by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

A few years ago, in one of our TGS Retrospective pieces that ran in three parts, we recalled the improbable conclusion to the greatest dynasty the NBA has ever known.  With the Celtics back in the Finals round in 2022, we though it interesting to recall back to the final installment of that Retrospective,  a revisit to the conclusion of the Bill Russell Era and a Finals series that was recently highlighted in a marvelous book written by Leigh Montville entitled "Tall Men, Short Shorts" now avalable at booksellers everywhere... 

Boston winning NBA championships wasn't anything new, but the manner in which the Celtics overcame the odds to win the 1967-68 title, rallying from a 3-games-to-1 deficit vs. the powerhouse Wilt Chamberlain 76ers, reverberated beyond the Finals series between the Celtics and Lakers. The earth would shake further that summer when Chamberlain wanted out of Philadelphia.

The specifics of Wilt's departure were outlined in a 2004 book penned by Dr. Jack Ramsay, Dr. Jack's Leadership Lessons Learned From a Lifetime in Basketball. Dr. Jack had been the GM of the Sixers team that had won the 1966-67 title with a record 68 regular-season wins, and then had lost bitterly in the East Finals to the Celtics the following year. Philly's coach, Alex Hannum, under whom Wilt had flourished, jumped leagues after the 1967-68 season and took over as coach of the Oakland Oaks in the rival ABA, where former NBA star Rick Barry would be making his debut after being forced to sit out the 1967 -68 season.

According to Dr. Jack, after Hannum's departure, Chamberlain approached Ramsay and owner Irv Kosloff and said that he would be interested in a player/coach arrangement much like the one Bill Russell had undertaken, with great success, at Boston. Ramsay (who would assist Wilt with the Xs and Os) and Kosloff were intrigued by the idea and were prepared to make Chamberlain an offer when Wilt, after returning from a California vacation, abruptly changed his mind and demanded a trade to a West Coast team...whether it be the Lakers, (the then) San Francisco Warriors, San Diego Rockets, or Seattle SuperSonics. If his demands weren't met, Wilt, following the lead of Barry the year before, threatened to jump to the ABA and the Los Angeles Stars franchise, which had just relocated from Anaheim that summer. Wilt would eventually amend his demands to the Lakers only, and a deal was reached on July 9: Chamberlain was dealt to the Lakers in exchange for C Darrall Imhoff (ironically the starting center for the Knicks on the night Wilt would score his 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in March of 1962), G Archie Clark, and F Jerry Chambers.

Chamberlain's departure, and alignment with the Lakers, made Los Angeles an overwhelming favorite to finally wrest the title away from Boston in 1968-69. Along with perennial All-Pros Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, those Lakers, not the recent LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Heat, were the original "Big Three" team.

In the East, however, Celtic doomsayers persisted, and even with the Sixers weakened, aging Boston was still not considered the team to beat. If anything, the Sixers were still regarded as no worse than a co-favorite in the conference, as many expected that the Philly supporting cast would rally around Ramsay (now the coach), as the likes of Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, and Wally Jones, along with F Chet Walker, would emerge as bona fide stars as Ramsay would turn the dogs loose and convert Philly into a running, pressing machine, unlike the walk-it-up, set-it-up style of the Wilt years.

The real hype in the East, however, was being reserved for the up-and-coming Knicks, who seemed to have arrived as a contender the previous year when challenging the Sixers in the playoffs. Center Willis Reed had become a force in the league, G Walt Frazier an emerging star, and more contributions could be expected from Bill Bradley, the former Princeton All-American who had finally joined the Knicks in the middle of the preceding campaign. A mid-December trade with the Pistons for star forward Dave DeBusschere (in exchange for expendable C Walt Bellamy and G Butch Komives) would further strengthen Red Holzman's team and appear to add the final piece to their championship puzzle.

The upcoming 1968-69 season was another expansion year, however, and that meant exposing a portion of the roster in the summer to the new Milwaukee and Phoenix franchises. Auerbach and Russell could not protect everybody on the Boston roster, and burly vet C Wayne Embry, so valuable in flustering Chamberlain while spelling Russell in the previous year's playoffs, was plucked by the expansion Bucks. Moreover, G Tom Thacker, who provided valuable defensive minutes off the bench in the 1967-68 season, was also taken by Milwaukee in the expansion draft before opting to jump leagues and sign with the ABA Indiana Pacers instead.

Without much help in the form of the college draft, the Celtics were faced with more personnel issues than the previous season. Desperate for some bench reinforcement to take the places of Embry and Thacker, Auerbach and Russell engineered a late-August trade for G Emmette Bryant, a former Knick who had also been claimed in the expansion draft, by Phoenix. The cost for Bryant was just a second-round pick to the Suns...which would turn into quite a bargain for Boston.

Nonetheless, Russell was planning to start four men who were age 30 or over. The Celtic regulars would in fact average more than 31 years of age, about three years older than the lineup of the then-World Series champion Detroit Tigers, and six years older than the average age of Joe Namath's Super Bowl champion New York Jets. To many, that age would sound like a death knell and a signal that the dynasty was about to end, but the Celtics were still defending champs, Russell was still in the middle, and John Havlicek was giving every indication of going another year non-stop without breaking a sweat. The addition of Emmette Bryant would be another key; though not a classic bombardier, Bryant, in the Tom Thacker mold, was a top-notch defender and a diehard scuffler. He fit neatly into the Celtic lineup, providing balance to the special skills of the regular holdover backcourt men, Havlicek, Sam Jones and Larry Siegfried (all scorers) and permitting Havlicek to move into the forecourt more often.

The 1968-69 term was also to be the last for the great Sam Jones (already having lined up the athletic director job at Federal City College in Washington, D.C.), and Sam reported to camp in his best shape in years. A rejuvenated Satch Sanders also appeared to be whole again after two injury-filled seasons. With Sanders hurt and ineffective much of the previous year, the versatile Don Nelson came into prominence and was even backing up Russell in the pivot, Embry's old job. That, however, would be a temporary arrangement, as Auerbach continued to look for a frontline reinforcement after the season began. Early in December, the rugged Jim "Bad News" Barnes, a ferocious rebounder earlier in his career, became expendable with Chicago and was added as Russell's primary backup. And into mid-December, the Celtics, with benefit of a soft early slate loaded with several of the recent expansion teams, had bolted to a 19-6 record.

But the age factor seemed to suddenly creep up on the Celtics, who began to lose ground in the standings to the Knicks, Sixers, and the spry Baltimore Bullets, who had quickly emerged as a force under HC Gene Shue with a roster built around an intimidating frontline paced by menacing F Gus Johnson and rugged Louisville rookie C Wes Unseld, and a flashy backcourt featuring 2nd-year G Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and underrated Kevin Loughery.

Boston hung in the East race until the All-Star break, when it stood 31-15, but it played sub-.500 ball for the remainder of the regular season to finish a distant fourth in the East at 48-34. The dynasty appeared to be finished. Never mind a championship rematch with the Lakers, now flying high with Wilt Chamberlain in the mix. The Celtics were the fourth and last playoff qualifier in the East and looked unlikely to have a chance to defend a title once more.

Yet the old vets proved they were not done in a first-round matchup with the post-Wilt Sixers, who had finished in second place in the East (remember those were still the days of the 1 vs. 3 and 2 vs. 4 playoff rituals). Philly, however, was not at full strength, as frontliner Luke Jackson, in the midst of his best campaign, had gone down with a knee injury later in the season, and the Sixers were vulnerable. With Havlicek scoring 35 in Game One, Boston won at the Spectrum, 114-100, and the groans could be heard all up and down Broad Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway. Here we go again. With Game Two shifting back to the Boston Garden, the Celtics would take complete command of the series in a 134-103 blowout from which the Sixers never really recovered. When the dust cleared, Russell and Boston had dispatched Philly in five games.

The reward, however, would be the ascending Knicks, who had finished in third place, just three games behind division-winning Baltimore, but would sweep the Bullets four straight in the first round. New York would also have home edge in the East Finals series vs. Boston.

As they did vs. the Sixers, the Celtics would win Game One on the road, this time at Madison Square Garden, by a 108-100 score, and Game Two at Boston by a 112-97 count, and appeared in complete control of the series. But the Celtics were also beginning to tire, and with a chance to lay down the hammer in Game Three at MSG, Boston was instead beaten 101-91. The Knicks were back in business, trailing in the series only 2-1.

In the middle of the storm stood Sam Jones, who had being playing "old" much of the year. He had been injured during the season, missed 12 games, and did not come back fast enough to please Russell. Sam had some decent games vs. the Sixers in the playoffs, but he appeared to be running out of gas against the Knicks. The Celtics would win Game Four by a single point, but not because of Sam, who shot 4 for 18. Sam was then 1 for 8 from the floor when New York would win Game Five at MSG, 112-104.

The Knicks had been putting pressure on the corners, so Russell decided that it was time his guards exploited the opening in the middle. New York's Walt Frazier, voted the best defensive player in the league, had pulled a groin muscle in the last seconds of the fifth game, and his lameness could make New York even more vulnerable.

"I put myself into a higher pivot," Russell later explained. "We would start our play like before, as if we were going to the corners, then turn them around and head things back to the middle, where the guards could use me as a pick."

Russell, however, was putting a lot of faith in Sam, who had shot 5 for 26 over the previous two games. Game Six, back at the Boston Garden, would be the Celtics' chance to finally wrap up the series in a game that was also the first nationally-televised prime-time NBA special, with Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman at the microphones for ABC.

So, Sam came out shooting in Game Six--he was to put up a staggering 31 shots! Frazier played through the pain in his leg and dogged Jones, but Sam hit six baskets in the first half, and Russell decided to start him in the third quarter, too, which he had seldom done in previous weeks. Five more Jones baskets helped put the Celtics 10 up. Moreover, the Knicks often double-teamed him, which left Emmette Bryant wide open for 19 points. Sam would finish with 29.

The series, however, would be saved by Havlicek. After New York had rallied to a 101-99 deficit and 45 seconds left to play, Havlicek got the ball with only eight ticks remaining on the 24-second clock. He cut left at the top of the key, but the Knicks were on him and no one was open. Satch Sanders had been in the same predicament a minute before and had taken a desperation jumper that had gone in. Now Havlicek was obliged to try another.

Hondo was thinking that at least the Celtics might get the rebound. Willis Reed, under the basket, could see that Havlicek would have to take a bad shot, and when Havlicek went up at 0:40 Russell, standing by Reed, thought John was forced to jump sideways as he shot. The ball flew, just clearing the two hands in his face, and suddenly Havlicek was astonished to note that he actually felt it was on target. The ball hit the left side of the rim and banged back and forth, dropping in like a pinball. On the bench, Larry Siegfried turned to Sam. "Baby," he said. "I can't believe it."

"That's the ones that win ball games," Sam said. Boston would hang on for a 106-105 win and a date in the Finals vs. the Lakers!

Another finale vs. Los Angeles was thus set, but this time, the Lakers had Chamberlain. Although Wilt was 1-6 in career series vs. Russell and the Celtics, and the Lakers 0-6 against Boston, this series seemed like it would be much tougher for the Celts to manage because of the matchup problems Wilt's presence now exacerbated vs. the Lakers.

Russell, though not a top scoring threat as he had been earlier in his career, was still a force defensively and on the boards, and he would gobble nearly 19 rebounds per game during the 1968-69 season! But the previous year vs. Chamberlain, Russell had help in the person of Wayne Embry, who would relieve Bill for long stretches and lean his "ample" weight on Wilt. This wore Chamberlain down and also made him mad as heck. Further, it convinced everyone that Russell could no longer go 48 minutes in the playoffs. But Russ would prove the naysayers wrong again and go the route five times in the East Finals vs. Willis Reed, and he worked even harder than usual on offense, since he found the middle open. Bad News Barnes, who had contributed earlier in the season, was by this stage of the campaign so deep in Russell's doghouse that he was at risk to be waived to the American Kennel Club.

The Lakers were powerful, but not untouchable. The Warriors had surged to a shocking 2-0 lead in the opening round of the playoffs before L.A. would take control of that series, and then Wilt & Co. would dispatch of the Atlanta Hawks in five games. But Baylor had not adjusted well to playing with Chamberlain, and there were rumors of friction (and even a fistfight) between them. West, though, gave the Lakers the backcourt edge, and "Zeke" figured to have an easier time moving against the Boston man-to-man press than he did against Atlanta's double-teaming zone.

Both teams had chances to take control of the closely-fought series, especially the Lakers, who won the first two games at home paced by the marvelous West, who scored 53 points in Game One and another 41 in Game Two as the Lake Show won a couple of hard-fought decisions at the Forum, 120-118 and 118-112. West appeared unstoppable. In Game One, Emmette Bryant tried to cover him, but West simply shot over him at will. Thereafter, Russell had Sam Jones and Siegfried split the assignment, with Havlicek moving into the backcourt for occasional head-to-head duels that West always won. The Celtics had always prided themselves on tight man-to-man defense, but, as the series went on, the extra guard or a forward would slough off on West more and more. West would then hit the open man, usually Johnny Egan or Keith Erickson, and often they, not Baylor, would get the shot. But Baylor, still proving he had plenty of gas left in his tank, had scored the Lakers' last 12 points in their Game Two win.

As for Chamberlain, like his rival Russell, was not quite in evidence. But, except in the fifth game, when Chamberlain got 31 rebounds and cleared the offensive boards to eliminate any Boston fast break, the two big men effectively neutralized one another and let the other fellows go four-on-four. In one game Russell and Chamberlain scored a total of one point in a half.

It was, in fact, surprising that the series lasted to the seventh game--the 100th of the season for both teams--in the first place. Had either club been just a bit more consistent, or lucky, it could have swept the first four close games. And certainly, except for one wondrous shot by Sam Jones, Los Angeles would have probably won in five.

Instead, the series would go the full route, simply because neither team was good enough nor deep enough to put the other away. West was magnificent, but was nearly matched by Havlicek, who scored 37, 43 and 34 points in the first three games in an un-Celtic-like development...it was usually the other teams with the one-man show, and the Celtics with a whole team to go to on offense.

But if there were ever any truth to the notion of Russell and Celtic magic, it came in Game Four at the Garden, with the Celtics needing a win to level the series before it would go back to the West Coast with L.A. having a chance to wrap things up in Game Five. Game Four was certainly no Picasso, as the inept non-play of both teams canceled out. If the shooting was ghastly, the ball-handling was only slightly less so. There were 50 turnovers, and in the end it would be the lowest total of points in a playoff game in over 11 years, or 337 playoff games, going back to 1958. But it was a game in which the whole series turned, and it was concluded with the most dramatic winning playoff shot since 1950, when Bob Harrison of the Minneapolis Lakers sank a long one from midcourt to beat Syracuse.

After over 47 minutes of ugly ball, the Lakers were one point less ugly, with the ball out of bounds with 15 seconds left and holding an 88-87 lead, despite converting only one field goal in the previous 4:05. The ever-present Emmette Bryant, however, promptly stole the inbounds pass (shades of what Larry Bird would do vs. the Pistons almost 20 years later), and after Jones missed a jump shot and Boston retained the ball, the Celtics called time-out with seven seconds left.

In the huddle, Havlicek and Siegfried were on Russell. "There's just enough time for it," Havlicek said. Russell nodded and told Tom Sanders to take his place. Russ wanted five good foul shooters in the game; thus his decision to take himself out for the last possession. In the Laker broadcast booth Hot Rod Hundley, who had played against all five Celtics in the game, said: "Neither one of them has scored a basket this quarter, but still, it's got to go to Sam or Havlicek." In the huddle, Russell said, "O.K., Sam."

In 1960 Ohio State beat Indiana 96-95 with a last-second shot by Siegfried after a pass from Havlicek. "The play took exactly 13 seconds in college," Havlicek said. During practice for the New York series, a reluctant Russell was prevailed upon to put in that old Buckeye last-second play. The Celtics practiced it one day, and found they could get the shot off in six or seven seconds, but, of course, they were not positive since they had never tried it in a game.

Bryant threw the ball in to Havlicek and moved to set a pick near the left of the key. Nelson positioned himself to Bryant's right, and Bailey Howell broke high and set on his left, making it a triple pick. Havlicek passed to Jones, cutting to his right. Stumbling badly, Jones managed to dribble right off Howell's flank. "It's a good pick," he thought, because West had run into Howell and was forced to get at Jones from behind.

Three seconds left, 18 feet out, and off balance, Jones went up awkwardly, off his left foot. He was turning in, toward the basket, but was forced to fall away from it. On the bench Russell, discouraged, muttered a curse. Jones let the ball fly.

Egan and Baylor raised their left arms on defense and, out of the corner of his eye, Nelson could see Chamberlain's hand overhanging his shoulder and the whole scene. Nelson was to move on the pick-and-roll...if there was time. There was not. Nellie instead just watched as Jones' shot barely cleared Chamberlain's hand, and then he turned for the rebound.

The ball was high but short. Havlicek thought: "Just make the rim any way possible." The basket at that end was a different one this game, set "extremely tight," so Havlicek told himself "anything can happen if it gets to the rim." It did. Chamberlain had turned back to the basket, and Nelson could not get by him. Nellie knew at that moment that any rebound--and the game-would go to Chamberlain.

The ball jerked up again to the rear of the basket. In disbelief, almost behind Jones, West watched as the ball hit the back rim and then dove down into the cords. "The Lord's will," West said. Celtics player-turned-TV announcer Tommy Heinsohn said: "If it had hit just this much one way or the other off center, it would have bounced out too far, back or forward." Bailey Howell jumped in delight, but Jones just stared, stunned. Chamberlain went over to the padded backboard supports and grabbed one of them in anguish.

"I thought to shoot it with high arc and plenty of backspin," Jones explained carefully afterward, "so if it didn't go in, Russell would have a chance for the rebound." Russell, of course, was not in the game, having removed himself for the last shot.

The series would eventually reach a Game Seven at the Forum, with both teams having held serve at home for the first six games. Favored at home, and with balloons having been placed in the rafters by owner Jack Kent Cooke, to be released after a Laker win, it was the night L.A. fans had been anticipating over the past decade. It was Game Seven, it was the Celtics, and the Lakers finally got them at home. And now they had Wilt Chamberlain to boot. ABC, Schenkel, and Twyman were also there on this Monday night for another rare prime-time national TV game.

But Boston still had the canny Russell, Havlicek, and the Celtic mystique. Quite a combo to beat. And the Celtics, to no one's surprise, did not flinch in Game Seven, taking a 3-point lead into intermission.

The game was last tied with 10:13 left in the third quarter. West, playing on a sore leg, was doing his best to keep the Celtics within touching distance, but could not prevent Boston from bolting to a 15-point lead, 91-76, entering the 4th Q, with college teammates Havlicek and Siegfried making key baskets to ignite the charge. Russell would then break ahead of the pack and score on a dunk to make it 96-80, and the lead would grow to 98-81 before the Lakers would mount a furious rush. Along the way, Chamberlain would leave the game midway through the quarter with a leg injury that made it difficult for him to move, but backup Mel Counts was effective in relief, and Wilt stayed on the bench. In fact, Counts' jumper from near the free-thrown line with three minutes to play narrowed the gap to 103-102. Laker coach Butch van Breda Kolff resisted the temptation to put limping Wilt back in the game, figuring Counts was playing well enough. Eventually, that decision would lead to a rift between van Breda Kolff, Wilt, and owner Cooke, who would move out van Breda Kolff and replace him with Providence HC Joe Mullaney in the summer.

Many hoops historians would probably be surprised to know that for much of the "crunch time" in the 4th Q of Game Seven, the Boston offense ran not through Havlicek, Russell, or Sam Jones (who had fouled out earlier in the final stanza), but rather offseason addition Emmette Bryant, who became the primary option on many possessions. But Bryant, who scored 20 for the game, was suddenly misfiring. As, suddenly, were the Lakers, who had three possessions when down just one point, at 103-102, yet came up empty on each. Russell, still impacting the play on the defensive end, had forced Counts to the baseline on an awkward drive to the bucket on one of the possessions, stealing away Counts' misdirected pass with two minutes to play and Boston still clinging to the one-point lead.

Shots bouncing off the rim, and into the bucket, would determine this series, even beyond Sam Jones' heroics in Game Five. With the Boston offense having gone stagnant for several minutes, and desperate for a bucket to provide some breathing room and extend a lead that had all but disappeared, the Celtics were having another difficult possession, when Keith Erickson would slap the ball away from Havlicek and it would fly straight to Don Nelson at the free throw line, and Nelson put up a hurried shot to beat the 24-second clock with 1:15 to play. The shot would bounce high off of the back of the rim, higher than the top of the backboard, in fact, yet would come down straight through the bucket. Hence the term "Don Nelson bounce" was born.

Up 105-102, the Celtics had the cushion they needed. When the game ended, Boston was on top 108-106 (L.A.'s John Egan scoring on a lay-in off a steal at the final buzzer to cut the final margin to 2). Improbably, unbelievably, the Celtics and Russell had done it once more!

This era of the Boston dynasty, however, had indeed written a final chapter. Sam Jones was retiring, and there were rumors that Russell would do the same. Which he did in the summer, using the occasion of a Sports Illustrated issue to announce his intentions. Some hardcore hoops followers might recall that Russell's immediate successor at center was none other than Henry Finkel, acquired in a trade with the San Diego Rockets after Russell's retirement. Former player Tommy Heinsohn would move from the announcer's chair into Russell's seat as head coach.

Surrounded by familiar faces Havlicek, Siegfried, Howell, Nelson, Sanders, and Bryant, plus Kansas rookie G JoJo White, the Finkel Celtics slumped to 34-48 and sixth place in the East, far from the playoffs. The next year, Dave Cowens would arrive from Florida State, and a new Boston mini-dynasty, this time under Heinsohn, would take shape with Havlicek and Nelson the holdovers from the last of the Russell title teams. But it would not be until 1974 that a new-look Boston would scale the championship wall.

In conclusion, we can only reflect upon the Russell legacy with awe. And those last two championships remain as a special testament to the Russell era, when, against the odds, and probably not with the best team, his Celtics won championships anyway, with Russ the player-coach to boot. Russell and his Celtics were already secure in hoops history books by the middle of the '60s.

But winning the last two titles in 1967-68 and 1968-69 made the Celtics the dynasty for the ages...and should have Russell firmly placed on the first available space on any Mount Rushmore of hoops!

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