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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...PART II-SAVE THIS SPOT ON MOUNT RUSHMORE OF HOOPS!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Last week, in issue No. 27, we presented Part I of Save This Spot on the Mount Rushmore of Hoops, in which we touched upon the legacy of the great Bill Russell. The thrust of the story, however, was the magic wand waved by Russell and his Boston Celtics when, inexplicably, and almost unbelievably, they added two more titles to the end of their hard-to-believe haul of championships stretching from 1957 until 1969. In this second of a three-part installment, we continue our review with an in-depth recollection of the remarkable 1967-68 championship run, and how the Celtics rose to meet the challenge of what appeared to be unconquerable foes.

We resume at the outset of the 1967-68 campaign, when Wilt Chamberlain and his Philadelphia 76ers were overwhelming favorites to retain the NBA crown they had taken from the Celtics in the previous 1966-67 term, and in the process perhaps signaling the beginning of a new dynasty in pro hoops...

The late '60s version of the Celtics had a somewhat different look than the championship editions of the late '50s and early '60s. HC Red Auerbach had moved full-time to the front office after the 1965-66 championship, with Russell assuming the role of player-coach. "Russ" was not the only familiar face still in the lineup, as G Sam Jones remained from the outset of the dynasty, which had added another key piece, Ohio State's non-stop John Havlicek, earlier in the '60s. Along with several other supporting cast members including Havlicek's college teammate, G Larry Siegfried, F Don Nelson (via Iowa, the Chicago Zephyrs, and L.A. Lakers), and NYU's cool F Tom "Satch" Sanders, another valued component, but whose aching knees had begun to reduce his effectiveness and contributions by the late '60s.

Auerbach, as always, was looking to add pieces to the Celtic puzzle. As Russell's contributions gravitated more toward defense and rebounding in his later years, and with Sanders' knees providing another concern, Auerbach realized he needed frontline reinforcements. The scoring component was addressed by adding F Bailey Howell from the Baltimore Bullets in exchange for backup C Mel Counts before the 1966-67 season. The former Mississippi State star would relieve some of the scoring load from Russell. Realizing that Russ, now also burdened by coaching duties, might need even further assistance on the blocks, Auerbach shrewdly added thick 6-8 veteran post beast Wayne Embry in a trade with the Cincinnati Royals just two weeks after acquiring Howell. Embry's addition, in particular, was a calculated gamble by Auerbach, who knew, among other things, that the Sixers' Chamberlain had never liked playing against big Wayne, a long-time foe of Chamberlain with the Cincinnati Royals and whose presence reminded of a later-day Wes Unseld.

This added frontline fortification helped produce 60 wins for the Celtics in the 1966-67 season, but Boston dropped further behind rampant Philadelphia, which romped to both the Eastern Conference and NBA titles. With the graying Celtics a year older in 1967-68, the prospects of overhauling the powerhouse, Wilt-led Sixers seemed an even taller order in 1967-68.

Auerbach had another roster dilemma prior to 1967-68, as longtime G K.C. Jones, a college teammate of Russell's at USF and a key defensive presence on the perimeter throughout the glory years, had retired to take the head coaching job at Brandeis. After adding frontline components in Howell and Embry the preceding year, and now needing something in the backcourt resembling a replacement for K.C., Auerbach surveyed the landscape and plucked ex-Cincinnati Royals G Tom Thacker, who had been a College Player of the Year with the Cincinnati Bearcats in 1963 and who had the well-earned reputation as a defensive stopper, though his career with the Royals had floundered, and he sat out the 1966-67 campaign. Thacker was expected to provide a needed defensive presence off the bench.

The 1967-68 season was also a new frontier of sorts in pro hoops with the introduction of the rival ABA as a potential bidder for player services. This new-found bargaining power among players was not warmly received by Auerbach, who spent much of the offseason tossing player agents out of his office. The crusty Auerbach could always drive a hard bargain, and was not going to be intimidated by the new wave of players and their reps. In that regard, it was still business as usual for the Celtics.

The previous 1866-67 campaign had proven a somewhat difficult year for now player-coach Russell, whose concentration on scoring and rebounding suffered, perhaps in proportion to the time he had to spend thinking about time-outs, substitutions and such. So, prior to the 1967-68 term, Russell practiced during the offseason for the first time in 10 years as he geared up to contribute more offensively, though the contributions would come in shorter bursts, enabling him to catch his breath and coach from the bench while Embry performed in the post.

The league, however, had been waiting a long time for the Boston dynasty to collapse. Would the aged became the infirmed at the same time? Many around the NBA expected as much. The Celtics were no longer the team to beat...Wilt's 76ers were instead. But the magnificent Russell was still part of the Boston equation to make up for lapses by everyone else.

The '67-68 season proceeded as expected, with Wilt's 76ers, though slightly off of their record-setting 68-13 pace of the previous season, still appearing to be the class of the league. Boston, after a quick 9-1 break from the gate, had settled into the runner-up spot in the East, several games off the pace set by Philly. One quirk of the campaign occurred in early March of 1968, when a violent storm had torn off a piece of the roof at the Spectrum, the sparkling new arena in Philadelphia. While repairs were made, the Sixers were forced to play games over the next month at their former home, the old Convention Hall. (The Sixers had it better than the other Spectrum tenants, the NHL expansion Flyers, who were forced to move their home games first to New York's new Madison Square Garden, then to Le Colisee in Quebec City for the month because there were no other ice arena facilities in Philadelphia).

When the regular season concluded, the Celtics, like the year before, were eight games in arrears of the Sixers in the standings, though each team had shaved six wins off of the previous year's total. Again they ranked 1-2 in the East entering the postseason.

The playoffs in those years adhered to an unorthodox "odd-even" format in which the first place team inexplicably would face the third-place finisher, and the second-place team the fourth finisher, in the first round of the playoffs. This was also accepted practice in the NHL of the same era; it took several years for each league to figure out that the reward for finishing first in the standings should be a lesser opening-round playoff foe. Eventually, playoff rotations would be altered to feature more plausible 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 matchups, but that was not the case in 1967-68...a factor that would eventually play to Boston's favor.

Not that the second-place Celtics would have an easy time vs. the fourth-place Pistons in the first round of the East playoffs. Led by explosive 2nd-year G Dave Bing, the NBA's leading scorer, Detroit surged to a 2-1 lead in the series before Boston would wrest control and take the next three games. Wilt's Sixers had an even tougher-looking draw against the emerging, third-place Knicks, who had added rookie G Walt Frazier and ex-Princeton F Bill Bradley (who had spent the previous two years on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford) to a roster that included C Willis Reed, who was developing into a force on the blocks. While the Sixers, like the Celtics, would prevail in their opening series by the same 4-2 margin, they were worked hard by Red Holzman's club, which employed full-court pressure for the entirety of the series, adding extra workload to Sixer guards Wally Jones and the aging Hal Greer. Still, the Sixers were prohibitive favorites for the long-expected showdown in the East finals vs. the Celtics.

What followed remains one of the more remarkable comeback stories in NBA annals.

As were many conference playoff series in those days, the home-court rotation was on an every-other-game basis, as venues would switch for each game. So, when the Celtics pulled a 127-116 surprise in Game One at Philly behind Havlicek's 35 points, Boston had a chance to take a 2-0 lead in the series back at home in Game Two. The Sixers, however, pulled away to a 115-106 victory, and after winning the third and fourth games looked ready to put the Celtics away once and for all at home in Game Five.

At that point, however, the 76ers suddenly, unaccountably, forgot how to shoot. In the second half of the fifth game, they started missing, and they never stopped missing. For the first four games and half of the fifth game, the 76ers shot 44% from the floor. For the balance of the series, however, they connected on a mere 35% of their field goal attempts. That meant about 10 points fewer per half than they would have scored had they maintained the 44%. Of all the 76ers, only Hal Greer, who had been shooting less than 40% anyway, improved in accuracy thereafter in the series. Wilt, with an injured leg hampering his movement, made 36% of his shots; Wally Jones made 25%, Chet Walker and Luke Jackson 31% each, Matt Guokas 37%, Johnny Green 39% on only 13 attempts. There was no one to turn to for help.

Perhaps the fact that Russell had Boston pressuring full-court, as had the Knicks in the previous series, was helping to wear down the Philly backcourt. The Sixers also appeared to be missing F Billy Cunningham, an expert shooter not prone to slumps, but sidelined since the middle of the preceding Knicks series. By comparison, Russell's Celtics did not miss key reserve Satch Sanders, who was hobbled by pulled leg muscle.

The pace and tempo of the series didn't change, only that the Sixers, looking noticeably tired, were starting to misfire. Taking advantage, and maintaining their poise, Russell's troops stormed to a 122-104 road win in Game Five behind 37 points from ageless G Sam Jones to keep the series alive before going home to Boston Garden with a chance to level the series at three games apiece. Which Boston did in Game Six, withstanding a 40-point onslaught by Hal Greer to prevail 114-106. On the surface, the games looked the same, as Boston kept up its running game and Philadelphia kept setting up off Chamberlain in the low post and weaving off the picks. But Wilt was getting a bit unnerved by the burly Embry, who was effectively spelling Russell, and the Big Dipper's point totals began to drop as the series progressed. Effectively tag-teamed by the Boston bigs, Wilt scored only 20 (modest by his standards) in Game Six. Another key development was under-the-radar offseason addition Tom Thacker, whose defense off the bench allowed Russell to continue his pressing tactics on defense and help grind down the weary Sixer guards.

A deciding Game Seven beckoned back in Philly, though few believed the underdog Celtics could actually pull off the rare comeback from a 3-1 deficit. But Russell, as brilliant as ever though 34 and in his 12th pro year, and in combination with Embry, restricted Chamberlain in a manner few believed possible. In the last half of the critical final game, Wilt took only one shot and batted up only one errant attempt by a teammate!

After a briskly-paced first six games of the series, Game Seven proved to be no Picasso, with both teams resembling heavyweight boxers in the feeling-out process in the early rounds of a big fight. Except that the malaise lingered for most of the first half. The players were tight with tension, and the hesitant, slow action should have worked to Philadelphia's advantage. Former coach Auerbach, now also serving as the Celtics' TV color man, exhorted his men over the air (though the words were only heard 300 miles away in Boston): "Don't hold the ball...! We've got to foul to win!" Often he just counted one-two-three, like a dance instructor, pointing out alleged three-second violations by the 76ers.

After a short burst by Philly at the start of the second half, the Celtics took the tempo away from the home team and kept the lead, albeit slightly, for much of the remainder of the game. They were ahead 97-95 when Sam Jones was trapped and lost the ball to Wally Jones with 0:54 left. The 76ers set up, and soon Chet Walker was barreling into the paint, looking to tie the score. Don Nelson, who had a magnificent series, found himself slightly beaten and gave way to avoid fouling, and Walker flicked up the short field goal try. The shot rolled around the rim, teetered, and then dropped away. There were no 76ers on the boards. The ever-present Russell took the rebound, dribbled the length of the court and was fouled by Wilt. Russell made the free throw that clinched the game, which seemed only fair considering his contribution to the victory. When it ended officially in a 100-96 Boston victory, Russ threw his arms high in triumph, straining them against the din of the home crowd.

Russell the coach had also matured in his second year on that job. "Russell did a fine job of coaching this year," Philly coach 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."

In Russell's second year, he was not afraid to solicit Auerbach's opinions as he was the previous season. Russ had also opened the channels of communication with his players prior to the season. "Look, this is a tough job I have, and I really need your help," said Russell to his team in a closed-door meeting. Russell had encouraged the players to speak up and make suggestions, making a more explicit request than he had done the previous season.

Coach Russell made it clear, though, that he was prepared to make the final decisions. Russell the coach even once fined Russell the player $500 for getting snowbound and missing a game!

The Celtics had defeated the odds and the Sixers, but still had a Finals series ahead of them against their old foe Lakers, who had surged in the second half of the season and swept out the Warriors in four straight to win the West playoffs. Still led as they had been for most of the decade by Jerry West and Elgin Baylor (who had remarkably recovered from serious knee injuries to retain All-Pro form), L.A., now resplendent in new-style purple and yellow (or "Forum Blue and Gold," as owner Jack Kent Cooke preferred) unis, and playing in their own gleaming new arena, the Inglewood Forum, believed it could beat the aging Celtics. Indeed, every Laker was pulling for Boston in the series vs. Philly, reckoning they had a better shot vs. Russell's team.

The Finals series went back-and-forth for the first four games, which was waged in the traditional 2-2-1-1-1 format, with the Celtics having home edge. Not that it helped in Game Two, when the Lakers, behind West's 35 points, stole a 123-113 decision at the Garden. Boston, however, would recover to win Game Three at the Forum behind Havlicek (27 points) and Siegfried (26 points) before L.A. would level the series in Game Four, 118-105, fueled by 38 points from West and 30 from Baylor. The series was thus effectively a best-of-three set when the teams returned to Boston for the pivotal Game Five. It was also the 100th league game of the season for the Celtics, making them the first NBA team to achieve that 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, Havlicek and Russell had been playing virtually every minute. "I'm a 28-year-old man with a 48-year-old body," a tired Havlicek moaned before Game Five.

In anticipation of the playoff grind, however, 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. In a sense, Russell was creating a template for teams to emulate in generations to come; the modern-day San Antonio Spurs are a great example of "Russell's Law," as blessed are the rested, for they have fresher legs for the championship run.

Game Five, however, required the Celtics to summon all of their moxie and guile to survive. Boston was in control on numerous occasions, moving to a 19-point lead in the first quarter behind several baskets from Don Nelson and, after losing that advantage, reassuming control when surging to an 18-point margin late in the third quarter. But Butch Van Breda Kolff's Lakers managed to regroup splendidly, and with former Celtic turned L.A. reserve C Mel Counts leading the comeback with his surprisingly deft outside shooting touch, Los Angeles came back to tie the score at 108 on West's layup with 12 seconds remaining. Overtime beckoned.

The extra period was tense, with neither side able to forge a significant edge. Late in the overtime, West tied it again at 117-117 before Havlicek nailed a 20-foot jumper with 38 seconds remaining to give Boston a 2-point lead. The Lakers, confident they could recover, went to Baylor in an effort to tie the score. Elgin began to yo-yo his old roommate, Don Nelson, in a classic man-to-man battle, before Baylor whirled to his left and started his shot. Then, from out of nowhere, Russell's arm appeared and swatted the ball away, where Boston was able to recover possession. Nelson made a free throw a few seconds later that clinched the game 120-117.

The sixth game, back on the West Coast at the Forum, proved anticlimactic. Playing loose with the knowledge they could return for Game Seven at home if they needed, the Celtics took control in the first half and never let the Lakers back into the contest. 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 pushed Boston in front 28-13.

Briefly in the second quarter, the Lakers had rallied behind reserve G Gail Goodrich, who contributed points on the offensive end and was assigned Sam Jones on the defensive end. Russell, however, then made a tactical switch, flipping Havlicek and Sam, with Hondo moving to a guard spot and Jones moving to a forward position and closer to the basket, with Goodrich still defending. Now posting Goodrich, Jones scored a couple of quick baskets off of his smaller opponent, and van Breda Kolff's hand was forced, as the Laker coach removed sparkplug Goodrich. The Boston lead quickly ballooned to 47-32, and the Celtics were never seriously threatened thereafter. What had been an entertaining series had fizzled in the final game, which Boston won in a cruise, 124-109. And, once again, it was Russell and his Celtics puffing on their victory cigars.

The series was not only a vindication for Russell the coach, but also a real coming-out party for Havlicek, who for years had been a valued component as a super sixth man, but had now ascended to the level of superstar. Havlicek was never fazed by having to shift constantly from guard to forward, a move that was key to Boston's offense and would alter tactics by the opposition, depending upon which spot on the floor Russell would employ Hondo.

Because the indefatigable Havlicek could play the whole game at top speed and because he could move about the lineup so nimbly, he made it possible for Russell always to replace whoever was tired or cold with the best man on his bench, regardless of position, giving Russell great flexibility. After using Embry (who played a vital role vs. Wilt in the preceding round) and Thacker extensively vs. the Sixers, Russ used them sparingly vs, the Lakers, essentially beating L.A. with one center, two guards, two forwards and Havlicek. All demanding a wise and precise rotation of substitutions, which Russell managed superbly. There was no repetition of the playoff gaffe of the previous season when Russ had forgotten that Sam Jones was sitting on the bench in one game.

Russell the player had also played a key role, his defense and rebounding in particular, and delivering offense when needed. Though Havlicek's contributions were generating a buzz, it was Russ, as usual, in the spotlight after the series concluded.

"They can talk about individual players in any sport," said a defeated Jerry West, whose teams had now lost in five Finals series vs. the Celtics, after the game, "but I tell you what, when it comes to winning, there is no one like him (Russell). 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?"

No, there hadn't. Russell had outlasted every player in the league who was there when he arrived in the 1956-57 season. Many of the great Celtics who played with him, won their championships, and had moved on: Bob Cousy, Tom 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, as had the owner after him, Lou Pieri. The team was sold and still had gone on, so that now Bailey Howell and Wayne Embry and Tom Thacker had their championships with Russell, too.

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

And Russell wasn't done quite yet.

Part III of "Save This Spot on the Mount Rushmore of Hoops" will chronicle the memorable 1968-69 run by Russell's Celtics and will be included in next weekend's issue No. 31. Our final updated "Bracketology" report of the college season will appear in our upcoming TGS Hoops issue No. 30, available Monday night.


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