Quadruple overtime, 106 personal fouls, players fighting players, players fighting the police. The winning team shot 41% from the floor but sank 37 straight free throws. One player scored seven points in the first half but ended up with 50. When it was all over, 12 players had fouled out, two had been thrown out and the hometown P.R. man nearly passed out.
This wild game was the second and deciding contest in the first-round playoffs following the 1952-53 NBA season for Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics. Back then, the Celtics had to scramble for playoff berths just like everyone else, and in this game Boston and archrival Syracuse were battling for the right to meet the Eastern champion Knicks.
The heated rivalry centered around Boston's Bob Cousy and Syracuse's Paul Seymour. Auerbach recalls that Seymour always "played it rough" with Cousy despite the coach's loud protests. "I warned everybody—Syracuse, the league, the press—if Seymour kept it up, we would just have to 'do unto others,' " says Auerbach.
In the early '50s, strategic fouls were part of every team's defensive strategy. In certain situations, when your man crossed the midcourt line, you fouled him. He got only one shot, and even if it went in, you got the ball and a chance for a field goal. But not all fouls were strategic. Some of them were manifestations of the rough play characteristic of the era. "Today players normally try to avoid fights," says Cousy. "Why risk getting hurt and jeopardizing a fat, long-term contract? Second, because of the Players' Association and the anti-management stance that has developed with the advent of agents, the players view each other as colleagues, not as enemies."
March 5, 1979
Such was not the case on March 21, 1953, when the Celtics and the Nationals met in crowded Boston Garden. Syracuse quickly ran off to an 8-0 lead, but Boston went in front 22-21 at the end of the first quarter when Cousy threw in a 30-footer at the buzzer. Seymour, as expected, had been all over Cousy, so Auerbach put burly Bob Brannum into the lineup to do the same unto Syracuse's big gun, Dolph Schayes. At 3:47 of the second period, Round 1 began. After mutual elbowing and shoving, Schayes and Brannum squared off and threw enough punches to get whistled out of the game. When Boston policemen charged onto the court to break up the brawl, Round 2 began. Syracuse's Billy Gabor took exception to police interference and mixed it up with the cops. After five minutes the melee subsided and the game continued—but so did the roughness. While there weren't any fights, lots of fouls were called on both teams—lots of fouls.
At the half Boston trailed 42-40. The Celtics led 62-59 at the end of the third period and, as regulation time ran out, Boston trailed 77-76. But Cousy had been fouled at the buzzer. He converted the free throw, and the game went into overtime. In the first of the four extra periods, Cousy scored six of Boston's nine points, but Syracuse kept pace. "The strategy was to get the ball to Cousy," recalls Auerbach. "If they fouled him, fine. Five of their guys had fouled out. One had been ejected. And of the five guys they had on the floor, three had six or more personals. The only reason they were in the game was that the rules won't let you play with fewer than five men. If one of those three fouled Cousy, it was an automatic technical—a two-shot."
When the game went into overtime No. 2, Boston owner Walter Brown left his box to have coffee in his office. He couldn't take the pressure any longer. His public-relations man, Howie McHugh, was stretched on the floor, overcome by excitement. Cousy has called it "perhaps the most draining game I've ever played."
The second overtime ended with the score 90-90. The Celtics were also down to five men as the third overtime began, and four of those already had five fouls. With only 18 seconds left in the period, the Celtics trailed 97-95. Cousy was fouled and sank two free throws—the foul shot and the tech—to tie the score. Syracuse then threw in a basket. Boston took a time-out with three seconds left. The ball was in bounded to Cousy; he tried a 25-foot push shot and it went in. It was 99-all. Quadruple overtime.
In the fourth extra period Chuck Cooper of Boston picked up his sixth personal. Syracuse would now get two free throws every time Cooper committed a non-shooting foul. Cooper's sixth personal seemed to revive Syracuse. The Nats rang up five straight points and quickly it was 104-99 Syracuse with 3:30 left. But Cousy drew another foul, made the free throw, tipped in a missed shot seconds later, stole a National pass and scored on a lefthanded backhand layup—104-104. With 2:32 left, Boston's John Mahnken sank a free throw. Kenny Rollins did the same. Boston was up by two, 106-104. For Syracuse the game was out of reach. Final score: 111-105.
The list of records set in this one game is spectacular. Cousy ended up with 50 points, breaking George Mi-kan's playoff mark of 47 and Ed Macauley's Garden record of 46. His 30-for-32 performance from the line still stands as a record for either a playoff or a regular-season game. At one point in overtime, Cousy sank 18 straight. Twelve men had fouled out: seven for Syracuse, five for Boston. Another record. The 106 personals were the most ever in a playoff game. The teams also set records for free-throw attempts (128) and free throws made (108) that are still in the books. Boston's record of 57 conversions will probably never be broken, given the current rules.
Though the Celtics went on to drop three out of four to the Knicks in the semifinals, it was anticlimactic. The 1952-53 season was the first time Boston had ever made it past the opening round, and of course there was always next year. And the next. It was an auspicious beginning for the Celtic dynasty.