If professional basketball has escaped the appellation of bush, the followers of the sport apparently are resolved to keep it to themselves. Last week, in the playoffs in Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis, the fans behaved like hangers-on at a lynching, hurling abuse, obscenities and UFOs at men engaged in magnificent contests of skill and courage. In Philadelphia's Convention Hall, which retains sound and smoke with amazing tenacity (much of the smoke seemed to jet from the ears of the fans), they gathered to rejoice at the slaughter of the Celtics. And the Celtics died a horrible death, 140-116, amid the vocal indecencies and the flying rubbish.
A more fitting conclusion to the years of Boston's supremacy occurred a few moments later, as the public-address announcer was imploring the souvenir hunters to climb down from the baskets. Bill Russell and K. C. Jones moved up the runway to their locker room. Suddenly they caught each other's eyes, and at once clasped each other about the shoulders and marched off together for the last time.
But life, just like these playoffs, goes on (and on), and at this moment on the other side of the stage across the Hall, Wilt Chamberlain briefly kept the Philadelphia 76ers from their champagne to remind them that however great this triumph, the NBA finals were still to be played. The next evening in St. Louis, under a barrage of eggs that surpassed even the shelling in Philadelphia and Boston, the San Francisco Warriors beat the Hawks and won their way into the finals.
So the action resumed in Philly, where, despite all their warnings to each other, the 76ers did experience a letdown, though it was camouflaged by a fast start. Even the fans seemed drained by their emotional binge in the Boston series. Convention Hall was not full, nor were the chairs pyramided about the court for better vantage for watching and egg-throwing, as they usually are. All of the Warriors were actually applauded when they were introduced, though those who had previously played for Philadelphia were also booed. But there was little noise, not even when San Francisco came rushing back from 19 points down to force the game into overtime. This period of surprise quickly passed, and the crowd filed out in smug silence as soon as the 76ers won 141-135. On Sunday the task was easier, the ultimate goal nearer, and the fans were mostly concerned that they might not see the 76ers at home again. The Warriors shot a dreadful 29% from the floor as they worried about Chamberlain's blocking, rushing their offense in an effort to beat Philadelphia down the court. The score was 126-95, and the series was 2-0 and off to San Francisco for two more games.
April 24, 1967
Such an anticlimactic aura about the finals is not new—the annual futile effort to stop Boston in the East previously commanded the most attention—but it was never more evident than this year when both semifinal series involved bitter rivalry and recrimination. This spring in the NBA, April showers brought forth the mops. In San Francisco only one egg was thrown; in Boston it was eggs and tomatoes; in Philadelphia eggs, potatoes and coins; and in St. Louis eggs, Snickers bars, rocks and one Zippo lighter. So many Grade A's were hurled in Kiel Auditorium that when one arrived with 56 seconds left in the game, an observer noted that it was merely "the first egg of the last two minutes." The Snickers bars were aimed at Rick Barry (see cover), who endorses them. "At least my sponsor will be happy," he said during a time-out. It is significant that in the midst of this off-court chaos the players kept their heads and showed officials deserved respect.
Barry was the object of most of the St. Louis attention. The fans call him "Superbaby." They distinguished themselves by booing him unmercifully in the fourth game when he sprained an ankle and lay on the floor, grimacing in pain. Extremely conscious of his appearance, he probably suffered as much continued distress when his gold pants split with 2:18 left in the deciding game and the score tied at 102. He wrapped a towel about himself, ran to the locker room and returned quickly with a new pair. Relieved, the Warriors went on to win 112-107.
During the game San Francisco Owner Franklin Mieuli carried on a rearguard action against the Hawks' Ben Kerner. Because the St. Louis fans had flicked the ears of the Warriors sitting on the bench and joined the time-out conversations in the fourth game, Mieuli hired two uniformed guards to stand behind the Warriors. An elderly pair, they elicited guffaws from the St. Louis management, which claimed that one of the sentinels "was so old he had Remember the Maine tattooed on his wrist." Kerner also repulsed one cross-court Mieuli guerrilla action by calling him "a cheap fink."
Mieuli was dressed in his lucky battle gear of the last few games—resplendent sky-blue blazer over a smart turtleneck. But then he has his whole team one step ahead of the rest of the athletic world, sartorial division. The Warriors wear their own special raincoats (bought in Philadelphia, by the way). They are black with zip-out linings and on the breast of each is the little Warrior Golden Gate emblem and the player's number. Others in the organization have their initials instead of a number. Coach Bill Sharman has neither, because he did not want to wear BS over his Golden Gate Bridge.
Sharman's Warriors belie their name. They are as genteel a group as ever played for pay, young and skinny, with well-scrubbed baby faces. Five of them are engaged in church or youth work during the summers. Tom Meschery writes poetry. Jim King has a barber's license. Sharman calls them "my Sunday school team." Instead of champagne, the Warriors guzzled 7-Up to celebrate their win in St. Louis. There was a more formal victory party later, but Al Attles said, "A lot of us just went for the good food." Al is the player representative and his gentlemanly demeanor sets the example for his younger teammates. Sharman has not had to fine or discipline one of his players all season.
Ironically, the reward for all this clean living was a series of injuries that made it impossible for a single Warrior to participate in all 81 games. (By contrast, five 76ers did.) The Warriors entered the finals with five major handicaps: Jeff Mullins had a severe charley horse, Thurmond and Meschery had broken bones in their hands, and starting Forward Fred Hetzel had such painful shin splints that he could not return to the lineup in the first Philadelphia game and played only briefly on Sunday. Finally, Barry's ankle injury was much more serious than most people suspected, especially those who dismiss him as a crybaby. The sprained lateral ligaments not only produced considerable swelling and pain but forced blood into the area around the tendons. "Look," said Dr. James Raggio, the team physician, pointing to the Achilles tendon. "It's as stiff as a broomstick. When blood becomes, in a sense, a foreign agent, it can be more irritating than anything. Put a drop in your belly and you'll lie awake screaming. There's blood between Rick's Achilles and the sheath it normally glides against."
To permit Barry to play, Dr. Raggio shot the ankle with Carbocaine, a strong local anesthetic. Since the injection was administered as near as possible to the opening tip-off so that it would last throughout the game, Barry missed much of pregame warmups and all practice sessions. Sharman, an advocate of extensive shooting workouts, even on the morning of a playoff game, theorized that this was probably the reason for Barry's poor outside shooting. Rick was making his high-30s average almost entirely on drives. For Sunday's game Dr. Raggio agreed to inject the Carbocaine earlier, and Barry made the entire warmup. Still, he scored only 30 points, an ordinary night for him, not an inspired playoff performance. Until sufficient rest and medication clear up the tendon trouble, he will not again be the shooter who obliges opponents to double-team him—which probably means not until next season.
Without the injuries, San Francisco would have a chance to upset the 76ers. The potential is there. Alex Han-num, who coached the Warriors last season, says it is San Francisco, not his older Philadelphia team, that possesses the seeds of a dynasty. But a Warrior upset now would be a stupendous one, for the 76ers give every indication of gaining, with victory, what Hannum desires for them: recognition as the greatest basketball team in history.
Chamberlain is without question the preeminent player in the sport today. But he is only one of four men in the Philadelphia frontcourt who provide such a spectrum of talent that there is hardly a way to match up against them. A fantastic one-man show by someone like Barry or Elgin Baylor or John Havlicek is the only hope. Chamberlain's helpers are led by Chet Walker, an All-Star himself, described by Hannum as "the prototype forward." He is a quick 6'6½", 200 pounds. Bill Cunningham, a shade shorter, is neither as durable nor as consistent, but he is capable of bursts of brilliance that often come as soon as he enters a game.
Luke Jackson gives Philadelphia much more muscle. He is a massive man, 6'9", 240, handsome despite a virtually shaven head that makes him appear threatening. "I want to give Luke a technical just for walking on the court," one referee jokes. Jackson was a center at Pan American College but moved a lot in the pivot and picked up a good outside shot. (Thurmond had to play forward when Chamberlain was with San Francisco, but Wilt says there is no comparison between the two; Thurmond was a misplaced center, Jackson is a natural forward.)
But Luke is also a mini-Wilt. His presence makes it certain that opponents cannot safely double-team Chamberlain on the boards. "They all play me the same way," Jackson says, shaking his head. "Keep me away from the board." Jackson, of course, is often away from it because he has such a good shooting eye and because he is utilized as a screen.
On the Warriors, Thurmond operates almost entirely around the free-throw line. He sets picks for Barry and the others out there ("They split higher than anyone else in the league," Cunningham says) and when his own shots are going in, Thurmond can lure Chamberlain at least a few yards away from the basket. On the 76ers, Jackson can fill this role, and Philadelphia can still keep its really big man, Chamberlain, right under the basket.
Add to this arsenal Wally Wonder Jones, who has emerged as the biggest overnight sensation in Philly since Fabian, and Philadelphia has, suddenly, the complete backcourt too. All-Star Hal Greer is the other guard, of course, and the steady improvement of the substitute, rookie Matt Guokas, is a bonus. Without much warning, Jones, who had averaged 13.2 during the season, hit for at least 21 in four of the five Boston games, 30 in the San Francisco opener, 16 in the second game. But it is less important how many he scores than how he scores them—usually in bunches. He hit eight of nine to blow open the final Boston game in the third quarter, six of eight in the opening quarter against the Warriors, often from far out. His balletlike shooting stance—rear out one way, legs two other ways, arms flung wide—is the best part of the act.
Wally's sudden development eliminated the one edge the Warriors had—in the backcourt, where they have their own brand new star, Mullins, two other good shooters, King and Paul Neumann, and Attles, a little strong man who can be counted on to play Greer as well as anyone, perhaps, but K. C. Jones. Wally Wonder's shooting takes the pressure off Greer and he keeps Attles out of the game, because Sharman must go with his best offensive men to stay in contention. For the same reason Boston had to rely more on Larry Siegfried's shooting than K.C.'s defense. Greer and Jones made 62 points in the opener of the finals, which was particularly exasperating for San Francisco, since a gigantic effort by Thurmond—outrebounding Wilt 23-16 in the second half—and by Meschery resulted in the Warriors almost matching the 76ers on the boards (85-87). Finally catching the 76ers at 128 all, they had the ball with about 10 seconds left when Barry made his move. He cut right, gained a half-step lead on Walker and was going for the hoop when Wilt moved over to pick him up. Simultaneously, Thurmond cut from his high post with a clear path, and Barry flipped the ball to him. It is their favorite play.
Nate went in for a layup, but Chamberlain wheeled, lunged and batted the ball away. Thurmond cried foul, but none was called. Still, there were scratch marks clearly visible on Thurmond's left shoulder where a man would have left his mark had he been going for the ball over Nate's left shoulder—which Chamberlain had.
As it turned out, that was San Francisco's last best chance. "What really hurts," Sharman said later, shaking his head, "is the way it happened, coming back, getting them into overtime and then losing—that's the worst way to lose. We not only get the loss, but we shake them up so that they'll really be up for the next one." Sunday's result proved this to be a rueful but highly accurate observation.