not about winning, it’s about getting there. And without a faith in God, everything else is empty.