Christmas night, driving alone by Usquepaugh through the foggy Rhode Island night, a man fought with his radio dial in an effort to escape the accounts of how bridegroom-to-be Pat Nugent was spending his Christmas. Somewhere between WBT Charlotte and WOWO Fort Wayne, a kilocycle off the Supremes singing Christmas carols done up in 1965 style, the friendly but ever-urgent voice of Johnny Most wafted through the dashboard. Johnny Most is the announcer for the World Champion Boston Celtics, who were engaged in Baltimore against the Bullets, hot new threat in the Western Division. A little thing like Christmas never stays the NBA from its relentless attack upon April.
Most was excited. This must be some game. Here, nearing midseason, Boston was having its toughest divisional fight (relatively, anyway) in years, while the Bullets, done up in 1945 style with a passing center—old, wily and witty Red Kerr—had run off 11 in a row at home. But suddenly the truth was out, and it was as old as Red Auerbach. Most announced—desperately, to be sure—that the Celtics' lead had been "cut" to 12 points. Back to WOWO. Yes, Virginia, there still is a Bill Russell.
Russell had 34 rebounds in this game, so the Celtics not only won easily but held Baltimore under 100 points for the first time this season. It was just one game, but as significant as any recently, for Christmas and New Year's and Epiphany and Arbor Day have become like all the other NBA days in years past—the Celtics are winging again in the East. They have opened up a solid lead with a 14-4 record in the last five weeks, while Cincinnati has struggled at 12-9 and Philadelphia has floundered at 6-9.
Russell warns, too, that Boston is just getting started. "You could call this my worst year ever," he says, "but now I'm going to go all out rather than try to pace myself, because I know now that Mel Counts can play center." Counts is just one of several substitutes Coach Red Auerbach is using to spell his aging regulars. He, Guard Larry Siegfried and Forwards Don Nelson and Woody Sauldsberry have joined regular reservist John Havlicek to make the Celtics a real 10-man team for the first time. This also provides some strange playing combinations. Boston tore apart New York a few days before Christmas with a devilish new lineup of Russell and four guards that brought the Celtics back from a 21-point deficit with only 8:45 left—and on to a victory in overtime.
The Knickerbockers can still go on dreaming of a playoff berth, wispy as those fantasies have become. They finally have a star (Dick Barnett) and a center (Walt Bellamy); they have a new, sympathetic coach (Dick McGuire) and a style they like (run, run, run); and, when they put it all together and Bellamy cooperates with big Willis Reed underneath, the Knicks can bust up anyone. If the wind is right and the planets are benignly aligned, they may still wear down Cincinnati in February, when 14 of the Royals' 17 games are on the road.
The Royals are always a threat, with their great shooters and the snappy Jerry-Lucas-to-Oscar-Robertson fast breaks, but they can be scored against easily, too. Lucas, for example, must cheat on defense and forgo shot-blocking to be near the board and in good rebound position so that he can hit the quick release pass to Oscar. Coach Jack McMahon has only one reliable sub, Happy Hairston, although Guard Jon McGlocklin finally appears to be getting over his rookie shakes. This may help Adrian Smith, in the midst of his best season, to get some rest. An injury to a key man would hurt Cincinnati badly but, with two superstars like Oscar and Lucas, the Royals could get hot and whip anybody in a showdown.
Ironically, then, although Boston appears to be rolling to another divisional title, it will have its hands full in the playoffs against either Cincinnati or Philadelphia, however frightfully the 76ers have been stumbling.
The West is where the action, if not the talent, is now, because Elgin Baylor's injury has crippled L.A. and Paul Seymour has done a masterful job of regrouping the Bullets. San Francisco should join in, too, the Warriors having sidestepped total disaster through a December itinerary that makes Rommel's retreat from El Alamein seem like a stroll along a petal-strewn garden path. In 35 days, through January 5, the Warriors will have played 21 games—only three in San Francisco and eight of them in such familiar NBA strongholds as Sacramento, Toledo and Miami. Then they are home for only four games over a two-week period before a trip to L.A.
Baylor is just loosening up in games now, and Rudy LaRusso and Gene Wiley have also been hurt. None of this has helped the Lakers, but it is also fair to say that Baltimore has moved up on L.A. through its own efforts as well. The Bullets have come from last place since they traded Bellamy to New York for Bad News Barnes, Johnny Egan and Johnny Green. Seymour put Kerr in a real old-fashioned pivot, and the team has busted out, freewheeling and high-scoring. "Kerr has helped the guards terrifically," says Seymour, Coach of the Year so far. "He'll break out and return to the guards. They have the ball more." Kevin Loughery, thanks considerably to Kerr, has almost doubled his career average to nearly 17 points a game. Barnes's floor play from the corner has been as valuable as his scoring, and now he will also spell Kerr some, since Gus Johnson has finally recovered from a freak wrist dislocation.
Though Boston has no trouble with the Western contenders (it has beaten the lot of them nine times out of 10), and though it has begun to play like Boston in its own division, too, the league still is having the most exciting races in years and the playoffs promise to be especially close. NBA game-of-the-week television (which outrated American League football last year) begins again this week, and paid attendance is up 25%. Strangely, about the only place where it has been disappointing is in Baltimore, which has had the most exciting home-town ball. A fan came up to Kerr the other day and said how much he enjoyed seeing Red play, that he had been to every game. "Oh," Kerr said, "so you're the guy."