The Boston Celtics are an old team. Tired blood courses through their varicose veins and they are suspected of having fallen arches, bad backs, itchy scalp and gout. Nevertheless, when they do not win a best-of-seven series in five games, as they did not do in the professional basketball semifinals with Cincinnati last week, some insufferable in Boston cries "fix"; What's Wrong with The Celtics? ask columnists; a letter to the editor suggests that Bob Cousy is really a little lower than the angels after all; and the Boston Garden becomes a madhouse of paying customers clamoring to see what's up. The champion Celtics then put away all doubts by winning in the seventh game. They always win the seventh game. There is no team in sport that is more pleasurable to watch in crisis than the Boston Celtics. Superannuated, they become super. Inept, they become ept. The magnificent Cousy, 34 and playing his last season, becomes 21 again, throwing the ball the length of the court, making phantom passes and side-wheeling through groves of bigger men. He is Robin Goodfellow and he performs magic with a basketball. The prospect of going out a loser is unthinkable to Cousy. The Celtics have won four straight NBA championships, and this week are going for a fifth against western champion Los Angeles largely because, as part of their genius, they are able to get quite serious at the drop of a dilemma. When they run scared, they run well. Cincinnati scared them.
On the day of the seventh game of the series that Boston was supposed to have wrapped up in five, friendly neighborhood scalpers would sell you a $2.50 ticket in the Boston Garden upper balcony for $10. ("Boston loves a loser," explained one writer.) In his office next door, Celtic Coach Red Auerbach said two things really had him worried: Oscar Robertson, the Cincinnati nonpareil who had been a monster in the series (31.8 points per game), and Sid Borgia, the referee. The only thing he could do about Oscar, said Auerbach, was pray. Borgia, the league's chief of referees, he took care of by intimidation.
Outplaying the ref
Borgia is called "Big Poison" by the obliging Boston press, and Auerbach launches periodic verbal attacks on the referee. It is an old feud that gets lots of newspaper space. "I'm convinced," said Auerbach, "that it would be the highlight of his [Borgia's] career if he refereed the game in which we lost the championship. He doesn't like me and he doesn't like Cousy and he doesn't like the Celtics. It affects my team when they see him come out on the floor." (Auerbach won his cold war. Borgia refereed only one of the six previous playoff games with the Royals, and did not assign himself to the seventh.)
Sam Jones, Cousy's running mate at guard, came into Auerbach's office in midafternoon. He said he couldn't stay home—"not with two kids and the telephone ringing since 8 a.m."—and had tried a mushy Sophia Loren movie. Jones, forewarned that he would have to guard Robertson, told Auerbach he was "nervous" and Red said he wasn't exactly smooth waters himself. "Well then you're no good to me," said Sam, and went down and put on his warmup clothes and, alone, took practice shots for half an hour on the Garden floor. He said he would try to stop Oscar "my own way," but didn't say what that might be.
Cousy had begun to feel the pressure "right here" the day before the game, could not eat and needed Nembutal to make him sleep. "People don't know what they're talking about when they say the older you are the less you notice the tension," he said. "Each day you have to prove yourself all over again. Age doesn't count. I haven't spoken to my wife on a game day in 12 years."
The Celtic dressing room, a forlorn cubicle so small no Celtic can afford to get a swelled head, was a moody place to be before the game. Visitors, self-conscious in the quiet, jingled the change in their pockets and left. "I've never seen the Celts so solemn," said a Boston photographer. Auerbach tried a segregation joke on Bill Russell, the outstanding player in the league, and Russell, who alone seemed relaxed, shattered the room with the high, metallic ack-ack of his laughter. K. C. Jones lay on his back in one corner, a forearm over his eyes. Muscleman Jim Loscuto, Auerbach's equalizer in a rough game, sipped at a cup of tea and advised Tom Sanders to do likewise. "Two bags, Tom," he said. "O.K., veteran," said Sanders.
A newspaper made the rounds. Sam Jones noted from it that the Mets had lost their first game of the season and already the press was making sport of them. "Poor old Mets," said Sam. A story in the paper quoted Russell: "Well, here we are again, another big game, and it's too bad things aren't sweeter. But we'll play. We'll play like hell." Tom Heinsohn studied the page carefully and then passed it on to K. C. Jones. It left them unaroused.
Walter Brown, the club owner, came in to give his official blessings, and on the way out said to Russell, "Don't let 'em have the ball tonight, Bill. Don't let any of them have it at all. Unless you see Borgia. Then hit him on the head with it." "Well, fellows, I've got my instructions," said Russell when Brown had gone. "What are your plans for the evening? Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack."
From the start of the game the purposefulness of the Celtics was evident. Especially Cousy's. One has to see Cousy to appreciate that he is still the most exciting player in basketball, and he was something to see against Cincinnati. With two days' rest, the Celtics were sharp, and Cousy led their charge down-court, intoxicating the sellout crowd with his fancy passes to Russell, his over-the-head-with-nary-a-look toss to Heinsohn as the two steamed toward the basket in single file, his bouncers to Sam Jones at the culmination of a fast break. At one point he made four of five Boston baskets; in another splurge he passed to Jones for three straight assists. He played 34 minutes, more than his physiology has been accustomed to lately.
Sam Jones, meanwhile, had thoughtfully practiced up for his best game ever. He made seven shots in a row in the first half, had 27 points by half time as Boston led by 68-64. The decision was cemented for the Celtics in the second half when Jones, on Cousy's passes, hit two straight, then moments later stole the ball from Robertson—the essence of audacity—and scored another to make it 81-70. "His way" of playing Robertson turned out to be 47 points scored to Oscar's 43. Defensively, he said, "When I saw Big Oscar coming I yelled 'Help!' " and teammates Russell, Heinsohn and Ramsey helped. Robertson did not score for five minutes and missed seven of 12 shots in the first half. By the time he began to hit with regularity the Royals were scrambling. The final score was 142-131. The Royals had won themselves a measure of respect by forcing the Celtics to the limit, but two bottles of victory champagne went unopened in the Cincinnati dressing room.
While Cousy was being heroic in the East, the Western Division also was settled in a seven-game series, with favored Los Angeles beating St. Louis. The Lakers had their All-Star guard, Jerry West, back after a seven-week absence, and though he couldn't move at top speed all the time, seven-eighths of a West is seven-eighths better than none. Yet L.A. had its troubles, largely because of Hawk Forward Cliff Hagan. So for the seventh game at Los Angeles the Lakers put their other All-Star, Elgin Baylor, on Hagan. Hampered by both a hand injury and Baylor, Hagan managed a mere two points, and the Lakers were in, 115-100, setting up the long-anticipated Boston vs. L.A. duel.
The finals, which began Sunday with Boston winning, 117-114, at Boston, promise to be a rare battle, partly because these are the very best teams in the business and partly because the rumors of a mutual loathing between the two are not at all false. "If my guys aren't up for Boston," said Laker Coach Fred Schaus, "then, by heaven, they'll never be up for anyone."
Boston's Auerbach admits that his is a tired team, and he knows full well it is a year older and maybe even not as strong as it was in successfully defending against the Lakers in 1962. Yet he says these things can be discounted in a showdown series of seven. But they cannot. Whenever the Celtics have to play two games in a row, or a game immediately after a long trip, they tend to be in trouble. The Lakers average three years younger per man, have some chance of keeping up with the Celtics' souped-up running game and, with Baylor and the reconditioned West, can shoot with Boston.
So it might take some sleight-of-hand for Boston to beat L.A. But the Celtics are led by the greatest sleight-of-hand artist of them all. If old Bob Cousy can play against the Lakers like he did last week against Cincinnati, it is young L.A. that better holler "Help!"