The New York Knickerbockers and Boston Celtics played to a standoff in the NBA's Atlantic Division last week, the Knicks winning at home despite a furious comeback by the Celts and Boston dissipating a big lead on its parquet floor before defeating New York in overtime. At week's end the Celtics were atop their division—just as they usually were until two seasons ago when the Knicks came on—with a 4½-game lead, and New York was finding, as so many teams had in the past, that when the season heads into its final two months playing even up with the Celtics is no way to catch them.
Today's Celts are a blend of smart, former champions—John Havlicek, Satch Sanders and Don Nelson—and good, fast youngsters, most notably Jo Jo White, Don Chaney and Dave Cowens (on cover with Walt Frazier). Their coach is Tommy Heinsohn, the old Boston bomber who once wore one of the league's bristliest brush cuts. Now he has his hair styled by a woman named Margo, he has become a painter of note and he is writing a novel. As he stomps around the bench, which is his wont, his girth, his sneer and his vocabulary give him the air of a Scollay Square bouncer. But Heinie's bluster is betrayed by his eyes, which at times seem glazed by doubts or revelatory of the artistic soul warring within.
Although it is unclear how much of the Celtics' eminence is due to their own prowess and how much to the incapacitation of Knick Center Willis Reed, the team certainly has regrouped faster than was expected when Bill Russell retired three years ago. But even if Boston continues to improve, the most Heinsohn can hope for is the award for best supporting actor; his old coach, Red Auerbach, is still the big wheel in the Hub. Throughout all the recent changes of ownership—there have been five since the revered Walter Brown died in 1964—and playing personnel, Auerbach has remained the franchise's most valuable asset. During the Celtics' championship years there was a perverse compulsion to downgrade Red's contributions. But there is no question, now that Auerbach is president and general manager and Russell is cackling and mumbling words of wisdom on national TV, that Red more than Vince Lombardi was the coaching genius of the age.
"Lombardi became a cult figure, Red never did," explains Boston's bright young assistant general manager, Jeff Cohen. "Red was obviously competitive, yelling at refs and things like that. Lombardi appeared to yell only at his own players, beating them to a frenzy. One is almost hallowed—he was doing what people imagine Rockne must have done in the locker room at halftime—but the other smacked a little too much of Brooklyn, of the gutter. I remember when I was about 10, Red came over to our house and I went outside to play ball against him. He held me by the pants, he pushed me, he knocked me down. And I remember my mother said to him after we had finished, 'You were just fooling with the boy?' 'No,' Red told her. 'I wanted to beat him.' "
Unsparing competitiveness remains Auerbach's outer shell. Peel it a little and underneath is a thick layer of self-esteem, an almost unimpeachable vanity about his extraordinary and unacknowledged triumphs. Of course, it is a convention that if one peels farther one encounters a liquid center. If so, Red keeps his sweet juices sealed behind tight gaskets. He has not mellowed as he has grown older.
Yet, unlike other reigning sports patriarchs, e.g. George Halas, Auerbach has not dominated his coaching successors, although in Heinsohn's case he wisely let out the leash an inch at a time. Throughout the years Heinsohn had been considered one of the least likely Celtics ever to come back and guide the team. But when Russell retired Heinsohn was there, and the most frequently mentioned candidates—Frank Ramsey, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman—were not. Says one observer: "I think Red hired Heinsohn because he respected his leadership abilities and because he thought he could mold him. He felt, I'd guess, that Heinsohn didn't know much about basketball."
In 1969, Heinsohn's first season, Auerbach stayed with the Celtics constantly, traveling to road games in the guise of a TV color man and showing up at practices. Heinsohn was getting a quick, tough course in basketball, and only a fool, which Heinie—a dean's list student at Holy Cross and one of the best insurance salesmen to ever whip out a ballpoint—isn't, would not have listened. That year was the team's worst since 1950, but last season, as Boston showed considerable improvement, Auerbach began to back off. Now he rarely travels and almost never attends practice.
One of the few workouts Auerbach watched this year occurred on Thanksgiving Day when he sought out companionship because he was unable to make it home to his family in Washington, D.C. Heinsohn greeted him with the threat of a $50 fine for bouncing a ball while the coach spoke, and from then on Red sat quietly to one side, occasionally exchanging racial repartee with Jo Jo White. At the conclusion of the session Auerbach made an off-color remark about Heinie's rumpled velour shirt, and Tom grabbed him with a bear hug from behind and growled, "Give up? Give up?" Red, his cheeks puffed full of air and his cigar sticking straight out, remained silent until he wiggled free of Heinsohn's hold without even dislodging his ash. "I'm not afraid of a man who can't do a lousy push-up," he said of Heinie, who cannot and never could do a lousy push-up.
Auerbach-Heinsohn confrontations are not always that amiable. Following home losses there are long, one-on-one talks in the training room, and the surmise is that Auerbach does most of the talking. Even after wins Red wanders into the dressing room and reminds Heinie of coaching touches, the absence of which Red had detected from his vantage point two rows up in Section 1. Says one local reporter: "I don't think anyone in Heinie's position could be totally his own man, not with Red always looking over his shoulder."
"I'm the coach," retorts Heinsohn. "I listen to Red if he's right, but I don't if he's not. For example, we've got a whole new offense that I thought up and put in myself. It's my offense even though we still run a few of his old plays in it."
Havlicek, for one, says things are different under Heinsohn. There is more discussion of tactics, including 25-minute pregame meetings, and more careful organization than in the days when Red would merely roll out the ball and let his team scrimmage. The emotional pitch has changed too, Heinsohn being more fiery. "Red had a switch somewhere inside," says Havlicek. "He could turn his emotions on and off." But, in a larger sense, the Celtics remain unaltered: their philosophy of play is still a running, aggressive one. This Heinsohn inherited from Auerbach and, in the end, Red's most enduring hold over the new Celts may be simply that he coached their coach.
The Knicks, however, are profoundly altered by the absence of Reed, who hasn't appeared in their last 38 games due to recurring tendinitis and, as he has admitted, may never play again.
Reed's condition prompted a flurry of trades by New York. Last summer the Knicks sent Cazzie Russell to the Warriors for Jerry Lucas, who now plays center. In November, New York traded its two best substitutes, Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth, to Baltimore for Earl Monroe. A deal for a high-priced guard was unlikely to solve the Knicks' pivot problem but it was to have been the first step of a two-step deal that never materialized. According to one NBA general manager, Monroe's presence was supposed to have enabled the Knicks to trade their best guard, Frazier, to Houston for the talented but moody center, Elvin Hayes. Happily for New York, the deal was called off. Only in recent weeks has the oft-injured Monroe been in shape to play effectively and he is still a substitute. Meanwhile, Frazier is enjoying his most brilliant season. He is averaging 25 points a game, his floor play has been the equal of any guard in the league, and it is largely due to him that the Knicks remain contenders.
But Boston would have been a strong challenger even if New York had Reed. Their main man is Havlicek, the NBA's second-leading scorer, who for the second straight season is playing more minutes than anyone else in the league, every moment of them in his inimitable whirling, nonstop style. "Are you slowing down?" he was asked last week. "I don't think so," he replied with a look of mild surprise. "Do you?" He has not, but recently he has suffered from typical mid-season miseries—an inexplicable pain in his shooting wrist and a black eye. "He got it up in Portland when the ref called him for fouling a guy's elbow with his eyeball," Heinsohn explains.
Aiding and abetting the front court of Havlicek and Sanders or Nelson are White and Chaney. Auerbach considers Jo Jo the equal of Sam Jones at guard and just behind Sharman when it comes to pure shooting ability. Chaney, who is 6'5" but has the arms and hands of a man 6'8", is the only regular who is big for his position. He is particularly important to the Celtic fast break; when he brings the ball down the middle he has the strength and size to pierce defenses. A poor outside shooter, Chaney is most effective as a driver and frequently scores layups off the break. More often he shovels the ball to White or Havlicek, who pop 10-footers over the defense drawn in to stop Chaney. He also plays fierce defense, perhaps too fierce; with an average of one foul for every seven minutes of court time he is frequently on the bench in foul trouble when Boston most needs him.
Cowens, who is 6'9", plays center with his own single-minded fierceness: bullying outbursts of leaps and spins that allow him to perform successfully against far taller men. Three weeks ago he outplayed both Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the All-Star Game, perhaps finally convincing those who said he was better suited to be a forward. "The people here want an ideal situation," Cowens says. "They want to have a 7' center who can play defense and board, play the Celtic-type center. There's not many of those guys around and even if we get one he better be able to shoot well and play forward because I'm not conceding my position to anyone."
Cowens does not concede much to life either. After finishing his undergraduate degree in criminology last summer, becoming something of an expert on the electric chair along the way, he immediately took off on a new tangent. He will spend more than 1,000 hours at a technical school this year learning to become an auto mechanic.
The Celtics' lack of size demands that they outrun their opponents, and they could not be better fitted for the task. "We're the only team in the NBA with real speed at every position," says Heinsohn. But the Celts are not a good pattern team and when their break slows they are vulnerable. That failing was evident in the 109-106 loss to the Knicks early last week. Boston's offense was alternately sluggish and sloppy the first half and at one point in the second period the Celts trailed by 20 points. Only some steady play by Nelson prevented the game from slipping out of reach before the half. Boston came out burning in the third period, but though they briefly surged ahead, they exhausted their offense. The Knicks recovered in the closing moments, winning on a desperate 20' shot by Dave DeBusschere followed by his tough defense on Nelson as the Celts tried a vain final play.
Three nights later the pattern was reversed in Boston, where the Celtics have little home-court edge when they play the Knicks. Boston is a city of college students—most of them, it must seem to the Celts, from New York. The Knicks have drawn the only two full houses for basketball at Boston Garden this season and most of the extra fans wave pro-New York banners and scream "Let's go, Knicks!" all game long. This time the Celtics shut them up quickly, breaking to a 16-point lead at the half. Boston's running game repeatedly streaked past the Knicks, and even its patterns worked smoothly to yield easy baskets on back-door plays and pick-and-rolls. Nelson, who entered the game for Sanders with 3:12 to play in the opening quarter, beat DeBusschere for 17 points.
Boston extended its lead to 19 on a rebound basket by Chaney early in the third period, but then New York's defense tightened. Jump switching around the Boston picks and screens, the Knicks forced the Celtics to take poor shots, and tipped away dribbles and deflected passes thrown under pressure. While Boston shot four for 18 in the first 10:46 of the fourth quarter, Monroe was swirling for 13 points, hitting on six of nine from the floor. His foul shot tied the score at 106-106 and Frazier put the Knicks in front 20 seconds later with a jumper following his rebound of an off-target Bill Bradley corner shot.
Up to that point White had had a miserable game, missing 15 of 20 shots. But with 14 seconds remaining, he fired in a 15-footer to tie the score. Seconds later he deflected Monroe's one-hander from the foul line to put the game into overtime. White scored seven points in the extra period, including a dazzling fall-away jumper over a lunging Lucas that gave the Celts an early four-point edge. It was a lead Cowens protected with fury. With 1:20 to play, he leaped across the lane to block Bradley's open baseline shot, then went downcourt to seal the win with a tip-in of his own miss.
In the locker room afterward, Heinsohn was busy explaining how the Knicks' defense had stymied his team in the second half when Auerbach walked past the crowd of reporters and asked the coach to join him in one corner. It was the Celtics' most important win of the year and certainly their most stirring, but undoubtedly along the way a few touches had been overlooked.