Bob Cousy had planned a brief Florida vacation with his wife and two daughters after the pro basketball playoffs, before he had to leave on a good-will tour of Europe and North Africa for the State Department. The Boston Celtics were to play the Minneapolis Lakers in a four-out-of-seven series for the World Championship, and Cousy had plane reservations for last Sunday night.
In the first two playoff games, in Boston, the Celtics were frequently in trouble but closed strongly to win. Before leaving for Minneapolis, where the next two games would be played on Tuesday and Thursday nights, Cousy told his wife: "Move those reservations up to Friday. We're going to win four straight and I'll be back the morning after the fourth game."
As a result of this foresight (or calculated risk) the Cousys were out on the sands of Delray Beach two days early. The Celtics became the first team in history to sweep basketball's World Series, fit climax to a season in which they set more than a dozen other records and clearly earned the accolade their coach, Red Auerbach, had claimed for them months ago as "the greatest team ever assembled."
Because the Celtics are so well balanced and because their style of play is built around the offensive skills of every player on the court at any given time, it is difficult for the performance of one man to stand out. Even the brilliance of the incomparable Cousy generally blends into a composite picture of team excellence. This is in contrast, for example, to the St. Louis Hawks, who play to and depend so greatly on Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, or the Lakers, who lean heavily on the scoring ability of Elgin Baylor. For the Celtics, Cousy and Bill Sharman cannot be allowed any leeway outside; Tom Heinsohn and Jim Loscutoff must be covered in the corners; Bill Russell, in the post and underneath the boards, is a threat for 48 minutes of every game. As the rival defense shifts its concentration to one area, another cries out for instant attention.
April 20, 1959
And yet, despite this balance of excellence, one Celtic managed to stand out in the competition with both the opposition and his own teammates in this series as the key player. He is Frank Ramsey, who repeatedly came off the bench to spark Celtic rallies or recoveries—a special talent he has developed to take advantage of the fact that he is the sixth man on this superlative squad. Immediately after coming into a game, Ramsey does either of two things to provide a quick lift for the Celtics. Within seconds, he is way in the clear for an easy layup or he is at the free-throw line for two shots.
"I've been playing with Frank for four years now," says Cousy, "and it's a mystery to me how he does it. He comes out on the court and you look up and there he is alone under the basket with the ball."
"One time this season," says Russell, "Frank came into the game and he got to the free-throw line so quickly that he was too 'cold' to take his shot. He had to warm up before shooting."
STYLE FOOLS OPPOSITION
Ramsey, a rangy, easy-mannered, crew-cut 6 feet 3, apparently accomplishes his two special feats because of an unusually deceptive court style. He pads along the floor, barely raising his knees from a horizontal plane, skimming the surface like a gull over water, seemingly bemused and sleepy-eyed. Then, without changing expression or otherwise betraying the extra effort going into each stride, he shifts into high gear, quickly pulls ahead of the man guarding him and is in the clear for a long pass (generally from Cousy) and a layup.
Much the same technique helps him draw free throws with the regularity of an Eddie Stanky drawing bases on balls. To the man he is guarding, Ramsey may appear aimless or absent-minded, yet he manages, mostly, to be between that man and the basket. When the man drives and makes contact, Ramsey is on his way to the free-throw line.
These accomplishments merit particular praise because Ramsey was considered something of a misfit when he came to pro basketball. He recalls the expert opinion himself: "They said I was too small to play against the big men up front, and too big [and therefore, probably, too slow] to play against the small men in the back-court." Instead, rival players have experienced most of the difficulties inherent in this situation. Ramsey overpowers smaller backcourtmen while easily keeping up with them, and he's too fast for many of the bigger men up front. In the series with Minneapolis, moving in and out of games under Auerbach's careful guidance, he averaged 22 points per game, drew 30 free throws and sank 26 of them. He is, by any odds, the best substitute this game has ever seen.
In addition to demonstrating the Celtics' superiority—or, perhaps, despite it—this year's playoffs performed a number of other useful functions. Because of Syracuse's fine showing in the preliminary round against Boston (they pushed the Celtics to seven games), the Nationals' franchise has been enormously strengthened. The club's books show a healthy profit, thanks to playoff revenue, and a campaign to sell season tickets for next year, already under way and with enthusiastic support, may well put Syracuse in the black, financially, for next season before opening day. The acquisition of George Yardley and the extraordinarily rapid progress of rookie Hal Greer are two prime reasons why this team will be a title contender in 1959-60, and Syracuse fans know it.
Elgin Baylor's coming to Minneapolis and the Lakers' playoff victory over the St. Louis Hawks have had even more dramatic and widespread effects. All talk of moving the Lakers—to Chicago or San Francisco—has been stilled; instead, local businessmen are cooperating in a drive to build the team a new and permanent home so they will not have to play, alternately, in various armories and auditoriums in the area. Furthermore, the enthusiasm generated by basketball has proved infectious; forgetting their differences on matters outside sports, the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) are again organizing their resources for a drive to acquire a major league baseball team.
Finally, the experience in Minneapolis has proved conclusively that the cure for pro basketball's weaker franchises does not necessarily involve moving them to other cities but, rather, concentrating on building better, winning teams and trusting to fans to respond to this effort. It is worth noting that the only two clubs in the NBA which will not show a profit this year are Cincinnati and Detroit—which had the two worst records for the season.
For a few more years, therefore, West Coast fans will have to content themselves with NBC-NBA Game of the Week telecasts. (Next season's telecasts will begin immediately after the World Series and run for 26 consecutive weeks.) None of the many Coast groups seeking a franchise has any prospect of success until the 1960-61 season. Even then there is a likelihood that Chicago may be admitted before San Francisco and Los Angeles because it would be easier to work a Chicago team into league schedules.
In considering Chicago, or any other city for that matter, the league's officials still have to solve the problem of how to supply the new team with a collection of players good enough to put on a fair show against established clubs—the same difficulty which faces proponents of new major league teams in baseball. For, obviously, it would be folly, even before a fresh, eager audience, to field a team of also-rans. Syracuse General Manager Dan Biasone has suggested that the new team be allowed to draft, intact, the year's college All-America squad and, although even such a group would undoubtedly be slaughtered by powerhouse outfits like the Celtics and the Hawks, the idea is worth consideration. Certainly, Boston and St. Louis could hardly be persuaded, even in the interest of league balance, to give the new team any of their better players—the Cousys, Pettits, etc. Even beyond starting fives, no club will part with a player it needs. The Celtics, for example, have a sixth man named Frank Ramsey.