Poised for takeoff on the Saturday morning flight out of Ohio, the pilot spoke chattily over the intercom. "I understand we have the members of the St. Louis Royals flying with us today," he told the passengers. "I watched their game on television last night—they won by 119 to 118—and it certainly was exciting all the way. We'd like to offer our congratulations to this fine basketball team." Back in the tourist section Coach Jack McMahon, known all around the Midwest as a man quick to leap up in protest, took it all with unusual calm. For one thing, he figured that everybody on that particular flight would know they were really the Cincinnati Royals and, for another thing, he was tightly belted into his seat. But it might have been a hint of what was to come. By 10 o'clock Saturday night his fine team had been reduced to tatters, the National Basketball Association season was off to a devastating start and, if there were those who were uncertain of his team's correct name, everybody was certain that Boston was—again—the team to beat for the title.
Cincinnati's visit to Boston (the plane was late, and McMahon muttered about the pilot, "Well, he blew that one, too") was billed, with every justification, as the key early game, the real opener of the year in the Eastern Division. Both teams had started out strong—Boston as usual, and Cincy as predicted. The champion Celtics had won their first seven games; the Royals had a 4-1 record and stood second in league standings. Both teams were deep in experienced talent. And the Royals seemed to have learned how to beat Boston—they did it seven of the 12 times they played the Celtics last year. There was the added promise that both teams would parade their newest recruits from the U.S. Olympic team. The Royals had signed 6-foot-8 George Wilson, and the Celtics had signed 7-foot Mel Counts of Oregon State. All these elements brought 10,341 early-season fans to the Boston Garden to rock and cheer and chant "We want Counts" in ragged rhythm.
Along toward the end of the emotion-charged evening Celtic Coach Red Auerbach got to feeling expansive—the tip of his cigar was hardly tooth-marked—and he gave them Counts. Counts is a young man full of towheaded earnestness; he talks as though his voice were going to crack shrilly at any moment, and he makes "I'm glad to meet you, sir" sound like a declaration of conscience. He suited up early for the game, greeted each arriving Celtic with a respectful handshake and a stammered, "I'm Mel Counts, sir, and I am glad to meet you." Before the game a steady parade of people came into the dressing room just to look at him, and Counts forced himself to look levelly back at them—a situation made impressive by the fact that they were standing up and Counts was sitting down.
Meanwhile, in the lumpy dark-green dressing room assigned to the Royals—so dark it was like the inside of a cucumber—Coach McMahon talked easily, counseling his team and his Olympian. The lanky Wilson is from the University of Cincinnati; practically everybody on the team is from Cincinnati, and they all talk the same language.
The language of how to beat the Celtics, for the Royals and for any of the teams in the league, comes in plays of one syllable: put a pair of good rebounders on the boards against Bill Russell. If one of them can get the ball, the other three men wheel and run. With the Royals the offense has one more step: wheel and run and then get the ball to Oscar Robertson. The Big O, characterized by McMahon as "the world's greatest basketball player, anywhere, ever," plays 48 minutes a game for a salary estimated at upward of $60,000 a year. He does most of the ball-handling, drives, shoots from outside, lays it up inside, shoots foul shots, and, after that game with the St. Louis (not Cincinnati) Hawks, said he could probably sing and dance a little, too, if there was time.
Under a revised system this season, a 360-game, balanced schedule has been drawn up for the first time in NBA history. "It means we will meet the Celtics 10 times this year instead of 12," said McMahon, "and we cannot let them get off to one of their spectacular starts. Last year we were 15 and 10 at one point, and Boston was 15 and 1. We went on to win 40 of our last 55 games, but there they were—far out in front. Our rule for this year is simply to stay with them."
Against the Hawks in Cincinnati the night before the Celtics crusher, the Royals had looked good enough to stay with any club. The Big O had scored 39 points—high-point man on the Hawks was Bob Pettit with 34—and had saved the game from defeat by running through the fourth period, cutting, wheeling and shooting like a phantom.
Now, in the Boston arena, the old-time Royals had advice for new-time Royal Wilson. He had just joined the team the night before, had not learned any of Coach McMahon's estimated 34 plays and had just about had time to find a uniform that fit. "Man, you can't have Russellphobia yet," said Tom Hawkins, one of the most spectacular jumpers in the league, who stands 6 feet 5 and can jump to 11 feet 1 from a flat-footed stance. "It's a thing that happens to people when they play the Celtics. I have seen guys going in for an unmolested layup—I mean nobody near them—and just when they get up there, they suddenly look nervously over their shoulder for Russell to fall on them. Don't let it happen to you. Of course," he shrugged, "I must say that I have gone in there and jumped a foot over the basket—which is quite a jump—and I've looked up and there is Bill Russell a foot above me, about to stuff the ball down my throat."
In the disastrous hour that followed, Wilson, the rest of the Royals and the basketball world in general learned again what a special demoralizing factor Russellphobia and Celticphobia can be. With Tommy Heinsohn and the Jones boys—Sam and K.C.—clawing at them on all defensive sides, the Royals opened strongly. At the end of the first period the score was tied at 26-26 and there was no sign that the phobias were starting to nibble at the edges of the team psyche. ("But there was that certain something..." Coach McMahon growled after the game.) On the Celtic bench Red Auerbach was feeling good enough to bark irritably at the referees and roll his unlit cigar menacingly around in his mouth. (It is Auerbach's bent to destroy cigars in this manner; the only time he lights one up is when he feels the Celtics have the game won. Then he sits there like a heavily jowled genie hidden in a dense blue cloud of smoke.) At the half the Celtics were ahead 52-48; Cincinnati was actually leading in rebounds. Jerry Lucas had 16 against 13 for Russell, the Royals had 38 against the Celtics' 36. But the phobias took hold as Auerbach knew they would.
Perhaps it is something Auerbach pumps into the dressing-room air vents; maybe it is something he puts into the team orange juice; possibly it is his demeanor—he has a steady, cold look that could curdle milk across a room—but let an average basketball player put on a Celtic uniform and he is transformed. He stands straighter, his eyes burn with a team pride and he becomes a tiger full of tank shots.
In the second-half rout Auerbach demonstrated this by 1) sending everybody off the bench to play, 2) screaming with happy invective at the officials and 3) lighting up his cigar. At one convincing period in this halt the Celtics were wheeling smoothly with Russell and four players who at one time or another had been passed over by other teams before putting on the Celtic uniform. There was Willie Naulls, once considered too fat and slow, now a sleek prowler; Larry Siegfried, who scored 18 points in 22 minutes of play; Tom Sanders and K.C. Jones.
And when Coach Auerbach pointed at Counts with his cigar and growled, "Take off your jacket and get in there," the rookie ran right out, awkwardly, fiercely, and stole the first rebound he could get his hands on. The man he stole it from was (oops!) Bill Russell. But Russell knows the Celtic feeling himself; he strolled back to the bench and watched the youth play with a kind of bemused smile.
And thus the game ended and the season began—with Russell and Heinsohn sitting comfortably underneath that smoke cloud hanging threateningly low over the Celtic bench—with an unknown rookie, a gentle, polite, sweet boy, suddenly playing pro basketball and roaring like a King Kong. The score was 122-93 when it all ended. But the game set the pattern for the rest of the season. The Royals, who still must be counted as one of the toughest teams in the association, fell prey to the phobia that stalks the circuit. It looks like that kind of a year again.