The Revolution Wasn't Televised
By Roland Lazenby
The upcoming NBA season marks the 50th anniversary of the Boston Celtics’ first title, won by an amazing mix of rookies and grizzled veterans.
A look back reveals how times have changed. Changed financially. Changed racially. Changed in virtually every way.
For example, the Celtics won 11 NBA championships between 1957 and 1969 (seven of those victories came at the expense of the Lakers). Yet throughout that great run, the Celtics seldom sold out Boston Garden. Year in, year out, they drew average crowds in the range 8,000, leaving more than 5,000 empty seats most nights. Those numbers seem to confirm the notion that sometimes legends aren't a very big deal while they're being made. It's only with the passage of time that they become larger than life.
That's certainly the case with the Celtics of Red Auerbach and Bill Russell. The ensuing decades have done nothing but confirm the magnitude of their accomplishments. Between 1959 and 1966, Auerbach's Celtics won eight straight titles, a run unequalled by any professional team in any major sport. Yet each fall after winning a championship, the Celtics never had a sell-out for their home opener. They didn't achieve a full house for their first game until November 1966, the season their streak ended.
"We were real fortunate from '57 on in winning championships," Auerbach once told me. "People in this area never realized what we did in those days. They would sort of say, 'Big deal.' Where if we were in any other area of the country, the accolades would have been tremendous. I'm talking about New York or New Jersey or Washington, wherever, Chicago, anyplace."
Over time, the Celtics mystique would become oppressive in dank, smelly Boston Garden, with the championship banners hanging in the rafters above the chipped and aged parquet floor. But back then, the Celtics were just another struggling team in a struggling league. The setting was the quirky fifties, when modern American society was in its pimply stage. Eisenhower had just offered the nation a balanced budget and won his second term in the White House. The civil rights fight had yet to turn nasty down South. And the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and revealed it was also testing ICBMs. With his first LP and movie ("Love Me Tender"), Elvis Presley was steering the Baby Boom toward puberty. Ford was cranking Edsels off the assembly line. Zenith introduced its first 21" TV screen, but viewers still saw the world in black and white. The airwaves offered “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Honeymooners” and “Ozzie and Harriet.” The cost of a first-class stamp ran four cents, and the average family of four needed about $60 a week to pay the bills.
But most of these developments mattered little to Auerbach as he neared his 40th birthday. He was almost wholly consumed with winning basketball games, so much so that he left his wife and two daughters in Washington, D.C., eight months out of each year and lived in an efficiency apartment in Boston while he coached the Celtics.
"He was flamboyant, gutsy, on top of everything. And fiery. I mean really fiery, " legendary Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most once told me of the young Auerbach in his early years in Boston. "But the important thing about him was that he knew the rules better than the officials. And he pulled the rule book on the officials all the time because he knew them. And he had the bite of intimidation. Like when his team was not playing well or playing lethargically, he'd go out there and start to scream at the fans or the referee and get them on him."
The National Basketball Association was a league of eight to 10 teams in the 1950s and hardly national. With franchises in Minneapolis, Fort Wayne, Rochester, and Syracuse, the focus was the Northeast and Great Lakes. It was a life of long train rides, chilly, dimly lit gyms, lop-sided balls, fickle fans and fight-marred games. It was so rough that around the league, opponents disliked anyone doing any flashy leaping, Slater Martin, who played for the Hawks and Lakers, once said. "In those days, you couldn't leave your feet. They'd just knock you into a wall."
Auerbach believed deeply in the running game as a strategy for out-distancing the madness. That was perfect, because he had Bob Cousy, the Houdini of the Hardwood, running the point on that first great team.
"He was the greatest innovator of the game," Most said of Cousy. "He had such a fabulous imagination. I think the greatest passer who ever lived. He could throw any kind of pass. The minute he touched the ball his head was up and he was looking down court looking for the open man. It was his philosophy to do it with the pass rather than the dribble. But if he had to dribble, if they forced the dribble, he could make you look like a fool. He really could. He had all the moves of a Globetrotter. And he never was lacking in confidence."
In 1954-55, the NBA adopted its 24-second shot clock, and to Auerbach's liking, the game became much speedier. Yet the new tempo made the Celtics' weaknesses even more glaring. Boston had the greyhound guards in Cousy and Bill Sharman to run other teams off the floor, but they didn't have a powerful rebounding center who could pull the ball off the defensive boards and throw the outlet pass to start the fast break.
Auerbach had begun looking for that special inside player, when his old college coach at George Washington, Bill Reinhart, told him of Bill Russell, then a sophomore center for the University of San Francisco. College basketball received little publicity in those days. There was no national television, no basketball poop sheets, no cable connection, no Dick Vitale touting the stars. Because he competed on the West Coast, Russell was largely unknown to the Eastern basketball establishment. Plus he was an unusual package. He was 6'9" and exceptionally athletic (he could run the 440 in 49 seconds). His sense of timing made him an excellent rebounder and shotblocker. Yet his offensive skills were unrefined to the point that much of his scoring came from guiding his teammate's missed shots into the basket. His knack for this "guiding" led to the development of offensive goal tending rules in college basketball.
Russell's reputation improved in 1955 as he and guard K.C. Jones led San Francisco to the first of consecutive NCAA championships. Still, his lack of offensive polish left most pro teams skeptical of his potential. Auerbach, however, knew Russell was just the player he was looking for.
"I had to have somebody who could get me the ball," Auerbach recalled. "I'd been tipped off about Russell by my college coach, Bill Reinhart. Bill said Russell was the greatest defensive player and greatest rebounder he'd ever seen."
The Minneapolis Lakers (run behind the scenes by a young sportswriter named Sid Hartman) also had their eye on Russell and almost had him, Hartman says. But, with more than a bit of maneuvering, the Celtics managed to snatch Russell in the 1956 draft, thus shifting the balance of power between two teams that would define NBA competition in the 1960s.
The only hitch for the Celtics was that Russell had made clear his intentions to play with the U.S. Olympic team in the Summer games in Australia. He wouldn't join Boston until late December, and because of Olympic rules in effect then, he wouldn't be able to sign a contract until after the games were over. The Celtics, however, weren't exactly shorthanded. A year earlier, they had drafted Jungle Jim Loscutoff, a muscled, 6'5" forward out of Oregon. And Frank Ramsey, a 6'3" forward drafted out of Kentucky in 1954, was returning from a year in the service.
In addition, Auerbach had picked up two other jewels in the 1956 draft: Tom Heinsohn, a 6'7" forward out of Holy Cross, and K.C. Jones, Russell's teammate at San Francisco. Jones, a third-round pick, would do a stint in the Army and try pro football before joining the Celtics in 1958. But Heinsohn would become an immediate factor, and all three from that 1956 draft would eventually wind up in the Hall of Fame.
With Loscutoff and Heinsohn working the defensive boards, the Celtics got the ball out on the fast break that fall of 1956 and ran their way to a 16-8 record, three games ahead of the NBA's defending champions, the Philadelphia Warriors. Then that December 22, after having helped the U.S. win the Olympic gold, Russell joined the Celtics. (The young center had been offered $35,000 by the Globetrotters but turned that down to accept a $20,000 contract with Boston.) After getting stuck in his first Boston traffic jam and arriving late for the game, Russell scored only six points but pulled down 16 rebounds to help Boston beat St. Louis. Maybe it wasn't obvious that first night, but the NBA would never be the same.
The impact on the Celtics was almost immediate. Russell struggled a bit the first few games, but his presence unshackled the rest of the team. The rookie center was such an awesome defensive rebounder that Heinsohn's and Loscutoff's roles shifted from battling on the boards. The forwards merely boxed out their men, then released quickly for the fast break while Russell was snaring the rebound and whipping the outlet pass to Cousy.
Sharman and Cousy, meanwhile, were ecstatic with this development, after having spent the previous seasons frustrated by the team's lack of inside power. Plus Russell's intimidating presence at center allowed them to gamble on defense. If they made a mistake, more often than not, Russell's intimidating presence covered for them.
But the most pleased was Auerbach, who considered Russell's shot-blocking to be one of the major innovations in the evolution of pro basketball. The young center exuded a confidence that bordered on arrogance. But as he later revealed in his book, “Second Wind,” Russell was far more insecure about his offensive skills than he let on. He was aware of his detractors. Across pro basketball, the coaches, the players, the writers all believed that the ideal big man was an offensive force.
But when Russell arrived, Auerbach called him in and told him not to worry about offense, that his primary responsibilities were rebounding and defense. The coach also promised that statistics, particularly scoring averages, would never be a part of contract discussions. Auerbach's understanding of Russell's unique skills was the single important element in the genesis of this dynasty.
Like Auerbach, Russell really cared only about winning. Player and coach didn't have to spend much time together to sense this in each other. "He was the ultimate team player," Cousy said of Russell. "Without him there would have been no dynasty, no Celtic mystique."
Beginning in his college days (he received little playing time until his senior year in high school) Russell had made shot-blocking a science. By the time he reached the pros, he possessed a very special skill. He never swatted the ball so that it went out of bounds. Instead he brushed it, or caught it, or knocked it away, so that most times it remained in play and became a turnover, sparking the Celtics' fastbreak the other way. Such a defensive presence sent shock waves across the league.
"Nobody had ever blocked shots on the pros before Russell came along," Auerbach said. "He upset everybody."
The often-cited example is that of Neil Johnston, the Philadelphia center who dominated NBA scoring with his rather flat hook shot. Russell was so effective in blocking Johnston's shot that the three-time NBA scoring champion became ineffective and tentative on offense. Because he was basically a one-dimensional player, Johnston was unable to adjust. It was said that Russell's presence drove Johnston from the league, a claim that the Philadelphia center vehemently denied. Yet after the 1956-57 season, Johnston ceased to be a dominant offensive power.
Two weeks after Russell began play, Philadelphia owner Eddie Gottlieb protested that Boston's center was playing a one-man zone and goaltending. Other coaches and owners around the league joined the chorus. But Auerbach fended them off. "When we made the deal for Russell nobody thought he was going to be good," the Boston coach told reporters. "He has far exceeded everybody's expectations. None of his blocks of shots have been on the downward flight. He has marvelous timing. He catches the ball on the upward flight."
When the league supervisor of officials said Russell's play was clearly within the rules, Gottlieb dropped his beef. The age of a new athleticism had dawned, and everywhere coaches looked for a way to counter it. Mostly, other teams tried to muscle and bang Russell. But as tough and proud as he was, Boston's new weapon wasn't about to back down.
In other ways, Russell was not an average NBA rookie. A Celtics' tradition called for first-year players to haul the bag of practice balls from game to game. Heinsohn had been doing this chore and hoped he could pass it over to Russell when the center joined the team. But Russell's fierce frown made his teammates think better of asking. So Heinsohn carried on.
The Celtics finished the regular season 44-28, six games ahead of Syracuse in the Eastern Division, as Russell averaged 19.6 rebounds. Cousy led the league in assists and was voted the NBA's MVP. As the playoffs began, Heinsohn was selected the Rookie of the Year. In the lockerroom before the first playoff game, he opened the envelope containing the $250 rookie prize. Always a needler, Russell eyed the money and said that half of it should be his.
Boston pushed Syracuse out of the way rather easily in the first round of the playoffs, but St. Louis, the Western Division champions with only a 34-38 regular season record, made the 1957 NBA finals a series to remember. With Bob Pettit at forward, Macauley at center and Jack McMahon and Slater Martin at guards, the Hawks were talented and ready to play. Sharman scored 36 for the Celtics in the first game at the Garden, but Pettit scored 37 and the Hawks won the opener on a last second shot by Jack Coleman. Boston took the second game to tie the series at one. Then the Hawks won on their floor for a 2-1 lead. Boston came right back to win the fourth game, in St. Louis, to tie the series again. Then the Celts zipped St. Louis 124-109 in game five for a 3-2 Boston lead. The series returned to St. Louis, where the Hawks tied it at 3-3 with another last-second victory.
Game 7 was a classic, except for the performance of the Boston backcourt. Cousy shot 2 for 20 and Sharman 3 for 20. Combined they made only 12.5 percent of their field goals. The championship load fell on the rookies, Russell (19 points and 32 rebounds) and Heinsohn (37 points and 23 rebounds).
With the Celtics leading 103-101, Pettit sank two free throws in the closing seconds to send the game into overtime. As the first extra period ended, Boston again held a lead, 113-111, but Coleman, who had won game one for St. Louis, hit another clutch jumper for another overtime. With just seconds to go in the second extra period, Loscutoff hit two free throws for a 125-123 Boston lead. With just seconds on the clock, the Hawks had to inbounds the ball with a full-court pass to Pettit. Player-coach Alex Hannum planned to bank the pass off the backboard and hope that Pettit could tip it in. Incredibly, Hannum banked the pass off the board to Pettit, but the final shot rolled off the rim.
The Celtics celebrated by shaving Russell's beard in the locker room, downing a few cold ones and going out to dinner. It was the first of 11 titles for Boston. Cousy remembers it as the most satisfying of all.
About the only thing undermining the glorious beginning of Boston's dynasty was the undercurrent of race. The NBA and the Celtics were integrating ahead of society. There were few, if any, problems on the team. But Boston was a racially troubled town, as was all of America. A couple of sportswriters in Boston made little effort to mask their contempt for Russell. And road games were sometimes rough, particularly in St. Louis where the fans weren't averse to shouting racial epithets. As with the rough play on the court, Russell wasn't about to back down. "Russ has always been extremely militant, and he is to this day," Cousy said. "He came into Boston with the proverbial chip on his shoulder. His militancy had been honed before he arrived. Of course, there were good reasons for the way he reacted, and I've said many times I would have been far more radical than he was. He couldn't play golf at the local courses. At one point, vandals broke into his house and defecated in his bed."
Russell's anger was justified, Johnny Most agreed. "I knew where he was coming from deep down. And for a lot of it, I didn't blame him. He faced a lot of irritating, irritating prejudice."
But his private manner with his teammates was as playful as his public face was scowling. In Auerbach's system, winning was the only priority. For that system, the coach sought players who wanted to win as badly as he did. They weren't about to let racial differences interfere with that. Russell has said many times that above all, he knew he could trust his coach not to be petty. That's not to say there weren't problems. The white press had no sophisticated knowledge of basketball in those early years, and the reporters fawned over Cousy, the local hero, while virtually ignoring Russell's brilliance. Auerbach, however, sensed these injustices and constantly raved about Russell and other unrecognized players to reporters.
It was in this spirit that Frank Ramsey, the first of the Celtics' sixth men, grew in the public mind. Auerbach didn't invent the idea of the sixth man, but he tirelessly touted and promoted it to the writers covering Boston's games. In so doing, the coach wrapped his athletes in the ever increasing aura of team. After a time, it would become nearly impenetrable.