They are always around at playoff time, the former Celtics, the alumni—back to visit. It seems almost the way it is when Tex Ritter calls the honor roll of oldtimers in Hillbilly Heaven, only with the Celtics, of course, this is invariably a happy time. After all the who-shot-John that goes on from October to March, the Celtics just go out and win the playoffs. So the old players come in and joke with Red Auerbach, the headmaster emeritus, and shake the few remaining familiar hands on the team. Every year, though, each alumnus appears as a somewhat hazier image—like hearing an old song that you know was very important to you at one time but now you can't remember precisely why. There are so many old Celtics who figured in so many old championships.
Bill Russell sits at his locker and tries to find new ways to explain the Celtics, because they have just beaten the New York Knicks for their 12th Eastern playoff title in 13 years. Russell goes along with the ritual, but the odd thing is that he best described what was to become the Celtic experience before he ever got to Boston. He was still at the University of San Francisco, and K.C. Jones had been lost to the team for the NCAA tournament. Someone asked what effect this would have on the team. "You change the spokes," Russell said, "but the wheel keeps rolling."
And that is the way it is. Some Celtics play alongside Russell, some sit on the bench, some retire and come back to shake hands. The spokes change. Each supporting star leaves, as Sam Jones will now and the soothsayers forecast doom. The wheel keeps rolling.
Win the playoffs? The Celtics are a fourth-place team that did not even play .500 ball the whole last half of the season. The Celtic regulars average over 31 years of age. That is about three years older than the world champion Detroit Tigers last year, six years older than the New York Jets. Of course, the Celtics will be younger next season since Sam, who is almost 36 and the oldest player in the league, will assume his duties as athletic director at Federal City College in Washington.
"Finis. End. Through. This is it," Sam says. Certainly he looks it. In a narrow-lapel, three-piece herringbone he moves through the mod Age of Aquarius like some fine old period piece. For diversion during the playoffs he has been studying Tommy Armour's golf tips for the middle-aged. His oldest of five children is Aubre, 11, who prefers hockey to basketball and roots for the Philadelphia 76ers. Never trust any team over 30.
Sam—the surname is seldom used except in box scores—has played old this year, too. He was injured, missed 12 games and did not come back fast enough to please Russell. He has had some good games in the playoffs, but he began to run down. The Celtics won the fourth game over the Knicks despite Sam—he shot 4 for 18—and then he was 1 for 8 when New York won to cut the Boston series lead to 3-2.
The Knicks had been putting pressure on the corners, so Russell decided that it was time his guards exploited the opening in the middle. Walt Frazier, just voted the best defensive player in the league, had pulled a groin muscle in the last seconds of the fifth game, and his lameness would make New York even more vulnerable. "I put myself into a higher pivot," Russell explained. "We would start our play like before, as if we were going to the corners, then turn them around and head things back to the middle, where the guards could use me as a pick."
Wasn't this a gamble—to have the offense depend on an old man who was shooting five for 26? Russell was pained. "That is two games," he said. "You know what Sam can do. I had to have him come out shooting."
Sam, in his stoical way, was ready. He has prospered in the league for so long, many think, in large measure because his attitude insulates him. He relaxes, away from the court, neither bugged by the last game nor anxious for the next one. "You get out there," he says, "and sometimes you have it, passing, shooting—sometimes you don't. It's all split seconds, and I just don't worry about it."
So Sam came out shooting—he was to put up 31 shots—and got free off Russell at the top of the key for the game's first basket. Frazier, pushing one hand against his sore muscle to try to still the pain, dogged Jones manfully, but Sam hit six baskets in the first half and Russell decided to start him in the third quarter, too, which he has seldom done lately. Sam broke it open with five baskets that put the Celtics 10 up. Moreover, the Knicks often double-teamed him, and this left Emmette Bryant wide open for 19 points. Sam had 29.
He was on the bench, though, when John Havlicek made the shot that won the series. New York had come back to two behind, and the teams traded baskets to 101-99. With 45 seconds left, Havlicek got the ball with only eight remaining on the 24-second clock. He cut left at the top of the key, but the Knicks were on him and no one was open.
Tom Sanders had been in the same predicament a minute before and had taken a desperation jumper that had gone in. Now Havlicek was obliged to try another. He was thinking that at least the Celtics might get the rebound. Willis Reed, under the basket, could see that Havlicek would have to take a bad shot, and when Havlicek went up at 0:40 Russell, standing by Reed, thought John was forced to jump sideways as he shot. The ball flew, just clearing the two hands in his face, and suddenly Havlicek was astonished to note that he actually felt it was on target. The ball hit the left side of the rim and banged back and forth, dropping in like a pinball. On the bench, Larry Siegfried turned to Sam. "Baby," he said. "I can't believe it."
"That's the ones that win ball games," Sam said.
The game, first ever on prime-time national TV, was followed by the Sunday contest in Los Angeles, which gave the West title to the Lakers, 4-1 over Atlanta. Thus the confrontation in the final that begins this week offers the ultimate in beat-Boston possibilities. Through the years the perennial Celtic playoff foes have been, first, Wilt Chamberlain teams (1-6 against Boston) and then the Lakers (0-6). Boston has usually handled them like taking a shot of whiskey and following it with a beer chaser. The mixture, in one gulp, may be somewhat tougher to manage.
Tactics start in the middle, as usual, where Russell must contain Wilt, who is playing extremely well. Last year in this endeavor Russell had help in the person of Wayne Embry (now commissioner of recreation for the city of Boston). He would relieve Bill for long stretches and lean on Wilt. This wore Chamberlain down and also made him mad as hell. Further, it convinced everyone that Russell could no longer go 48 minutes in the playoffs. So much for that notion. He went the route five times against Willis Reed, and worked even harder than usual on offense, since he found the middle open. Anyway, with Embry gone he will have to go all the way against Wilt, too. Bad News Barnes, the backup man, is so deep in Russell's doghouse that he may soon be waived to the American Kennel Club.
Elgin Baylor has not adjusted well to playing with Wilt and had only one good game, the last one, in the series with Atlanta. Any edge up front should go to the team whose reserve forward comes in with a hot hand—Celtic Don Nelson, an ex-Laker, or Laker Mel Counts, an ex-Celtic.
Jerry West gives the Lakers the better backcourt, even if the other L.A. guards do have a hard time getting the ball upcourt. West should have an easier time moving against the Boston man-to-man press than he did against Atlanta's double-teaming zone. Certainly if Sam wants to go out a winner he must offset West with some good-shooting games.
"Hey, you know what someone said?" Sam asked Russell. "They said the team wanted to win this year especially for me." Sam laughed. "I told them there was a certain amount of money involved, too."
Russell roared and struck a delicate pose. "What do they think we are now?" he said, waving limply. "Win thith one for Tham. Oh." They both laughed so loud that it was difficult to hear the sound of the wheel rolling.
Looking back here after a shot, old Sam picked the right spot for his best playoff game.