Last week's reunion of Boston Celtic oldtimers (page 40) also made for a reunion of one of SI's legendary teams—that of senior writer Frank Deford and former executive editor Jerry Tax, who together wrote or edited almost all of our pro basketball stories in the years in which the sport really caught on, which, of course, were also the glory years of the Celtics.
Tax, now 68, was our basketball writer from 1955 to '61, after which he edited our coverage until his promotion to assistant managing editor in 1970. Says Deford, who was 24 when Tax picked him to be our principal basketball writer in 1963, "It's easy to forget that back then basketball was a minor sport as far as SI was concerned—as far as everyone was concerned. It was still very much a regional game, and at the time it was considered a bit too sweaty for our readers. Jerry was the one who made the magazine understand how important it was, and could be."
Among Tax's memories, there are some that make the era seem even more distant than it is. An evening in St. Louis, for example, before the sixth game of the 1958 title series, when Bill Russell, who'd been left in Boston with a badly twisted ankle, flew in on a late plane and wanted to get some dinner. "We went to one place, a cafeteria," says Tax. "We waited in line, and when they got to Russ they simply said, 'We don't serve colored here.' " They tried another restaurant with the same result, and in the end Russell went to bed with an empty stomach.
Deford's Celtic assignments began with a story he and the team's Frank Ramsey wrote about the subtleties of gamesmanship in the NBA (SI, Dec. 9, 1963). "The Celtics were the first champions I ever covered," says Deford, "and I've compared them to many since then. At the beginning, I was scared to deal with Russell—he liked to test everybody, and he tested me. But he remains, to my mind, the greatest team athlete who ever played any sport, and Red Auerbach is as smart a coach and sports executive as I've ever seen."
January 14, 1985
"The important thing about those Celtics," says Tax, "is that they had a firm grasp of the fact that a team that plays together is nearly always going to beat one that doesn't. They played to the strengths of one another, complemented each other beautifully. They played together, unselfishly. Everything else was incidental, believe me."