Just minutes after the Boston Celtics had earned their fifth consecutive National Basketball Association championship last week, Bill Russell, the goateed Celtic center, made a brief dressing room speech to the claque of reporters, photographers and backslappers surrounding him. "It's nice to be playing with the old pros," he said, "the old, old pros."
For seven months Bill Russell and his Boston playmates had been badgered about being old. Wherever they dragged their gym bags people wanted to know if it was true that the young Los Angeles Lakers were going to beat proud Boston out of the basketball championship of the world. "No," Bill Russell would say. "Los Angeles is not going to do any such thing." And sometimes some of the other Celtics said much stronger things. Perhaps Bob Cousy, 34, and playing his last games, summed up the situation hest back in March. "We are not," he said, "the oldest men alive."
As a matter of fact, when Boston beat Los Angeles in three of the first four games of the NBA playoff and had the further advantage of a fifth game in its own Boston Garden, nobody was looking antiquated except the Lakers. In the fifth game, however, L.A. pulled itself together to win 126-119, thus forcing last week's sixth game in Los Angeles.
The final score of that contest in Boston had no sooner flickered on the scoreboard than the city of Los Angeles began to stew, and in the process showed that its pro basketball enthusiasm is unmatched anywhere, even if its team isn't. An ebullient television announcer at the game in Boston told his L.A. listeners that tickets for the sixth game would go on sale at the Lakers' office at 9 a.m. the next day. There was one slight fault with that—there were no tickets. The Lakers had sold tickets in blocks, just as for the baseball World Series, and the blocks covered three home games. Some single-game tickets also were offered, but the demand was so heavy that they had quickly disappeared.
As soon as the people heard the erroneous announcement they started marching on the Los Angeles Sports Arena. By midnight an army was coming up South Figueroa Street, equipped with sleeping bags, blankets, hand-warmers, Thermos jugs and strategies for destroying the poor Celtics. By 10 a.m. the next morning there were 5,000 angry, unbelieving souls marching, marching, marching. One man forced open a secretary's desk in the Laker office and started scrambling around inside it. "I know there are some tickets here somewhere," he said, "and I'm going to find them." Cecil Cronkhite, the Laker ticket manager, holding the line through his own Longest Day, decided that the time was right to find a publisher for his book, People Who Buy Tickets and Other Maniacs I Have Known.
But the Lakers apologized profusely and handed out priority stubs to see the game on closed-circuit theater television. That they were in a position to do this was yet another indication of how pro basketball has caught the fancy of Los Angeles. The Lakers, perhaps a little stunned at their ticket demand for the first home game of the playoffs, arranged to televise the second home game in two theaters. They charged $2.50 a seat, and promptly sold out one theater and filled 90% of the other one. It was the first time the backers of a major championship sporting event, other than boxing, had tried theater television and succeeded. The implications, though hardly noticed amid the excitement of the event itself, were not lost on the people who mattered. "We were aware that we were testing the future of pay television," says Lou Mohs, the Laker general manager. (Already the Lakers are talking of setting up 12 theater TV dates for next season.) By the sixth game the Lakers had three theaters in their chain, and 6,000 of 6,200 theater seats were sold.
Thus, the enthusiasm of the Laker fans was in full cry by game time Wednesday night, as 15,521 packed the Sports Arena. Greeting Boston as it took the floor was a big red, while and blue sign that read "Go Lakers! Smash the Smeltics!" Hollywood was out in force. Doris Day, dressed in a green suit, applauded the Lakers continuously. Danny Thomas smoked cigars nervously. Pat Boone, wrapped in a red jacket, blew bubbles and bounced up and down.
But none of this could match the professional type of frenzy taking place on the basketball court. Los Angeles started fast and kept pace nicely until well into the second period when, rather suddenly, it fell on hard times. Laker shots didn't go in, and Bill Russell snatched the rebound every time the Lakers missed. Meanwhile, Boston's rookie, John Havlicek, was banging in 11 straight Celtic points and at the half Boston had a solid 14-point lead. Pro basketball is a little like a footrace. If you fall too far behind you must make an early move to catch up; yet this spurt, successful though it may be, is so tiring that you are likely to fade again in the stretch. So the Lakers were in serious trouble.
From the start of the second half they chopped away at that lead, but it was still Boston by nine with 11 minutes to play. Then Bob Cousy, the man whose very presence seems to make the Celtics function, somehow tripped over his own feet at midcourt. There was a gasp from the crowd—for all their "Smeltics," Laker fans appreciate pro basketball's greatest name—as Cousy lay writhing. Red Auerbach, the Celtic coach, rushed out to peer down in dismay at his fallen warrior. Cousy had sprained his left ankle. Now the Lakers turned tougher. In six minutes Boston's lead was down to a single point. Back came Cousy—thanks to ice packs, adhesive tape and his own adrenaline—and Boston had its leader again.
There was 2:48 left to play and Boston was still ahead, but only 104-102, when Jerry West, the Laker guard, brought the ball upcourt and lofted a soft pass to Rudy LaRusso. Tom Heinsohn of the Celtics had been watching this same gentle pass over and over all night. It had been frequently used to set up the Laker offense. Heinsohn figured the pass was a little too soft, a little too careless, and had waited for the right time to try to intercept it. This was it. He moved in on LaRusso's blind side, stole the ball and drove downcourt for a layup. The Lakers were never to recover from that.
As the final buzzer sounded, it was Bob Cousy who had the ball near mid-court, where he was dribbling it to kill the clock. He threw it as high in the air as he could, then fell into a sweaty, glorious embrace with Red Auerbach, his exit from pro basketball a triumphant one.
"Please," said Auerbach, once he was unwound from Cousy and in the dressing room, "tell me some of these stories about Los Angeles being the basketball capital of the world. The Lakers are a great team, but we beat them."
No booze for Cooz
There was no champagne in the Celtic dressing room. Not even a beer. As Heinsohn happily suggested, that is one of the penalties of winning anything five times in a row. Why celebrate?
In the Los Angeles dressing room, meanwhile, Laker Coach Fred Schaus kept the door closed. He told his team, "I am proud of you. Darn proud. I don't want to hear any gripes about anything. Give Boston credit. They forced us into mistakes and then took advantage of them. When you leave here, go out with your heads up high."
When the Lakers did leave, a large crowd was awaiting them, the same people who had paid over SI million to see them this year—the largest gate in pro basketball history. Every one of them knew the Lakers had lost to a better team, but their applause was loud. Maybe theirs wasn't the basketball capital of the world, but they still thought it was. The Laker players held their heads high, just like Fred had told them to.