Following on the heels of the rumor that Beatle Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by an impostor came the shocking reports out of Boston last week concerning another lefthander. There was evidence, not mere rumor, that after 13 years and 11 world championships Bill Russell was indeed missing from the Celtics. Apparently, Red Auerbach has spirited away a center named Henry Finkel from San Diego to assume Russell's place on the court, and has cleverly disguised Finkel in a green-and-white Celtic uniform. In addition, Red has put a State Mutual of America insurance salesman from Natick, Mass., named Tom Heinsohn, on the bench to take over Russell's responsibilities there.
Preposterous as all this might sound to a man just back from outer space, members of the Russell-is-indeed-gone cult have assembled facts to support their belief. They point to page one of the NBA statistics, which shows that Wilt Chamberlain is shooting more and with confidence again. Sensitive listening devices prove conclusively that Boston's opponents are hearing 96% fewer footsteps this year. And—alas—the Celtics now get beaten every time they play basketball.
"Even a train must stop," says Red Auerbach, admitting all and going on to suggest that trains that refuel with good draft choices proceed again. But it will never be the same again in Boston. The real question is not how good the Celtics still are, but whether the Celtic mystique will survive beyond the demise of the dynasty. With Russell gone, and Sam Jones too, Auerbach remains as the only direct link to all the glorious past. Heinsohn is there, but he was gone for a long time; Satch Sanders is the patriarch now, but he arrived years after the championship run had been well established.
The players who made the tradition are not only gone but secure in new identities. Bob Cousy is Cincinnati. Bill Sharman is the ABA. Frank Ramsey is Kentucky rich. A bunch of the others have college jobs. And Auerbach and his players were all that the tradition ever comprised anyway. The Celtics differed from other athletic dynasties in that they never held the fancy of their community nor represented a single proud ownership. The Celtic organization was once the corporate presence of one honored man, Walter Brown, but any semblance of management continuity disappeared with his death in 1963, and since then the world champions have been nothing more than strumpets of high finance, passed on from one balance sheet to another. Presently they are an acquisition of something called Trans National Communications, Inc., another property just like Wireline Radio, East West Films and Sam Senter Farms. Moreover, the Celtics have always been treated with indifference in Boston. Unlike the Canadiens, the Packers, the Colts or even the Yankees, the Celtics have had to find their only real community on the court. They have been the Basketball Celtics.
November 3, 1969
That the team has always been so unified on the floor is somewhat contradictory, too, since by nature most of the stars have been proudly independent. There have been few cliques. Candor was valued so highly that Russell was often violently reproached by his players when he appeared to be sluggish last year. Physical expression has never been inhibited, either. There have been some dandy scrimmages over the years, and last season such an unlikely twosome as old Sam Jones and Don Nelson slugged it out one day. By the same token, there still is a keen awareness of the order of things. When Emmette Bryant stopped Bad News Barnes—who is hot-tempered and then gets distracted from the business at hand by thoughts of revenge—from fighting a Detroit Piston last week, Bryant's concern was the team. "Hey, man, if you fight, you can't get us no place," he scolded.
Wayne Embry, who played with and against the Celtics and who is now director of recreation for the city of Boston, is a well-qualified observer. "The base was always mutual respect," he says. "When you joined the Celtics, they already knew what you could do and what you could not. They showed respect for what you were capable of, and didn't concern themselves with what you weren't capable of."
With this background and despite the unfortunate start the team has had, Heinsohn may have an easier job as coach than Auerbach will have as steward of the tradition. After four straight losses by last weekend, the team was down, losing confidence and beginning to press. But in a way there is more enthusiasm than last year.
"These guys know that everybody is really out now to rub it into us," Heinsohn says, "and we lost a couple tough ones right away. Any other team might have become completely demoralized, but they haven't. But why do you think I took this job? I could spend a lifetime coaching and never develop the kind of spirit I walked into right away."
Heinsohn can speak with considerable authority on the subject of spirit, because when he played, Auerbach often made him the recipient of criticism that should have been directed at other more sensitive players. Red would chew Heinsohn out for every conceivable sin, and then conclude amiably, "And that goes for the rest of you guys, too."
The only thing about Heinsohn that truly irked Auerbach was his conditioning, or his lack of it. He once called Heinsohn "the oldest 27-year-old body in the history of sports." Heinsohn smoked a pack a day the whole time he was playing. On the rare occasions that he tried to give cigarettes up he would gain so much weight that Auerbach would beg him to start again. In his retirement Heinsohn has solved this problem by smoking and gaining weight at the same time.
Auerbach, cigar in hand, comes down to watch his pupil conduct practice, standing there beside him like a professor emeritus. Heinsohn has the Celtics running fast breaks, over and over. The image of the dashing, roaring Celtics of his heyday is obviously implanted firmly in Heinsohn's mind, but the strategy is not simply some vain reflection of his youth. The whole league is running more, and Heinsohn is convinced the Celtics must do the same to get back, into contention. He screams an obscenity as the Celtics blow another break. "I'd like to see five baskets in a row off the break. Five baskets—that's all."
A pass goes awry. "Five shots in a row," Auerbach mutters.
"Yeah, I'd be happy just with five in a row," Heinsohn bellows.
Success on the break is predicated on getting a quick cutlet pass to a guard, and few men have ever approached Russell's mastery of that art. Finkel has actually played quite well since coming to the Celtics, and he does not brood about fate casting him to follow Russell's act. He is industrious and a good shooter. He got 19 points and 17 rebounds against Atlanta, but he cannot make that quick outlet pass often, and his replacement, Barnes, has no gift at all for the move. As a result, early on, Heinsohn gave up much hope of achieving the classic two-on-one type of break. Instead, he now works toward getting the whole team upcourt fast, looking for 4-on-3, maybe even 5-on-4, or finding the trailer open for a quick jump shot.
Russell's talent was always difficult to assess completely, and now that he is gone new insights into his value are appearing. It seemed ironic, for example, that the Celtics, although losing, outrebounded the opposition in their first three games. Larry Siegfried, who succeeded Heinsohn as Auerbach's whipping boy and has the most active and inquisitive basketball mind on the team, mulled over the perverse rebound figures. "Everybody has always assumed that outrebounding the other team was vital," he said, "but now I'm beginning to think that total rebounds are not as important as who gets the rebounds. That's what really signifies how a team is playing. We outrebounded Baltimore, but almost all of their rebounds were going to Unseld or Johnson. Their guards anticipate this and start to flare all the way to half court as soon as a shot goes up."
"They get you thinking defense when you're still playing offense," Bryant added. And that, of course, is how opponents used to talk about the Celtics when Russell was there.
As might be expected, the Celtics have had trouble adjusting to playing without Russell's strength in key areas. "They're not boxing out on rebounds—it's like they thought he was still around," Auerbach says. Also, Finkel has found that his toughest problem is dealing with so many opponents being funneled down the middle. That was what the Celtics always did when they had Russell playing goalie.
But Russell has also been missed more than might have been anticipated in the set offense, where his role was often viewed as rather insignificant. The Celtics are still using the seven master plays (with options) that Auerbach began devising in the 1940s. Most of the plays involve the center, who handles the ball, sets the picks or both. Timing is so vital that even though Russell had run the plays for a decade, they would go all to pieces whenever he stopped practicing regularly. It takes very little to throw the plays off. Finkel, though left-handed like Russell, is more of an outside shooting threat. When he sets up on the high post, the percentages call for the man guarding him to overplay to Finkel's left side. Just this slight change all but ruins the chances of success for such standbys as No. 1 (Sam's old favorite). No. 2 and No. 22, since the defensive man is exactly where the shooter is supposed to be. Nor is Finkel agile enough to compensate for this.
"Russ was so smart and we played together for so long." says John Havlicek, "that he always knew where we were. I mean he knew where we were liable to be, depending on the several ways the defense might react. He had such good hands and was such a good passer. Now we're getting the ball two or three feet away from where we used to."
But sometimes it also seems that these technical, mechanical problems are not nearly as significant as the simple fact that the Celtics are suddenly making mistakes—walking, three-second violations, wild passes, stepping inbounds before throwing the ball in. They had 81 turnovers in their first four games. Is that also because Russell is gone, or is it the first crack in the mystique, the first glimmer that the Basketball Celtics will become the Trans National Communications, Inc. Celtics?
The team's first draft choice, Jo Jo White, a superb backcourt man, is sitting on the bench in Marine uniform as the Celtics lose. He is on furlough, will be released from active duty on December 17, and everybody becomes more aware of that date with each defeat. So maybe the future starts then, or maybe next week, or maybe not at all this season. The past is easier to reckon with. It is arrayed above Jo Jo White on the ceiling of the Boston Garden; all the pennants, from 1957 on, and the banners with the uniform numbers of the Celtic stars who have retired. It is a bold display of pride, and to date nothing has been able to obscure it but the smoke that drifts up from the stands during the action.