As the season neared the one-quarter mark, several things were readily apparent in the National Basketball Association. First, the league was still running its teams ragged with hop-skip-and-jump scheduling from Boston to Los Angeles and back again. Second, only a few rookies had been able thus far to make even a small impact on the league. Last, it will take more than the efforts of any single team to keep Boston and St. Louis from winning the division titles again.
However, it may not be quite so easy this time around for the aging Celtics and the stand-pat Hawks. There has been some general beefing-up around the league, particularly in the Western Division, where some rookies have appeared to support established stars. After the first six weeks of play this is the picture:
Backed up by the best bench in the league, Boston's first five is still wearing down the opposition with a fast-breaking attack and Bill Russell's defensive skills. Then, when Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman begin to tire, the younger, speedier and equally effective Jones boys, K.C. and Sam, come on to continue the assault. After a so-so start, the Celtics streaked for nine straight, mainly because the remarkable Sharman, at 34, is shooting better than ever, Cousy has lost none of his cunning and ball-handling magic, and Russell dominates the boards as if he owned them. St. Louis Coach Paul Seymour says: "Russell can demoralize a team like no other player. He bats down so many shots that he rattles your best players. Russell is the only man who could earn his pay without scoring a point all season."
Philadelphia, the one team with a chance to catch the Celtics in the East, won its first nine games, then slipped a bit when Wilt Chamberlain's failure at the foul line began to hurt. However, Wilt is averaging 38 points a game, even better than last year's record-breaking pace, and no one has been able to contain his rebounding. But Coach Neil Johnston is a realist: "I think we'll do all right with Boston, but somebody will have to help us beat them."
One thing is sure. The help isn't likely to come from Syracuse or New York. Lacking a big man, the Nationals have to run to be effective. They haven't been able to do it often enough. Dolph Schayes, although still a potent scorer, is just a step slower, and Syracuse sorely misses retired sharpshooter George Yardley. Back court men Hal Greer, Larry Costello and Dick Barnett are racy and aggressive, but they have been inconsistent.
New York is suffering desperately from front-office ineptness, which has been demonstrated in recent draft choices and bad trades. Only Willie Naulls and Richie Guerin looked like first-class pros, while the Knicks bumbled and stumbled to 15 defeats in their first 17 games. Dick Garmaker and Coach Carl Braun came out of retirement to strengthen the sagging backcourt, and the horror ended temporarily when the Knicks put together four straight, but they need more succor than they can get from hot-and-cold Kenny Sears and rookies Bob McNeill, Dave Budd and Darrall Imhoff.
Basketball's best front line—Bob Pettit, Clyde Lovellette and Cliff Hagan—has kept St. Louis comfortably ahead in the West. Pettit's magnificence off the boards and his soft-touch shots, Hagan's tenaciousness and Lovellette's bludgeoning make up for weak spots in the back-court, which may disappear when Fred La Cour and Len Wilkens learn the ways of the pros.
Elgin Baylor, after carrying the load practically alone in Minneapolis, has some help in Los Angeles. The quick maturing of rookie Jerry West and the resurgence of Jim Krebs, Hot Rod Hundley and Frank Selvy under new Coach Freddy Schaus have given Baylor a chance to roam more than usual, and he is challenging Chamberlain for the scoring lead. Despite only middling success (12-13) so far, the Lakers could be a threat to St. Louis.
Hustle has replaced lassitude in Detroit, where newcomers Jackie Moreland and Don Ohl, a former NIBL player, have given the Pistons some scoring punch they sadly lacked a year ago. Gene Shue and Bailey Howell are among the hottest hands in the league, but there is a decided drop-off in rebounding when Coach Dick McGuire has to rest Moreland and Walt Dukes. As a result, Detroit hasn't yet been able to beat either St. Louis or Los Angeles.
Cincinnati, after a fast start that can be credited to the considerable talents of Oscar Robertson, has tailed off and now looks like the same old Royals. Oscar's shooting, playmaking and rebounding have been big league, but the rest of the Royals suffer by comparison. Even Jack Twyman slumped badly enough to lose his starting status briefly as new Coach Charlie Wolf groped for a way to stop the slide back to the cellar.
Boston, after surviving some lapses to beat Western Division leader St. Louis 119-109, was rarely more devastating than when it played Detroit two nights later. With Bill Sharman and Bill Russell scoring 24 points, the Celtics did everything but run the Pistons off the court in a 39-23 first quarter and trimmed them 125-110 for their ninth straight. But the bubble burst against suddenly aroused New York. Puffed up by their third straight victory, over Detroit 118-107, the Knicks successfully employed their favorite strategy against Boston-big men out, little men in—and beat the Celtics 116-111 for the first time since last February. However, the Knicks' streak, too, soon came to an end. They lost to St. Louis 139-133 and Syracuse 130-113. Meanwhile, Philadelphia was still within reaching distance of first-place Boston in the East. The Warriors took two out of three from Los Angeles (112-137, 122-121, 117-114), but lost to the Hawks 131-127. Syracuse also began to move up, with four in a row over Cincinnati 129-105, 137-126, St. Louis 135-126 and New York 130-113.
FALLEN BOSTONIAN Bill Sharman keeps the ball bouncing as St. Louis' Si Green ponders next move. But Sharman recovered neatly, passed off to teammate Frank Ramsey (23).