And so, in the end, the Boston Celtics outlasted. De Gaulle. Perennial students of geriatrics, the Bostonians won the last game of their playoff series—it was the 10th time that they have let it go seven and then won—by beating the Los Angeles Lakers 108-106. They never lost the lead in the final game after it was tied with 10:13 left in the third quarter. An indefatigable John Havlicek (see cover) led the Celtics to their 11th world championship in 13 years. He did this despite the greatest playoff performance in history by the Lakers' Jerry West.
It was, in fact, surprising that the series lasted to the seventh game—the 100th of the season for both teams—in the first place. Had either club been just a bit more consistent or lucky, it could have swept the first four close games. Certainly, except for one wondrous shot by Sam Jones, Los Angeles would have won in five.
It went the full route, though, simply because neither team was good enough or deep enough to put the other away. Almost any of the losers in recent championship playoff finals could have won over these contenders, ravaged by time and expansion as they were.
In the beginning of the series, when Havlicek made 37, 43 and 34 points, the special irony of his performances was that they contradicted a Celtic tradition. "We've had to go to John," one of his teammates admitted with chagrin, "because he's the only one doing it. But the funny thing—and the scary thing—is that it's always been the other team with the one-man show and the Celtics with a whole team to go to."
May 11, 1969
Things did turn more to form later as Larry Siegfried, his legs looking as though lawn mowers had been run through them, and Don Nelson came off the bench to fulfill old Celtic roles. Havlicek suffered a black eye in the third game, a muscle pull (that he repeatedly pooh-poohed) warming up for the fifth, and faced better defense from Keith Erickson and Tom Hawkins after he had driven rookie Bill Hewitt to the bench.
Still, his was a superb one-man show, worthy of the praises that are suddenly coming his way as one of the finest all-round athletes in the country today. It would have been sufficient for early victory had not the show come up against West's own act. In the games before he was hurt, West made 53, 41, 24, 40 and 39 points and gained equivalent high marks in every other phase of play.
As with Havlicek, there was a special irony, too, in West's brilliant performances. For the Lakers this was supposed to be a devastating display by the big triumvirate of West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain that would lay waste to everything in its path. But Baylor, captain of the Lakers, has been chasing the Celtics in these playoffs since 1959, and the wearying pursuit through a decade told at last. "I don't have to take his fakes as I always did before," Bailey Howell said, "and he is not as quick on the drive or following a shot."
There was, though, one thrilling memory, the last three minutes of the second game, when the eagles were perched on Baylor's shoulders again. West gave him the play, and Baylor scored the team's last 12 points to carry them from 106-108 to 118-112 and victory. But there followed nights of 4-for-18, 2-for-14, 4-for-13, and Baylor often was all but forgotten in a corner.
West was never forgotten. In the first game, won by Los Angeles 120-118, Emmette Bryant was on him, and that was sheer disaster as West just shot over him at will. Thereafter, Jones and Siegfried split the assignment, with Havlicek moving into the backcourt for occasional head-to-head duels that West always won. The Celtics have always prided themselves on tight man-to-man defense, but as the series went on the extra guard or a forward would slough off on West more and more. West would then hit the open man, usually Johnny Egan or Erickson, and they, not Baylor, would get the shot.
The third Laker superstar, Chamberlain, was, like his bête noire, Russell, quite in evidence. But, except in the fifth game, when Chamberlain got 31 rebounds and cleared the offensive boards to eliminate any Boston fast break, the two big men earned their half million dollars in salary by effectively neutralizing one another and letting the other fellows go four-on-four. In one game Russell and Chamberlain scored a total of one point in a half.
This futile nonexchange was exceeded in the fourth game when the inept non-play of both teams canceled both out. While the shooting was beastly, the ball handling was merely terrible. There were 50 turnovers and the 89-88 score represented the lowest total of points in the last 337 playoff games, going back to 1958. With the playoff tied at two apiece, however, this game was the fulcrum on which the whole series turned, and it was concluded with the most dramatic winning playoff shot since 1950, when Bob Harrison of the Minneapolis Lakers sank a long one from midcourt to beat Syracuse.
Los Angeles had the ball out of bounds with 15 seconds left and an 88-87 lead, since it had made the only basket in the last 4:05. Hold on to the ball and go home with a 3-1 lead was the obvious strategy. Bryant promptly stole the inbounds pass, and after Jones missed a jump shot and Boston retained the ball the Celtics called time-out with seven seconds left.
In the huddle, Havlicek and Siegfried were on Russell. "There's just enough time for it," Havlicek said. Russell nodded and told Tom Sanders to take his place. He wanted five good foul shooters in the game. In the Laker broadcast booth Hot Rod Hundley, who had played against all five Celtics in the game, said: "Neither one of them has scored a basket this quarter, but still, it's got to go to Sam or Havlicek." In the huddle, Russell said, "O.K., Sam."
In 1960 Ohio State beat Indiana 96-95 with a last-second shot by Siegfried after a pass from Havlicek. "The play took exactly 13 seconds in college," Havlicek said. During the New York series, a reluctant Russell was prevailed upon to put in that old Buckeye last-second play. The Celtics practiced it one day, with a visitor named K. C. Jones standing on the sidelines and ticking off the time. The Celtics found they could get the shot off in six or seven seconds, but, of course, they were not positive since they had never tried it in a game.
Bryant threw the ball in to Havlicek and moved to set a pick near the left of the key. Nelson positioned himself to Bryant's right, and Howell broke high and set on his left, making it a triple pick. Havlicek passed to Jones, cutting to his right. Stumbling badly, Jones managed to dribble right off Howell's flank. "It's a good pick," he thought, because West had run into Howell and was forced to get at Jones from behind.
Three seconds left, 18 feet out and off balance, Jones went up off his left foot. He was turning in, toward the basket, but was forced to fall away from it. On the bench Russell, discouraged, muttered a curse. Jones let the ball go.
Egan and Baylor raised their left arms on defense and, out of the corner of his eye, Nelson could see Chamberlain's hand overhanging his shoulder and the whole scene. Nelson was to move on the pick-and-roll if there was time for that. There was not. He saw Jones' shot clear Chamberlain's hand, and then he turned for the rebound.
The ball was high but short. Havlicek thought: "Just make the rim anyway." The basket at that end was a different one this game, set "extremely tight," so Havlicek told himself "anything can happen if it gets to the rim." It did. Tommy Heinsohn, the Boston TV announcer, saw that the shot hit the rim "absolutely exactly" in the middle of the ball. Chamberlain had turned back to the basket, and Nelson could not get by him. He knew at that moment that any rebound—and the game—would go to Chamberlain.
The ball jerked up again to the rear of the basket. In disbelief, almost behind Jones, West watched as the ball hit the back rim and then dove down into the cords. "The Lord's will," West said. Heinsohn said: "If it had hit just this much one way or the other off center, it would have bounced out too far, back or forward." Howell jumped in delight, but Jones just stared, stunned. Chamberlain went over to the padded backboard supports and grabbed one of them in anguish.
"I thought to shoot it with high arc and plenty of backspin," Jones explained carefully afterward, "so if it didn't go in Russell would have a chance for the rebound." Russell, of course, was not in the game.
"What the hell," Siegfried said. "You make a shot like that, you're entitled to blow some smoke about arc and backspin and things like that."
The Boston Garden had been bedlam. The scene four days later when Sam Jones, who would retire as a player after Monday's final, began his last game in Boston, was noisy, too, but different. In a tender outpouring of affection the fans stood up and cheered Jones while he stood alone on the floor and wavered "halfway between a smile and a tear." It was sincere but hardly a representative show by the Boston fans, who have never understood—much less appreciated—the Celtics. They think of the team as something of a tie-in with Lent, to be ignored during the season and admired ferociously at selected important playoff games. The politicians finally come out from behind the historic markers on warm days in May to issue proclamations and pose for pictures.
This year, almost 1,000 of the Boston faithless turned in their third-game tickets when the Celtics came home down 0-2—this at a time when NBA attendance is at a record high and when NBA TV ratings more than double the NHL, top the AFL comfortably and are zeroing in on baseball ratings. The Lakers had to turn down hundreds of their fans who were anxious to shell out $282.50 for a charter flight deal to see the first two games in Boston. Thousands went to theaters to see closed-circuit TV of the sellout home games.
Save for a falling off in affection early this season when the team was not working together, Los Angeles has, in fact, remained fairly steadfast in its support of the Lakers ever since their first playoffs in 1960 when the fans first heard an announcer named Chick Hearn describe the wonder of Elgin Baylor "shooting from out of the popcorn machine" in St. Louis.
Through the years it always has been Baylor and West, in that order, and Baylor had their hearts, too. West, the neat craftsman, was only admired, like a very reliable dentist. Yet of all the great stars in any sport, he is the most human, Zeke from Cabin Creek. He is certainly no country bumpkin—indeed, he is analytical and articulate—but he can say things like "Elgin always treated me as an equal" and "I think I must be the luckiest guy in the world" and the effect is real and never cloying.
He is one superstar who is also a sports fan, just like the other people on his block, where he has lived ever since he moved to LA in 1960. He talks of the junkets he takes with other celebrated athletes to make clothes advertisements, not as though they were something he had earned, but as if he had won them in a supermarket contest. In the first game, when Russell was describing West's play as the "greatest clutch performance ever against the Celtics," West only wanted to talk about what a marvelous game it must have been to see.
Utterly unaffected, he has become at last the finest all-round player in basketball, and yet he still shows up at a game dripping wet from worry. "I've reached a point," he says, "where nothing will satisfy me but the very best. I can only settle for that from myself. I used to think so much about scoring, but I'm just no longer interested in points. I scored a lot against Boston because that happened to be the way to win. I really don't think they have anyone to guard me. But I've always wanted to be appreciated for being more than a shooter."
West's career is marred only by injury—to his legs, hands, nose and what all. It frustrates him to have to work his way back into shape two or three times a year, and the laughs were only forced as he lay on the training table before the sixth game and tried to be a good sport about it one more time.
Near the end of the second game he had taken a chop on his right thumb, but rather than prepare an alibi he kept it secret so that the Celtics would not know. After the third game, when everyone had figured he had had an off night because he had scored only 24 points, he stood under the el outside the Boston Garden and only reluctantly withdrew his hand from his pocket. The swelling was noticeable. "The other players know, and you're satisfied with that," he had said earlier. "You can be satisfied with what they think of you."
The hand had healed sufficiently by the next game, but then he pulled a hamstring on an insignificant play late in the fifth game, and surely he had to be thinking that it was going to be the Celtics again, champions one more time, when the Lakers lost the sixth game with him making only 26 points on one leg.
Siegfried, who himself began each game by adjusting his bad leg on the bench so that his pulled hamstring could rest for a while on a heating pad, spoke in admiration and kinship before the final game. "He is the master," Siegfried said. "They can talk about the others, build them up, but he is the one. He is the only guard."
"Do you spell that with a 'u' or just plain 'g-o-d'?" Satch Sanders asked.
"You know what I mean," Siegfried said. "His tribute is what the players think of him. We've played at about the same time but, if we hadn't, the one player I'd most like to see win a championship is Jerry West."
It is West's curse, though, that he and the Lakers must try to intrude on somebody else's era. And what makes it the Celtics'? One remembers Russell, an arm around Havlicek, helping him off the court when he was injured in the third game. "I was thinking only that he might be hurt badly," Russell told reporters. "You see, first, these men are my friends. Above all, we are our friends."