A certain unique sound was missing from the pro basketball arenas much of this season. Matchless in tonal quality, it is the noise of a crowd in mid-gasp—a sort of breathless ohh-AHHHH! from five, 10, 15,000 voices that rises on the second beat and holds. And holds. It waits for Elgin Baylor to decide, after every muscle in his body has given a fake of its own as he hangs in midair, to release the basketball.
Well, the sound is back, signaling that Elgin Baylor, once one of the most exciting players ever to make the NBA scene, also is back. Though his left kneecap is fully repaired (it was shattered on April 3, 1965), Baylor is a few steps short of his previous greatness and he needs rest often. But last week the St. Louis Hawks, for one team, were not counting those steps. The Hawks gave it a good try, pushing their playoff series with Los Angeles to seven games, but Baylor was too much. He drove the Lakers into the championship finals, where their reward was to face Boston, the team they have met four times for the title and never beaten.
While Baylor recuperated or played himself back into shape during the regular season, the Lakers were carried along largely by the shooting of Jerry West. Still, they would not have beaten the Hawks with Baylor on the bench or playing at half-speed. He averaged 17 points and less than 10 rebounds a game during the season. Against the Hawks those figures were 29 and 13—plus about 15 gasps per game.
With the emergence of Gail Goodrich as a dependable third guard, the Lakers are not going to be patsies for the Celtics, as they showed in the first game. They pushed the champions into overtime and then won 133-129, Baylor scoring 36 and West 41.
The Celtics this year furnished the best argument ever made in favor of the playoffs as determining the best team when they defeated—no, humiliated—the Philadelphia 76ers four games to one in the Eastern Division final after losing six of 10 to Philly during the season. Not just for Philadelphians but for all fans who yearned to see a new team at the top, this series was to be It for the Celtics. Fix-their-wagon, settle-their-hash time. Philadelphia in four. Well, maybe five. Would you believe six?
Boston was creaking with age, bandaged to the ears and tired after just squeezing by Cincinnati in the semifinals. Philly was rested and confident after winning the division title. The talent surrounding Wilt Chamberlain was the best he has ever had. He had Hal Greer, Chet Walker and rookie Billy Cunningham, shooters and scorers with whom he could play games. Games like pass-the-ball. And he had rebounders like Walker and Lucious Jackson.
But in the first two games of the playoffs the good outside shooting disappeared—Greer and Cunningham shot 11 of 45 and Walker wasn't much better. When this happens, Philadelphia has to look to Wilt, as in the old days, for everything. Also, when this happens and when Wilt is looked to too much, he becomes moody, shaking his head, wringing his hands, suffering. Lastly, when this happens—and this is fairly important—the 76ers do not stand too good a chance of beating the janitors. They had no chance against Boston.
Back in Convention Hall for the only game they were to win, the 76ers took a 24-point lead as the Celtics, two up and pacing themselves, missed their first seven shots in each of the first two periods. Wally Jones had the 76ers running well for the first time, a cardinal point. Jones can break a press quickly, thus defeating a key Boston tactic. The Celts like to force rivals to take 10 seconds getting to half court, which drastically cuts maneuver-and-shoot time. Jones does not let this happen. In turn, Boston tries to get Jones out of the game by having Sam Jones take him inside on offense and draw fouls.
Wally stayed out of foul trouble this time because Jackson helped out on Sam Jones—but the Celtics came back anyway to within one point. If it hadn't been for Greer, who kicked his slump with nine points in the final quarter, Boston might have won this one, too. 76ERS RETURN TO GREATNESS, headlined one Philadelphia paper, but it is ironic that this Celtic loss may have been the key game of the whole series, coming as it did when Boston expected to be run out of the gym. "We give them 24 points and they don't know what to do with it," Red Auerbach snorted. "We know what to do with it." (In their first-game loss to the Lakers, the Celtics did not know what to do with an early 18-point lead.)
Chamberlain's play, uninspiring through the first three games, was a study in contrasts in game four on Easter Sunday in Boston. There have been occasions this season when he has confounded even his teammates with a reluctance—almost a refusal—to shoot. And this was the case now. He scored only 15 points (on 14 shots) but still had one of the best games of his turbulent career. He had 20 rebounds in the first half, only one less than the entire Boston team, and the 76ers were playing beautifully—Greer shooting well, Jones directing the running crisply, Al Bianchi coming off the bench to score 15 points by half time.
But the Celtics managed to stay within striking range and then Auerbach brought in Mel Counts, who had been under wraps while Boston went about its montage offense. With the Celtics 13 points behind and 7:26 left in the third quarter, Counts began to get the ball for Boston. He had eight rebounds and five points in nine minutes and when he left, the Philly lead was down to five and the momentum was with the Celtics. Sam Jones and John Havlicek got hot and Boston ran away in an overtime.
Schayes called a practice in Philadelphia the next day, but Chamberlain did not feel up to it. He stayed at his apartment in New York, showing up on Tuesday in time for the game. If he could have stayed away from the foul line that night, his previous absence might not have seemed so conspicuous. Wilt had a fine board and floor game, turning to the basket for dunks rather than relying on the fadeaway shot. But he missed 17 of 25 free throws. Boston hit 35 of 41 and shot 42.3% from the floor, winning more easily than the 120—112 score indicated.
Champions should show their class when a title is at stake. It is worth noting that in this series four of Philadelphia's top six men were down from their season's average, while five of Boston's top seven were up. The 76ers' foul shooting was preposterous. They hit 132 of 203 for the series—a .650 percentage. Players are cut from high school squads for similar records. A champion team this was not.
The question arises, in fact, as to just how much Philadelphia's supporters deserve a champion. Convention Hall may be the only arena in America where the official scorer baits the referee. At one point in the final game, through the debris of programs, cups and assorted trash raining upon the court, came a plea from the P.A. announcer: "We genuinely, sincerely, hope that we will not find any more Easter eggs crashing to the floor." Some wit brought down the house with a loud "How about light bulbs?"
After the game Wilt Chamberlain was answering questions in the locker room. One reporter bugged him about his foul shooting and Wilt had to be restrained from going after him. "If you were just a little bit bigger," Chamberlain said, "just a little bit bigger." Will there ever be anybody just a little bit bigger than the Boston Celtics?