June 02, 2008

The greatest game I've ever seen was not only the final game for arguably the greatest coach in NBA history, it featured the greatest play I've ever seen, by the greatest team athlete of our time. That the play did not factor in the result has, over four decades, only burnished it in my memory.

The game in question took place at the Boston Garden (already ancient, grimy, and decrepit) on April 28, 1966. It was Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and the Celtics were facing the Los Angeles Lakers for the fifth time in seven years that the two franchises had played for the championship. Moreover, the Celtics were going for an unprecedented eighth straight title.

During the season, coach Red Auerbach had announced that this would be his final campaign. After L.A. stunned the Celtics in overtime at the Garden in Game 1, Red provided a psychological spur to his club by naming star center and captain Bill Russell as his successor. Thus energized, Boston won the next three, then promptly dropped Games 5 and 6 to set up the fraught finale.

The requisite sellout crowd was 13,909, and the late, great Celtics announcer Johnny Most had a phrase to describe the atmosphere on such nights: Tension City. Certainly, my friend Roger Sohn and I were sweating hard in the second balcony. We were 15, and the Celtics had never lost in our memory, but there had been many close shaves. Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Co. were bound to win sometime. West was otherworldly. He would average 33.9 points in the series.

Our worries were dispelled in the opening minutes. Boston scored the first 10 points, then harassed and trapped the Lakers all over the court. Our Celts led by 76-60 as the fourth quarter began. Russell, as always, was everywhere, rebounding, snuffing shots, scoring.

Then, as we knew they would, the Lakers made their run. Now West and Baylor were everywhere. L.A. began to whittle the lead. Soon it was in single digits, and the hungry Lakers were poised to beat the Boston bogeymen.

With the crowd in anguish, the Celtics missed a shot. L.A. grabbed the rebound and the next thing we knew, the ball was flying through the air to the other end of the court. There, having pulled off a sneakaway, was West. All he had to do was catch the ball, take a step and lay the ball in.

But as West put the ball up, an angular figure suddenly loomed behind him. Bill Russell. How the HELL did he get there? He must have covered the court in two giant thundering strides -- three max. The ball was at its apogee when Russell took a leap and went up, up, up. His arm intersected the shot and swatted it in the general direction of New Hampshire. It was an amazing, unbelievable, incredible rejection. We were saved!

The referee put up his arm. Goaltending!

We screamed. But of course, the call stood, giving West two of his 36 points. Later on, we decided that the zebra must have figured that no human could have traveled that distance that fast, and thus there was no way Russ could have made a legal block.

Somehow, the Celtics were able to steady themselves. They built the lead back to 10, and even though there were some anxious moments when John Havlicek and Sam Jones each committed turnovers after slipping on some orange soda spilled by fans ringing the court, we were at last able to exhale:

Boston 95, Los Angeles 93. Eight straight! We NEVER lose!

Russell finished the finale with 25 points and 32 rebounds. But it's the block-that-wasn't that still lingers. In my mind, Bill Russell is still on his way up. And so, goddammit, is the ball.

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