A way off in future shock, or about the time basketball referees have perfected the 24-second picket line, somebody will uncover evidence of the demise of the Boston Celtics. How the rickety old Celtics came to the end of their championship banners and victory cigars. How John Havlicek finally turned 90 and Charlie Scott broke his neck and a shoulder as well as both legs. How Tom Heinsohn collapsed an entire row of benches during a fat attack and Dave Cowens bolted to sell cold cream to the Trobriand Islanders.
Of course, all of this may not happen until the next millennium. For today, tomorrow and maybe for as long as the 1977 NBA playoffs continue to make labor-relations news, it appears as if the same old Boston Celtics will be running past their injuries, gunning down their travails and outconfidencing everybody in sight.
"They come out, look at you and know they're going to win," says San Antonio Spur Coach Doug Moe of the men in green. "When a team knows it's going to win, it wins. The Celtics always have known."
They always have. And last week, after a season unequaled in turmoil and in desperate phone calls to the missing-persons bureau, there was Boston again in the thick of the playoffs. After flicking aside their first-round opponent, the Spurs, in straight sets, 104-94 and 113-109, the Celtics looked as good a bet as any to successfully defend a championship that in the past winter of their discontent seemed out of reach.
April 24, 1977
If Sunday's first game of their four-out-of-seven glamour series with Philadelphia was any indication, however, the NBA may have on its hands another Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed number. For after a puzzling afternoon of doing things like falling behind by 13 points in the first half and by nine points in the fourth quarter, after watching helplessly as Julius Erving (36 points) put on one of his quintessential playoff shows, the Celtics clawed back, caught Philadelphia and nailed the 76ers 113-111 when Jo Jo White's jump shot from the left baseline dropped as the final buzzer sounded.
Even the winners were startled by this turn of events. Havlicek, who was appearing in his 166th playoff game (a world record) and should be used to such things, joined in the jumping and hugging at center court. Cowens and Scott faced each other and wiggled away in a primitive dance. The Celtics didn't seem to want to leave the floor.
"That was the Kentucky shindig," said Cowens, who had dominated the inside with 21 points and 15 rebounds.
"That was happiness," said Scott.
If it is true, as some say, that the current Boston team is a patchwork bunch that hardly personifies The Celtic Way, it must be pointed out that the team didn't play together as a healthy unit until two weeks ago. That was when Scott came off the injured list to rejoin Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, the former UCLA tandem with the fragile psyches, and reacquaint himself with Cowens, who had missed 30 games himself while on sabbatical to a farm, a harness track, a toy store and a state of total confusion.
Suddenly everything fell into place. Gone were the stresses that prompted Havlicek, a 15-year veteran, to say he "felt like a stranger." Forgotten was the team meeting when Scott supposedly pointed a finger at Wicks and said, "The trouble is him! He's not a Celtic." While near the mark, the charge could hardly have come from a less orthodox Celtic than Scott, the tempestuous heaver of rainbows. Even Cowens might have laughed. If, that is, the redhead had not already packed up his knapsack and headed off in a truck to nowhere.
But all this was behind them last week, and what Boston did to San Antonio in their warmup mini-series—best two out of three—was what the Celtics have been doing for centuries: collect their egos, run the break, set their patterns, play aggressive defense and absolutely pound the Spurs into dust on the backboards.
"Maybe the team personality is different, but they look the same to me," said an old Celtic named Bob Cousy. "The fundamental stuff is there for the Celtics to be the most consistent team in the playoffs. If Cowens gets back his intensity on offense, they're going to sneak in again."
It is clear from his expressions and on-court attitude that Cowens has regained sufficient intensity since he returned to the team on his own terms. Yet, other things still are as important to him as basketball. A hack license, for example. The night after the Celtics' opening playoff victory in Boston, Cowens was seen driving taxicab No. 352 near Chinatown by a Boston Globe reporter, who flagged a ride and figured on a sure scoop. Only Cowens later left a note at a bar for a friend from the rival Boston Herald. "I think this story stinks, but handle it the way you want," he wrote. "P.S. I had six fares and made good tips."
Though San Antonio is a psychedelic outfit that lives on stretches of unconscious shooting, the Celtics had handled the Spurs 4-0 during the season by intimidating them with Cowens and Wicks, and they did more of the same last week. Perhaps playoff pressure and Celtic mystique are not merely catch-phrase rhetoric in the coaches' garden of verses after all, inasmuch as two statistics stood out.
Boston, which led the NBA in rebounding, beat the Spurs off the glass 72-50 and 58-50. San Antonio, which led the league in free-throw shooting percentage, made only 14 of 23 and 25 of 39, some 16 percentage points below the team average. "Mystique?" said Spur Guard George Karl as he walked into Boston Garden Tuesday night. "Sure there is. I'm a trivia guy and I always wonder whose uniform numbers those are hanging from the rafters."
Just then Havlicek walked up. "John, do you know all those numbers?" Karl asked.
"Know them?" said Havlicek. "I played with most of them."
The two games were much like the conversation, the Celtics parrying everything the Spurs had to offer—even what looked like an honest San Antonio effort to play defense in the opener. This came to naught when Scott and the remarkable playoff shooter, Jo Jo White, broke loose in the fourth quarter to combine for 25 points while the San Antonio star, 6'7" Guard George (Ice) Gervin, got deeper into foul trouble by committing charging fouls.
"When Ice gets mad, he charges," moaned Moe afterward. "I can see it coming." When Ice gets mad, he turns to slush, too. Gervin missed 12 of 21 shots.
Ultimately, San Antonio lost the offensive boards 21-13, mostly because Larry (Special K) Kenon and Mark Olberding did not block out Rowe and Wicks.
"If this is what the playoffs are about, I love 'em," said Wicks, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds in his postseason debut after six years in the pros.
In the Spur camp, meanwhile, all was gloom. The team had lost five of its final six regular-season games to blow the home-court advantage. Now it had dropped another to Boston. "It seems like we've been in a funeral for two weeks," said one player, "but we can't get to the graveyard."
Kenon, a sensitive soul, was still sullen over losing "Most Popular Spur" to Gervin in a fan vote. "This town has Gervinitis," he complained. "They don't recognize me enough. I'm the best player in the game."
"K's just K," drawled Gervin.
Although other NBA officials were striking, veteran Referee Richie Powers had worked the game in Boston. But for Friday's game in San Antonio the NBA sent two standby officials, Roger McCann, a former bartender at the Salty Dog on Long Island, and Don Durr, whose name, said a Spur, sounded "like some female tennis player."
"We got to get tough and bust some heads," said Moe, who conceded that his team's reputation for coming up short on competitiveness was richly earned.
The inexperience of the officials in the face of one of the league's more hostile crowds worked in favor of the home team as the Spurs came out jingle-jangle-jingling. Gervin bloodied Rowe's nose, and young Olberding sent Cowens sprawling as San Antonio scored the first eight points of the game. "Hey, Cowens," one fan screamed, "call me a taxi."
But, as Heinsohn was to say later, "We took their best shots and regrouped. My team does not roll over." White scored seven straight points and Boston slowly worked its will on the Spurs again.
Referees McCann and Durr soon lost all control of the infighting. Scott seemed particularly upset that his defensive work on Gervin was going unappreciated. In the second quarter Scott deliberately stood in front of Gervin—who was waiting to shoot a free throw—long enough to incur a team technical foul for "delay of game." In the third quarter Scott startled everybody by punching the ball away from Coby Dietrick, who was attempting to shoot the second of a two-for-one.
McCann nailed the Celtics with another delay-of-game technical, whereupon Scott blew up, used some magic words and was kicked out.
Dietrick had the most accurate description of what was happening: "Both teams trying to psych out two refs who are walking around blank, trying to figure how to get out of the building."
The Spurs cut Boston's 13-point lead to four late in the game by pressing the Scott-less Celtic backcourt. But White kept hiding behind screens and popping one or another of San Antonio's pitiful defenders. He ended up with 38 points and, as Cowens said, "made me look good in the assist column."
"Other teams we run," said Special K in a postmortem. "The Celtics run us. Did Jo Jo miss? I didn't see the man miss."
White didn't do too much missing in Philadelphia on Sunday, either, but he saved his best for last. In the first half the 76ers fought around the Boston picks, switched well and stymied the Celtic backcourt. Philly's Henry Bibby, the team's most consistent player all season, played masterful defense on White while Doug Collins scored 19 points as the 76ers took a 67-59 lead.
But the Sixers' fast break came to a halt in the final period, the home team going for more than seven minutes without a bucket. By that time White and Scott were back on target (they combined for 43 points) and Boston briefly went into the lead.
With 31 seconds to go and the score tied at 109, White hit a long jumper from behind a wall of screening Celtics. Boston got the ball back when Philadelphia missed two shots. But with 15 seconds remaining, Havlicek threw an in-bounds pass across the court and practically to New Jersey, and when Erving whirled underneath for the tying hoop (111-111) and was fouled, it looked like the 76ers' game again. But Doctor J missed his first free throw. Then he missed his second. There were six seconds left and the Celtics had one chance to win.
Make that three chances. White fired from the right. Off the rim. Wicks, who contributed 21 points and 13 rebounds, threw up a prayer, but Erving came out of the rafters to swat the ball away. "I thought we were going to overtime," said the Doctor.
Instead, White was going downtown. Having crossed all alone into the corner, Jo Jo came up with the loose ball and shot the winning 12-footer.
"That's just the business," said Erving. "You have a great day and still come up empty."
Dancing Davey Cowens was asked if he would be driving a cab away from the Spectrum. "I only got a license for one state," he said. But as this savage series raged on, both teams realized that the Boston Celtics were, indeed, in the driver's seat.