Russell goes to memory bank

Treasured items from ’69 relived

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — This year’s Celtics do not remind Bill Russell of the storied 1969 team that stormed to the NBA title after a 48-win regular season.

“They’re too young,’’ Russell said last night with a wide grin. “We didn’t have a starter under 30.’’

Russell, projecting his legendary aura, strolled around Staples Center last night, just in case the Celtics sealed the title so he could present the Finals MVP Award, which is named for him.

Having pulled off two upsets during the Eastern Conference playoffs, the 2009-10 Celtics have been compared with the Celtics of Russell’s final season.

The 1969 Celtics, with Russell as player-coach, defeated the second-seeded 76ers in five games in the Eastern semifinals and the Knicks in six games in the Eastern finals.

The top-seeded Lakers defeated the Warriors and Hawks to reach the Finals but were beaten in seven games by the Celtics, besting Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, 108-106, in the deciding game at Los Angeles — Russell’s final game.

“It was the same thing as [this year],’’ Russell said. “We had a lot of injuries the whole year. And the last three weeks of the regular season was the first time everybody was healthy. So it was a different team in the playoffs and fortunately for us, all the teams we played in the playoffs, we knew how to beat.’’

Russell and his teammates noticed that there were balloons ready to be released from the ceiling of the Forum if the Lakers won Game 7 in 1969. But the celebration would never occur. The Celtics won the final two games of the series, and although West was named Finals MVP — after a brilliant 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists in Game 7 — Russell cemented hislegend by guiding a group of older underdogs to the championship.

“I told my guys, I said, ‘Guys, I never talked to you like this before,’ ’’ said Russell, who recorded 21 rebounds in Game 7. “ ‘But it is physically impossible for the Lakers to win tonight.’

“I said in order for [the Lakers] to be competitive, they would have to play the best game any team in the history of this franchise has ever played, and they still would lose. I said now, if you wonder how I can talk like this, you know that they’re a very, very good basketball team.

“Tonight, we’re going to find out how they are in track and field, because I had noticed the game leading up to that, while they were a great basketball team, they were slow of foot.

“I had some greyhounds. I had [John] Havlicek, Sam [Jones], Emmett Bryant, Larry Siegfried, and myself, we could all run. And in order to fast break, you need defensive rebounding and outlets. Well, I felt I was the best who had ever done that. So I was going to make sure.

“I used to look for [Bob Cousy], but that night I said whatever side I am going to get the rebound on, that’s the side I am going to outlet. So we were like 17 points ahead. The key to that is when you make the other team adjust to what you are doing.’’

Asked if that was his most special title, Russell said, “No. When I was in college [San Francisco], the last two years we won the Final Four. In the summer of ’56, I went to Australia and won a gold medal [in the Olympics]. And I joined the Celtics and we won our first championship. So in 13 months, I had been on a collegiate championship, Olympic championship, and a professional championship, and that was kind of special.’’

Russell has forged a special bond with Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, and the Celtics made sure Russell was part of the celebration for the 2008 title.

“I have said for at least 10 years or more that Kevin Garnett was my favorite player to watch,’’ Russell said. “Because he has a high skill level, enthusiasm, and heart. He’s living up to it, and I was really glad they won so I could keep all my rings.’’

The final statement was followed by his famous cackle.

Gary Washburn can be reached at

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