Flashback to the 1960s
The current Celtics are looking a lot like the last Russell-led team, a collection of veterans who had an uneven regular season but used defense and savvy to spoil the party in Los Angeles
The similarities, across more than four decades, are striking. Both were veteran teams that finished fourth after arrhythmic regular seasons. Both beat considerable odds to reach the NBA Finals against Los Angeles. Both were built around a Big Three and emphasized defensive essentials.
“Both were old and somehow knew how to win a little bit,’’ says John Havlicek, who won the most cherished of his eight title rings 41 years ago.
Yet there is one decided difference between the 1969 and 2010 Celtics. The 1969 team marked the end of the greatest dynasty in sports history, 11 championships in 13 years. The 2010 version is trying to prove that its triumph two years ago wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
The 1969 Celtics performed in a league with only 14 teams in a day when the schedule offered doubleheaders, the top-priced ticket was $5, the playoffs were finished by early May, and the entire payout for the winning club was $93,000. Most teams had just one coach, and scouting, particularly for the Celtics, was done largely by word of mouth. When Red Auerbach went to the league draft, he brought along a college basketball magazine and a yellow sheet of paper scribbled with names.
One particularly telling then-and-now comparison is the provenance and pedigree of the centers. Bill Russell had led the University of San Francisco to two national championships, won a gold medal with the 1960 Olympic team, and played 48 games in a rookie season in which he didn’t make his debut until just before Christmas. Kendrick Perkins came to Causeway Street directly from a Texas high school and played 35 minutes (not games) in his first year. Russell’s highest salary was $100,001. Perkins made a reported $4.25 million this season.
Russell also happened to coach the same team he played on, taking over after Auerbach retired in 1966.
“Red asked me if I wanted to coach and I said no,’’ says Tom Heinsohn. “Because I didn’t think I could coach Russell. We were contemporaries.’’
Russell had no assistants and didn’t need them, not with a circle of champions around him. The 1969 squad included three other Hall of Famers in Havlicek, Sam Jones, and Bailey Howell, plus two players who would have their numbers retired in Tom Sanders and Don Nelson. Going into the season, the veterans already had earned 38 rings among them. If Russell wanted tactical advice, he could get it even without asking for it.
The pivotal play in the final series — Jones’s final-second double-rim shot that won Game 4 at the Garden — had been drawn up by Havlicek and former Ohio State teammate Larry Siegfried while Russell was wearing his coaching hat at a playoff luncheon.
“We needed an emergency score play, something definite we could use during the last 10 seconds,’’ says Havlicek. “It was basically a triple-pick and we’d used it to beat Indiana and Louisville, so it was like an undefeated play. We said, ‘Russ, we’ve got the play and we put it in without you. You’re not a shooter anyway.’ ’’
Jones made the shot (“I didn’t think it was even going to make the front rim’’) and the Celtics won, 89-88, to even the series going back to the Forum.
“Four-leaf clovers were flying all over the place,’’ observed Emmette Bryant, a Phoenix transplant who got his first taste of the luck of the Irish that season.
For those Boston teams, it was luck born of years of playing the odds and winning. In that Game 4, the Lakers had the lead and the ball with 14 seconds remaining, but Bryant stripped Johnny Egan on an inbounds play. The way the Celtics saw it, they usually could find a way to make time and space work in their favor.
“We always felt that we never lost a game,’’ says Havlicek. “Time ran out on us.’’
The final regular-season record (48-34) was their worst since 1955-56, but the Celtics still were sanguine about their championship prospects.
“It was more or less like it was for this team,’’ says Heinsohn, who then, as now, observed the season as a TV analyst. “If everybody was healthy, they could give it a good go. If they could put on the floor what was on paper, they could win it.’’
March always was when shamrock season began.
“We always felt once the playoffs came around, we had enough experience to win,’’ says Havlicek.
The opening series with Philadelphia was a five-game runaway, with Boston claiming Game 2 at the Garden by 31 points even though Jones was ejected after three minutes and Russell fouled out.
“I think the better team didn’t win,’’ said Sixers guard Hal Greer, whose teammates dropped all three games on their home court. “I can’t believe it’s over.’’
Nor could New York, which had beaten Boston in six of seven meetings during the season but lost the divisional final in six games after sweeping Baltimore, which had the league’s best record.
“Every year they keep proving how good they are,’’ saluted New York guard Walt Frazier, after the Celtics had closed out the Knicks by a point in the finale after hitting four straight clock-beaters down the stretch.
No team, though, had won the title after dropping the first two games of the Finals, which the Celtics did at the Forum. And Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke never dreamed that his team, which featured an immortal trio in Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain, would lose a seventh game at home. So he made plans for an historic celebration, ordering up cases of champagne, lining the arena roof with balloons, and bringing in the USC band to play “Happy Days Are Here Again.’’
Cooke also hadn’t figured on the Celtics getting an advance look at the scripted ceremony.
“The story goes that Sam came up with the memo and he showed it to Russell,’’ says Heinsohn. “How does an owner lose a series?’’
The Lakers, down by 17 points in the third quarter of Game 7, nearly won it even with Chamberlain on the bench for the endgame (he’d taken himself out with a twisted knee, and coach Butch Van Breda Kolff refused to put his 7-footer back in). What killed LA was another bit of Hibernian magic — Nelson’s jumper with 1:17 to play that bounced high off the back rim and went down and in.
“That was the luckiest shot I ever made in my life,’’ he confessed. “It had no right going in.’’
So went the series, so went the season and so went the dynasty.
“We figured that would be our last gasp,’’ says Havlicek.
What followed was a Reconstruction Era that took five years.
“I absolutely knew that,’’ says Heinsohn, who took over as coach.
In 1970, the Celtics missed the playoffs for the first time since 1950 while building toward another championship squad that would be based around Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Paul Silas, and Don Chaney. “And Red knew we were restarting from scratch.’’
What made the 2008 title team different was that the front office set out boldly to grab a crown, trading the equivalent of an entire team (plus two first-round draft choices) to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett and bringing in Ray Allen from Seattle to go with captain Paul Pierce and going with young’uns Rajon Rondo as full-time playmaker and Perkins in the pivot.
“What the Celtics ownership did was really remarkable,’’ says Heinsohn. “They were patient, they had a plan, they drafted talent no matter how young it was, and they made the deals.’’
It is a different league, a different game, and a different club now, but these Celtics have two important qualities in common with their 1969 forebears. They understand that the regular season is merely a prelude, that what they did — or didn’t do — in the winter has little bearing on the spring.
And they have conveniently short memories. The same team that lost to the Cavaliers by 29 points at home beat them by 32 on the road four days later. The same team that lost two games to the Magic after winning the first three ended up winning by knockout. The best thing about getting old, then and now, is that you forget things quickly.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.