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After Boston lost three straight games on the road with three of its stars in bandages and a fourth on the recovery list, the rest of the league was hopeful. Now ask Philadelphia if the champ is still alive

In a year when the boys are wearing the long hair, the Yankees finish in the second division and Texas loses three football games in a row, a man looks for verities to cling to. He looks to Boston. And there he finds a million sports fans declaiming as one: As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow over Plymouth Rock, the Celtics will win the championship of the National Basketball Association, just as they have done for seven years in a row.

Bostonians, of course, need to believe this. They are burdened by the ice hockey Bruins, the football Patriots and the baseball Red Sox. Something has to work. That leaves it up to the Celtics. And last Saturday, after their worst start in 10 years, in a game as furiously fought and fast-paced as a playoff final, the Celtics beat their toughest Eastern Division rival, reaffirming at least one verity in a heretical year.

The Celtics were bought in the off season by New York's Ruppert brewery (the same outfit that owned the Yankees in Babe Ruth's heyday), but that did not change things very much. Any opponent silly enough to drive toward Boston's basket would still encounter Bill Russell and have the ball smashed down his throat. K. C. Jones would harass rivals into silly errors for one more year before taking over the head coaching job at Brandeis. The other Jones, Sam, would bank-shoot a zillion points, and John Havlicek would come off the bench to play either forward or guard and score his 20. And when victory was clinched long before the buzzer, Coach Red Auerbach would sit back to gloat and light up his cigar. This was gospel. As Havlicek put it, "When you get a group of athletes used to winning, losing just isn't right."

The Celtics opened the season at the Boston Garden and won two straight, beating the Cincinnati Royals and Los Angeles Lakers by four points apiece. True, Auerbach had to save his stogies for the locker room, because the games were close, but Russell had 36 rebounds in one game, 29 in the next. Sam Jones scored 33 and 30. It looked as though the Celtics were breaking out of the starting gate as fast as in the last four years, when after 10 games they were 9-1, 8-2, 9-1 and 10-0.

Then they ventured outside New England, and the crash was as loud as if Russell had tumbled off a 10-foot stepladder. St. Louis beat them by 10 points. They went on to Cincinnati and a five-point loss, mainly because of a great performance at both ends of the court by the Royals' Jerry Lucas. The next game of the road trip, in Detroit, was a disaster. Boston led by 16 at one point but still blew the game, even though the Pistons are probably the worst team in the NBA. It was the Celtics' first loss to Detroit in 14 games. Auerbach held a post-game meeting with his players and riddled a few eardrums with the kind of talk he usually reserves for officials and his other natural enemies. "I wanted to get a few things clarified," he said.

"He really gave it to us," said one player. "Things will be different now."

Still, hopeful fans and players in other NBA cities began to ask, perhaps a trifle early in a long season, "What's the matter with the Celtics?" The Celtics themselves believe the main trouble was the two-week training camp at Babson Institute in Wellesley, Mass. Not that they have anything against Babson—except that it is an all-male school—but it was probably the most accident-prone camp in the team's history. Agreeing with this, Trainer Buddy LeRoux also insists, "We've always had a lot of injuries. On all championship ball clubs this will happen because of the extra effort that a champion puts into his game. Look at the New York Yankees and the Montreal Canadiens."

At Babson, Tom Sanders, the finest defensive forward in the league, leaped to block a shot, was bumped from the side by a rookie and turned head over sneakers. He landed on the back of his neck and right shoulder, suffering a considerable amount of muscle damage and severe bone bruises. He missed all but two days of camp and will not be 100% effective for another month. Forward Ron Bonham tore ligaments in his left foot and had a double dislocation of the thumb on his shooting hand. Willie Naulls tore a hamstring muscle, and John Havlicek suffered a muscle separation in his left thigh. When Havlicek's leg was X-rayed doctors found he had a "big piece of calcium on the back of the femur" from some unremembered high school injury. He will have to wear a specially built thigh pad the rest of his career. Seven-footer Mel Counts, tuning up his defense by trying to guard a teeny backcourt man, fell and broke his right wrist and has yet to play in either an exhibition or regular game.

Bad luck hounded the team in other ways. Sam Jones's car was forced off the road on the way to the Boston airport, and he barely managed to steer it between two poles. And a suitcase containing Havlicek's thigh pad was stolen. The theft got as much publicity in town as the Brink's job, but the suitcase and pad turned up a few days later at Boston's South Station.

The retirement of Forward Tom Heinsohn could not be discounted easily either. Always a tough offensive rebounder and a clutch point-getter, he had rarely been given credit for his alert ball-sniping. He was just 31 in August but insisted he wanted to quit to give full time to his insurance business, though he hinted that he would return if alma mater got in trouble. Heinsohn has not worked out, however, and is nowhere near playing shape. "We're going to miss Tommy," said Auerbach, "and I got no help in the draft." As a dim hope to partially fill the vacancy, Auerbach acquired Don Nelson, who had been put on waivers by Los Angeles.

Age, too, seemed to be a Boston liability. Of the five starters, K. C. Jones is 33, Sam Jones 32, Naulls and Russell 31 and Sanders 28—the oldest group of regulars in the league. Were they slower? Could they recover from injuries as quickly as formerly? Russell scoffed at such questions. "You guys have been saying that we're getting old for the past five years now," he told the press, "and still we keep winning. It's going to be the same this year."

None of the other Celtics were in need of tranquilizers either. "I don't think there's anything to be alarmed about," said Havlicek. "There's no worry, not yet," said K. C. Jones. "Once we start worrying, then we're in trouble. You have to have that confidence." Auerbach fretted least of all. "After those three losses everybody panicked but my players and me," he said.

Red was so confident that he took off most of last week to visit his family in Washington, to deliver two elder-statesman speeches in Tennessee and to work on his autobiography, due in the bookstalls next fall. (His first work, Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach, has sold 600,000 copies and has been translated into Italian, Polish, Rumanian and Russian. If the next Russian Olympic basketball coach wears wild sports jackets and gripes constantly at the referees, the world will know why.) In the boss's absence Russell ran a series of tough practices at the Cambridge YMCA.

In one scrimmage Ron Bonham was playing against Willie Naulls. Both are normally as mild-mannered as Clark Kent. In fact, Bonham had been razzed because he had not always fared well last season as a rookie in the NBA's cruel initiation rites of shoving, hacking, elbowing and other humiliations borrowed from the middle of the Chicago Bears' line. In the rough play this day Naulls lost his temper after catching one too many elbows and started punching. Their teammates separated them, and Bonham stalked off the court toward the locker room.

Russell ordered him back, apparently to stage a handshake ceremony, but the combatants started bickering again and Bonham hit Naulls in the face. Again teammates had to step in. The two were finally cooled off and went through the rest of the workout without incident. If the Celtics were not worried, they were at least edgy and anxious to prove something to themselves as well as the rest of the league.

Friday night they did, beating the Baltimore Bullets 129-118 for their first road victory of the season. Naulls, none the worse for his boxing exhibition, scored 28 points, and Sam Jones added 27, mostly in the second half. Now Boston was 4-3 but still third in the Eastern Division.

Saturday night in the Boston Garden the Celtics met the first-place team, the Philadelphia 76ers. If something besides injuries and Heinsohn's absence was wrong with the Celtics, it certainly would show up in this game. Even if nothing else developed, those two handicaps could easily prove crucial against Philadelphia, which had always battled the Celtics on even terms and now had a strong, hustling rookie in Billy Cunningham and a new backcourt man, Wally Jones, who could shoot nearly as well as teammate Hal Greer and could run a sparkling fast break. Every NBA team, sick to death of the perennial champions, was eager to exploit Boston's supposed weakness. This was especially true of the 76ers. They had lost the seventh and final game of the Eastern playoffs last year by a single point when Havlicek anticipated a last-seconds out-of-bounds play and intercepted the pass.

A capacity crowd wedged into the Garden, leaving hundreds stranded outside. The fanatics down in Philly watched on television. It was a natural. There was Russell vs. Chamberlain in a duel of the $100,000 pivotmen. Their various and vocal supporters had always argued over which was better; now they were debating which had the fatter wallet. If the 76ers were bitter, the Celtics resented the fuss over Philadelphia's early victories. "Philadelphia hasn't done anything yet," Auerbach said. "They've won two games at home and one on the road. I don't think that's so much. What is this, anyway?" It was a good buildup for the game, that's what.

From the tip-off, both teams played as if it were the final game of the playoffs all over again instead of an early-season conditioner. Russell and Chamberlain batted so many balls away from their respective baskets that it sometimes looked like a two-man volleyball game. The Celtics jumped off to a 13-6 lead in the first quarter, but Naulls felt his injured hamstring hurting again and Sam Jones reinjured the little finger of his shooting hand. Both stayed in the game. Boston led at the end of the first quarter 28-23, mainly because Naulls, Russell, K. C. and the others were battling for, and getting, the second and third shots. It was a scrappy offensive rebounding exhibition that Heinsohn, sitting in the stands, must have admired. Auerbach kept Havlicek beside him on the bench through this period, waiting for the proper moment to unleash his sixth man. When Havlicek got in he was cold at first, and though he began to hit in the second quarter the other Celtics could not locate the basket and Philadelphia left at half time with a 48-45 lead. Chamberlain was agitated at his own and others' mistakes and was acting as if he cared desperately about the outcome. Greer and Cunningham were superb.

It took almost the entire third period for the Celtics to battle back to a 69-69 tie, thanks largely to beautiful moves and sharp shooting by Havlicek, K. C.'s defensive work and, surprisingly, the play of that Los Angeles castoff, Don Nelson. The husky 6-foot-6 former Iowa star blocked a shot à la Russell, was the center man once on a fast break and had eight points and eight rebounds in less than half the game.

Going into the fourth quarter the Celtics led 71-69, but in the next few minutes, with a typical Boston surge, they ran the 76ers right through the door, down a ramp and out onto Causeway Street. Havlicek, Nelson and Sam Jones scored 11 points, while Chamberlain managed two for Philadelphia. Boston kept about that margin the rest of the way and won 101-91. Nelson scored the last three points, Havlicek hit 31 and Sam, even with the sore finger, had 21. Russell outrebounded Wilt 29 to 24.

Outside the Celtics' locker room the brewery executives and Tommy Heinsohn had to wait patiently until the team settled down a little. Finally the door was opened, and amid the clutter of towels and well-wishers that eminent author, Red Auerbach, could be seen sipping from a can of the correct brand of beer and smugly sucking on his cigar. Red was in his heaven and all was well with Boston.


High Scorer John Havlicek lofts the ball well over block attempts by rookie Billy Cunningham (32) and Wilt Chamberlain.



During one of his most determined performances as a pro, Chamberlain nearly bends Russell double as he gets off shot.