The Eastern Division of the National Basketball Association, once the exclusive fief of the Boston Celtics, is caught up in the wildest championship race in its history (see cover). The battle is among Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and, of course, Boston—four teams playing superbly and packing in such big crowds that NBA attendance is up 12% over last year. Baltimore has a 4-1 record against Boston, Boston is whomping Philadelphia 4-2, Philadelphia has beaten Baltimore three out of five and New York, currently the hottest team in the league, has an edge over each of the other three. They are elbowing each other out of the way like commuters on the Tokyo subway.
In Madison Square Garden last Saturday night, before a sellout crowd of 19,500, the New York Knickerbockers outscored San Francisco 15-0 in a third-quarter splurge and went on to their 11th straight win, a club record, and 20th straight at home. Before an equally jammed house the previous Saturday night they demolished division-leading Baltimore with a similar spurt in the fourth quarter.
But the Bullets refused to collapse. Playing in Baltimore's Civic Center last week, they won the fourth of their last five starts, all without the help of Captain and All-Star Forward Gus Johnson, forced out for the rest of the season with torn knee ligaments.
In Boston Garden, Bill Russell, who for one stricken moment thought he might be through for the year with a similar injury, returned after a week and played 45 minutes. Dragging his sore leg behind him, he led the defending champion Celtics to an overtime victory over Philadelphia.
In the Spectrum, earlier, Philadelphia beat New York in a double overtime as the 76ers' Billy Cunningham, only the team's sixth man last year, scored a career high of 44 points.
All four teams are fairly certain to make the playoffs (starting the week of March 23), but the players have not let up. They want the prestige of first, or at least second, place and, more to the point, they want the cash that goes with finishing higher. It is possible for each man on the team winning the playoffs to take home an extra $10,000. Fourth place, says the Celtics' John Havlicek, is to be sneezed at. "We have to play playoff ball right now. You don't get a damn thing for finishing fourth except you get into the playoffs. A team splits up only $10,000 for finishing second."
With New York in second after last weekend, long-frustrated Garden habitues were treating Knick tickets as if they were fifth-row orchestra seats at Promises, Promises. An estimated 8,000 were turned away from the Baltimore game and, despite the Great Snow Fall, 12,000 souls mushed through unplowed streets to watch a midweek game against lowly Phoenix. The Knicks, 6-13 on Nov. 21 and 38 of 46 since then, had become New York's new in team.
"The year before we got off to a bad start but then got to know each other," says Guard Walt Frazier. "This season we came back and we were like strangers again. You'd have one guy working and four guys looking at him. We had numerous meetings to figure out what was wrong and we'd still go out and lose. Then we got confidence and after the trade we really got going."
The trade, which is talked about now almost mystically, sent Center Walt Bellamy and Guard Howard Komives to Detroit for 6'7" Dave DeBusschere, and it might be remembered as the deal that decided the NBA championship. DeBusschere gave New York an experienced and tough forward who could shoot, rebound, run, play defense and think (he was Detroit's player-coach at age 24). His presence allowed Forward Willis Reed to move over and resume his former identity at center, where he was runner-up as the NBA rookie of the year four seasons ago.
"It's like being in a foreign country for a long, long time and then coming back to your old home town," he says joyfully.
Team Captain Reed, sticking almost exclusively to his left-handed jump shot in the key, leads the Knicks in rebounding and scoring. Forward Bill Bradley and Guard Dick Barnett are two of the NBA's finest shooters, but the chief challenger to Reed for supremacy among the Knicks is the second-year guard, Frazier, who leads the team in assists, averages 16 points a game, brings the ball upcourt and usually defends against the opposition's toughest backcourt man.
"Right now," says Reed,' I don't rate but one player over him, and that's Oscar Robertson. There's no guard in the NBA I'd rather play with than Walt."
Frazier played probably his finest game as a pro Saturday night against San Francisco. He stole the ball eight times, scored 24 points, took 14 rebounds and had 13 assists. In the third quarter, when New York went from four points behind to 11 points ahead, he stole the ball three times, blocked a shot and scored nine of his team's 15 points.
Winning so often, the Knicks are a loose, happy team of diverse parts. Frazier is probably the NBA's champion sleeper and when he is not in pajamas he sports clothes from the Bonnie and Clydeera, including a wide-brimmed hat. Reed runs a basketball camp in the off season and gives promising black kids a free ride, always trying to influence them to get a college education. Bradley, the recipient of a big bonus after his scholarly Rhodes days, has been tagged Dollar Bill, without any apparent animosity intended. And Mike Riordan, whose main job is to go into the game at strategic times and foul somebody, is the "scum coach." This title derives from his practice of polling players after the game to decide who made the most atrocious shot. The winner receives the mythical "scum ball," the antithesis of pro football's cherished game-ball award.
"The most important factors concerning New York are their momentum and their attitude," says Detroit Coach Paul Seymour. "Take Bradley, for instance. A few days ago he was so sick he was throwing up all over the place, but he stayed in the game. When you're losing, the first little bump and everybody wants to get out, to rest, to save himself for something else. The Knicks have not only got some fine talent, they've got a great attitude."
Since injuries have taken away Forwards Cazzie Russell and Phil Jackson, they need that proper frame of mind. The frighteningly thin bench consists of three rookies, two of whom do not play much, and Center Nate Bowman, an expansion-team castoff. When they work out at Lost Battalion Recreation Center in Queens, they do not even have the 10 men necessary for a scrimmage. It follows that if any starter, and particularly Reed, gets into foul trouble the Knicks will be lucky to win. So far everybody has managed to keep his fouling at a minimum and his playing time at a maximum. But under the extra strain of the playoffs the Knicks might not be so fortunate.
Philadelphia really has no business being in the race. The 76ers traded Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest scorer and second-best rebounder in the history of the game, to the Lakers, and their fine coach, Alex Hannum, switched over to the ABA. Then in December 6'9" Lucious Jackson, Chamberlain's burly replacement, went out with an Achilles' tendon injury and it seemed time to deflate the basketballs and disband. Yet, there stands Philadelphia right up near the head of the class and attendance at the Spectrum is running about 2,000 a game ahead of last season. If high winds do not damage the Spectrum's roof again, the lid might be blown off by sheer fan enthusiasm.
"After Wilt was traded, the best the papers could say was we'd be a more exciting team without him," says Billy Cunningham. "That's like somebody fixing you up with an ugly blind date and then trying to hide what a loser she is by saying she's a great dancer."
The main reason for the 76ers' surprise success is Cunningham, the brash forward from Brooklyn who is known as The Kangaroo Kid or just Kang. He is only 6'6", a sapling in a courtful of redwoods, but he is the team leader in rebounds and 10th in the NBA. That, he says, is what, comes of growing up practicing on playgrounds with guys nicknamed Airplane, Helicopter and The Elevator Man.
Operating last season as one of the league's best sixth men, Cunningham scored 19 points a game. Now, as a starter (and an All-Star pick), he is averaging almost 25, some baskets coming on the long jump shot he has perfected since his college days at North Carolina but most coming in heavy traffic close to the hoop. He loves to free-lance and is much more effective now that Chamberlain is not clogging up the key.
"You can't really stop him, he takes bad shots," said an Eastern Division opponent. "I don't think he can make 'em when you're not on him. He needs contact. He likes to go down the middle or across the middle, sort of like Elgin Baylor used to play—hanging up there and making shots under his arm and every which way."
"I wasn't too good at outside shooting before I turned pro," explains Cunningham, "because when I was learning basketball at home in Brooklyn we always played outdoors. Nobody shot jumpers much because you had to know where the wind was blowing from and compensate for it. Mostly it was a driving game."
Not only does he rebound and score, but he officiates, too. Many NBA players grouse about decisions that affect them directly. Cunningham likes to get in a word or two or three on almost every play, even if he is a floor length away from the incident. If a fellow 76er is the victim of a foul, Cunningham often makes the call before the referee has a chance to blow his whistle. In a game in New York he was, as usual, playing and officiating at the same time when Knickerbocker Coach Red Holzman, not having much luck with the refs that night, hollered in desperation, "Billy, if you're going to referee, how about calling them both ways."
Cunningham denies he deserves an honorary striped shirt, saying, with a touch of modesty, "I don't call three-second violations much."
Philadelphia is not all Cunningham, of course. After General Manager Jack Ramsay reluctantly replaced Hannum with himself, he installed a full-court press that is feared all around the league. He decided to put Guards Hal Greer, Wally Jones and Archie Clark in at the same time, backed up by Cunningham, and the result was a sort of dash-and-scramble mayhem that helps make up for the rebounding strength that disappeared with Chamberlain and Jackson.
"I figure with our speed and extra defense we can give away 10 rebounds a game and still win," says Ramsay. "To do it we must force turnovers and then handle the ball well when we get it. So far, it's worked."
If Philadelphia has been surprising, Baltimore has been amazing. The Bullets finished sixth and last in the Eastern Division in '68, yet they have been first almost this entire season, upping their home attendance by nearly 3,000 spectators a game. Those are solid figures, unlike the questionable ones of two or three years ago when the club was using 50¢ tickets and other gimmicks to pump up the gate.
The difference essentially has been one man, rookie Westley Unseld from Louisville. He is listed at 6'7½", but he is really not quite 6'7", and even his own college coach thought he would have to play forward in the pros. So there he is playing the pivot for the Bullets and ranking fourth in rebounds in the NBA behind three guys 7'1", 6'9½" and 6'9". And he probably already is the league's best at taking down a rebound and whipping out a pass to start the fast break.
"He's one of the most unselfish players I've ever seen," says New York's Reed. "Last year we outrebounded them, but this year they know if the shot is missed Unseld is going to be right on top of that ball. If Baltimore wins this thing, I think he should be a strong contender for most valuable player." Baltimore had plenty of shooters—Earl Monroe, Kevin Loughery, Jack Marin—but it needed a consistent board man and Unseld has been just that.
Like Holzman at New York and Ramsay at Philadelphia, Baltimore Coach Gene Shue has done a good coaching job. His cleverest move, though, was catching on early that Unseld could do things he had no business even dreaming about. Shue also wisely resisted trading away reserve Forward Ed Manning, an eighth-round draft choice two years ago. Keeping him around paid off when Gus Johnson got hurt.
Boston, uncomfortable down in fourth place, must worry about two specters sneaking up from behind, fifth-place Cincinnati and old age. John Havlicek in 1962 was the last rookie of consequence to make the Celtics. Bill Russell is 35, Bailey Howell is 32 and hampered by an injury and Sam Jones is 35 and playing his last season. Still, all MVP talk about Reed, Frazier, Cunningham and Unseld aside, Russell is the man who could bring Boston back. After Russell's magnificent posthospital game against the 76ers, Havlicek told The Boston Globe: "It's a damn shame you have to place so much of a load on one person. They keep saying this guy is the key, that guy is the key. There's only one key—him [Russell]—and he's only human, like everybody else."
If the standings stay as they are now—and the way things have been going that is not at all likely—first-place Baltimore will open the playoffs against third-place Philadelphia and second-place New York will meet the Celtics. If any of the seven-game series go down to the final game, the team higher in the standings gets that game on its home court. Ticket windows up and down the megalopolis are sure to be mobbed.
"We seem to be the team with the momentum right now," says the Knicks' Frazier, doing a little analyzing between naps. "But Boston's tradition is going to make them tough from now on—the pride of the Celtics. Unseld's made a big difference in Baltimore, and Philly has Cunningham and that great press. Nobody's really out of it.
"Sometimes I sit down and try to figure who I'd rather play in the playoffs, and I can't honestly come up with a team."