The new 52-story Prudential Center notwithstanding, Bill Russell is still the biggest thing in Boston. Last week, in what was supposed to be the choicest series since silver certificates, Russell led his defending champion Boston Celtics to a four-games-to-one rout of Cincinnati. The Royals came in as heir apparent and went out as a mere pretender.
This was only the semifinal in the National Basketball Association's latest assault on spring, but Boston and Cincinnati are the two best teams in the world, and when the series started it appeared that the finals would be superfluous so far as deciding a champion is concerned. For this one, even the hockey fans were on hand—dead giveaways, coming into the Boston Garden with their coat collars turned up.
Out in the Western Division what was happening was not so decisive but far more competitive. First, St. Louis beat Los Angeles, three to two, the home team winning every time, but the Hawks outrebounding the Lakers in four of the five games. The Lakers have never had heft at center, and with both their forwards, Elgin Baylor and Rudy LaRusso, down to about 215 pounds, they were just muscled into submission. Then the Hawks, whose power is spread through the lineup, took on the rugged San Francisco Warriors.
The Warriors have added Nate Thurmond to Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Meschery and Wayne Hightower up front—the muscle part of what Coach Alex Hannum calls his "muscle and hustle team." The battle for second shots between these teams was fearful and bloody.
April 20, 1964
By contrast, in the East the Celtics got plenty of second shots against the Royals. That and the best sustained defense ever put up by a pro team explained why Boston won. The Celts can shoot a lot because they know Russell will get the ball back off the boards if they miss. They can gamble on defense because they know Russell will stop nearly everything they let through.
The Royals did have some excuses. They had had a time of it beating Philadelphia in the quarter-finals while the champions rested and got themselves up for Cincinnati. They also had injuries, the most important to Jerry Lucas, who Suffered a bone bruise at the base of his spine in the second Philadelphia game. Lucas was not jumping or crashing the boards until the third Celtic game. In each of the first two he had only seven rebounds (10 below his average), and he lost his league-leading scoring touch in the bargain. During the regular season Lucas shot 56.1% against Boston. He averaged the same number of shots in the playoffs, but scored on only 25.4% of them. The difference came to 19 baskets in the five games.
While the Celtics were lucky to catch Cincinnati hurt and playing its worst, Boston won this series, and defense won for Boston. Russell, of course, was magnificent, but K. C. Jones gave the best performance by a supporting actor. K. C. is a polite man of 31 whose idea of getting tough off the court is to grow a mustache even if his wife does not like it. In green-and-white trunks, however, his demeanor is more that of the pro football player he almost became. Jones feels he must do many things because he cannot shoot; he has not, in fact, had a good shot, he says, since high school. But against the Royals it was unimportant whether he shot at all. What K. C. did was to make the plays (seven assists a game), move the ball and stop Oscar Robertson from getting, moving and shooting the ball. K. C. had help from his teammates, who switched beautifully on the few occasions Oscar got a good pick. And John Havlicek did well while Jones was rested. But K. C. was superb when it counted. Most of Robertson's scoring came in the second half of each game, after it was safely decided for the Celtics.
Robertson did average 28.2, which is not exactly negligible. However, during the regular season he had 12 baskets a game against Boston. In the playoffs, averaging the same number of shots, he had only nine baskets. He also made only 5.6 assists as against 9.1 in regular games. In plain language, Robertson was about 12 points down, and it is no coincidence that Boston was an average of 14 points better each game.
K. C. pressed Robertson all over the court, staying between him and the ball. The Royals struggled to get it to Oscar, and whenever they finally did, they just stood around in relief, watching him maneuver for scoring position. They did not pick for him, or work for their own good shots. The whole team was upset by the successful harassment of the one key man.
It was after the second game that Jones candidly wondered aloud why the Royals didn't lob the ball to Oscar. "They could just toss it over my head," he said. K. C. was right, of course, and in the second half of the fourth game the Royals used just that strategy. That was their only good half and it was the only game they won. "I don't know why they didn't do it more," K. C. said after it was all over. Then, still thinking of Robertson, he added, "I don't like to play a man like that—all over the court when he doesn't have the ball. It's like cheating. It isn't fair to him."
Boston will require different strategy for the Warriors or Hawks, but it is difficult to imagine them doing anything but winning and becoming the first team in professional sports to take the championship six straight times. This is a rare team. True, it has marvelous individuals, but the striking and significant fact is how well they play together. And they are magnificently run. Coach Red Auerbach—Arnold to his wife and his barber—has won 10 divisional titles, five championships and earned lots of money. He has never been named Coach of the Year, probably because most of the voting writers think the team makes him look good, but he has deserved that honor.
Auerbach rules the Celtics with wisecracks and psychology, but he is unquestionably the boss. Earlier this year, when he was away on a scouting trip, three players were late for a practice and were fined by their teammates, who simply anticipated what Auerbach would have done. The guilty later came to Auerbach for a hearing. "Get lost," he said. "If you don't know by now that the Celtics are a dictatorship and I am the dictator, then it's about time you found out."
Auerbach has often been complimented about his handling of the Celtics' more sensitive players. "Look, I don't worry about handling them," he says. "I worry about how they handle me. I'm not here as a doormat. Let them adjust to me. Anybody who comes on this team better take a little time to figure out what I'm like and learn to please me."
Auerbach is almost entirely responsible for the drafting and trading of players. Considering that for eight years now he has had the last draft choice, he has done amazingly well. He goes for the best player, regardless of position, but he likes winners. Five of this year's Celtics were on NCAA championship teams. "When people are used to winning," he says, "they put out a little more. They want to maintain"—and he pauses to draw on his cigar—"that good feeling."
Auerbach's family lives in Washington, where he went from Brooklyn to attend George Washington University and where he started coaching. He has part interests in a Cape Cod hotel and a Chinese restaurant in Boston, the latter because he is such a bug on Chinese food. Auerbach always has a reason for the things he does, and he believes that because it is substantial and mostly steamed, Chinese food is the best thing to eat after a game. He treats himself much as if he were still playing. He does run a boys' summer basketball camp, and he is a year-round salesman for Cellu-Craft Products, a packaging concern. "You know those 2¢ Schrafft's mints?" he said last week. "I make them. And Necco wafers? That's mine. Selling keeps me alert during the season. I meet clients when I'm on the road. In Cincinnati here, Procter & Gamble is one of my clients. I had lunch with them today. After all, how many movies can you see?" Actually, he hasn't seen many. When Red does go to a movie he falls asleep as soon as the film starts.
Auerbach's perceptive handling of his personnel has obscured the fact that he is also an excellent technician and an imaginative coach. Most out-of-bounds plays in use today were originated by him. He is convinced that the set shot is a useful complement to the jumper and will soon be back in vogue. (More Celtics have those old reliable two-handed sets than players on any other team.) Auerbach's latest innovation is using different combinations of players on the lanes when an opponent is shooting a foul. The Royals got so confused trying to maintain their best matchups that when Wayne Embry made a foul in the second game it was disallowed because Cincy had ended up with only one player on the lane. "First time I ever scored a playoff point," Auerbach smirked. He is hardly the most bashful man ever to coach, but he does know when to let his players have the spotlight.
Little things bother Auerbach. He was sincerely upset all during the series because the Royals made such a fuss about how they had beaten Boston seven games to five during the season. The first thing he wanted to talk about after he won the playoffs was the cause of some of those seven losses months ago. Now he is worried about posterity, too. "The thrill never goes from winning," he says. "But maybe the reasons change. First it was just trying to win a title. Now it is the question of our going down as the greatest team of all time. That stimulates you." Coaches of the Year are elected. Coaching a team to six straight championships is a man's own measure. This also stimulates Red Auerbach.