The first five weeks of the new professional basketball season were almost exactly like the first five weeks of the professional basketball season last year. Almost, but not quite. The Boston Celtics once again have run away from everyone in the Eastern Division, and the Los Angeles Lakers have again stumbled through their first few games and then gotten back in stride. There are, however, several interesting trends that bear watching, and the first concerns the proud Celtics themselves.
At the end of last week Boston's record was 11-1, approaching the finest start that any team has had in the 18 years of the NBA. The best ever, naturally, also was accomplished by Boston, when the Celts won 14 of their first 15 games in 1957 and easily went on to win their division. Boston usually gets off to a quick jump, and one big reason—though a lot of people refuse to believe it—is Arnold (Red) Auerbach.
Call him "Whispering Red" Auerbach this year. He seems at peace with the world and the referees. When he sits on the bench he resembles a man in the cockpit of an iceboat, gliding across the lake with the wind at his back and warm joy visible ahead. After losing Bob Cousy to retirement, the Celtics were supposed to be ripe for the taking this year. This notion seemed confirmed when they lost five of their last six exhibition games. But Auerbach was playing his exhibitions as exhibitions, tearing his team apart and putting it back together, trying a sprocket here and a wing nut there. He got Willie Naulls from the San Francisco Warriors, and one day, after a hard workout, Willie sat on a bench, sucking on an orange, and told the world that he had "hustle scars." Auerbach drilled and drilled his team. Before the season began, he called for an intrasquad game, sat back with his whistle in his pocket and watched. "It was one of the greatest basketball games I have ever seen," he says. It was also one of the roughest, and it ended in a huge melee of flung fists and loose elbows. Auerbach smiled. Obviously the Celtics themselves had heard continuously since last spring that without Cousy they would be in trouble, and this had grated.
Tom Heinsohn, for years Cousy's roommate and best friend, explains it this way: "Cooz was great, and we always looked to him—looked up to him, too. But guys like Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey and all the rest wanted to prove that we could win without Cooz, and we dug in a little harder. But Red really pushed us."
Added incentive for Boston was the threat of a Cincinnati team that needed only a good big man up front to be a contender—and got a great one in Jerry Lucas. The second-place Royals, playing more early-season games than the Celtics to take quick advantage of Lucas' drawing power, got off to a bad start. Last week their record was 9-7—but 10 of their games had been with the Celtics, the surprisingly improved San Francisco Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Royals have not yet fully adapted to Lucas, and Lucas has not yet adapted himself to the pro game. In addition. Jack Twyman broke his hand and, while he mends, the Royals lose 19.8 points a game from their attack. Jack McMahon, the new Royal coach, is still trying to discover how best to use the one-two punch of Lucas and Oscar Robertson against different teams, and he probably will not succeed until the Royals play around the league a few times.
Meanwhile Lucas' presence has been a shot in the arm to the whole NBA. Attendance in Cincinnati has more than doubled, and five of the eight top crowds so far were attracted by the Royals and Lucas.
Although he still has some problems to solve, Lucas is third in the league in rebounding, with an average of 17.0 per game. The two players ahead of him are Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. He is high in foul shooting (82%), has 47 assists (remarkable for a front-court player), is 11th in scoring (16.7 points per game) and second in shooting percentage (.497). All those ahead of him in every department are veterans, most of them with at least three years' experience.
"There is no doubt about it," Lucas says. "I'm having trouble adjusting. When I was playing at Ohio State I always had my back to the basket, and I was reluctant to look up. I could tell where I was and what my shooting angles were from the marks on the floor, but now I have to make myself look up and the marks are of no use to me anymore. But I enjoy the game more than I ever did before. You know that you are not going to win 80 games in this league. You do a thing wrong and you don't have time to worry about it or let it prey on your mind. I don't have the strain of studies; in college I was under pressure all the time. It was a funny kind of pressure, because we usually had one game a week, maybe two, and it built up and built up during the week, and the closer it got to game time the more nervous I would get." Two things have particularly fascinated Lucas about the NBA: "I thought that the referees allowed more body contact than they actually do. And I'm amazed by the defense. I've made it a point to ask some of the veteran players about it. They all agree that this year defense has become more important than ever before. Every team is tough." (A good example of this is the fact that the San Francisco Warriors, who scored under 100 points only nine times in 314 games prior to this season, have been held to less than 100 six times in their first 13 games in 1963.)
Lucas is having trouble with his right knee, as he sometimes did in college. The problem is tendonitis, and to strengthen the knee he built an exerciser in his basement made of weights, pulleys, ropes and two-by-fours. He sits in a chair and lifts the foot dozens of times. When he goes on the road he has no exerciser, so he takes a hotel wastebasket, fills it with phone books and other objects, winds a bandage around the basket and lifts it with his foot. "If I don't exercise it every two days it hurts," he says.
Actually, this seems to be the Year of the Knees in the NBA. Elgin Baylor, the superstar of the Lakers, has been handicapped so badly by calcium flakes in both knees that he hobbles around desperately and cannot rebound. "Since the season started," says Laker Coach Fred Schaus, "I haven't been able to talk to anybody about the club—only Baylor's knees. They hamper his jumping and he doesn't drive as much now as he once did, but when we get in trouble we go to him just the same. We just have to go along, day by day, game by game, and hope."
Baylor's knees have been X-rayed nearly a hundred times, and there appears to be nothing wrong organically. The pain is caused by three small bits of calcium above each kneecap. "It is possible," says Lou Mohs, the Laker general manager, "that they might dissolve just through exercise." An operation to remove them would take Baylor out of action for about six weeks, and the Lakers need him, even at three-quarter strength.
The secret of success
Four of the Boston Celtics also have knee troubles—John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Russell and Frank Ramsey. Two others, Jim Loscutoff and Johnny McCarthy, have had their knees operated on for the removal of cartilage. Such injuries, while not as prevalent as they are in football, are caused by the fast starts and stops and rapid lateral and backward movements players are required to make in basketball, to say nothing of the constant jumping.
Auerbach refuses to discuss the methods Boston uses in treating players. "I don't want to give away any secrets," he says. Buddy LeRoux, the Celtic trainer, dismisses the new types of knee braces that come out every year. The best, he claims, is "the Duke Simpson." Years ago a trainer by that name traveled around the country and taught others how to tape knees. He charged them $25. It takes 30 to 40 minutes to apply a Simpson job, and it requires a roll and a half of tape. "It goes from about halfway up the calf to halfway up the thigh," says LeRoux. "If a player gets knocked down he has to roll over before he starts to get up. It's bothersome, but it works."
This looks like a big year for Duke Simpson, wherever he is.