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Original Issue


How a young Celtics fan found a champion in the Boston coach, suffered with him and shared in his joy

The woman made her way slowly up the avenue, mindful of the ice beneath the snow. The storm had grown stronger through the day, the wind more potent, the cold deeper than any she could recall. It tore through her, distracting her from the prospect she faced.

The young man she was to meet, to open negotiations with, was surely combed and washed by now, perhaps wearing a jacket with a school insignia as he sat with his father in the living room, awaiting her arrival.

After what seemed hours, the woman gained the lobby of the apartment building on New York's Lexington Avenue, and sank down onto a sofa by the elevator to regain her strength.

"He's outside," the father said, when the woman arrived upstairs. "He's on the terrace."

"He's where?" the woman said.

"He has a basketball hoop out there. He plays basketball while he listens to basketball on the radio."

"I don't understand," the woman said.

"See him out there through the window?"

"What's wrong with his hands?"


"But they're all bandaged," the woman said.

"I know," the father replied softly. "I know."

I was 14. The woman, my stepmother-to-be, had come to meet me for the first time. Her bewilderment was justified. For what she saw through the window was an adolescent male with bandages on all of his fingers except the thumbs, sitting on a basketball in a snowstorm at the base of a tall wire fence, holding a large portable radio and crying, the tears freezing almost at once on his face.

I was wearing bandages because without them the friction of a basketball leaving my hands in the dead of winter would tear open the tips of each finger, causing painful cuts that wouldn't heal until the spring. Gloves were useless, preventing a proper grip on the ball. But bandages, three on each finger, allowed for perfect manipulation, a sure feeling from the foul line, an easy authority from 13 feet. Even on the small playing surface of a New York City terrace with a constant wind as opponent, a Johnson & Johnson hand with three years' experience on its home court could guide a long set shot safely home to the gratifying swish of net.

I was crying because the Boston Celtics had been beaten in the last seconds by the New York Knickerbockers. It meant that the Knicks had swept the weekend home-and-home series, having narrowly won both games. It meant that Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy would shower and dress in what I imagined to be a furious silence, and disperse into the New England winter, sharing the heartbreak I knew only too well. It would often take me weeks to recover from a particularly devastating Celtic defeat. The players themselves could go on to other games and shake off the effects of a one-point setback. I, too, derived pleasure from subsequent victories, though I awoke in the night with defeat in my heart. Had Cousy but made the second foul shot. Had Macauley not been called for walking.

As the years passed, my stepmother would become familiar with these names, living as she did in the aggravating flow of their repetition. At the dinner table, in taxis, during the overtures of musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein in large theaters filled with strangers, I would speak the language of the National Basketball Association. "The Cooz hurt his elbow against the Nats," I would observe, as Yul Brynner appeared before us. Or, "Red's down on Borgia for good after the charging call on Cooper."

If my stepmother listened closely, and I have no reason to believe that she did, she might have wondered a bit about the fellow named Red, so reverentially disposed to him was I, so constant was my use of his name. In short, for 10 years I believed what Arnold (Red) Auerbach, the Celtics' coach, believed. About anything. Chinese food, Milton Berle, Sherman Adams. Auerbach was the authority in my life and my champion. In those days, the last three or four minutes of most NBA games, for lack of the 24-second clock, often consumed 45 minutes. And during that time, vegetables, fruit, pennies and peanuts would often be hurled at the apoplectic gentleman in the checked jacket who was attempting to get at a man a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than himself. Red was in a perpetual fury, and at 14 years of age on a New York terrace, with an unenviable scholastic record and few friends, I had my own private little fury which burned every bit as fiercely. Clearly, Auerbach was out there in the world on my behalf. The inequities I faced were the inequities he fought. Though I imagined him to be shy, and even reclusive when left to his own devices, I relied on the strength of his hysteria to bury my enemies and undo the disorder of my own frenzy.

It was in 1950-56, years in which the Celtics were not yet the powerhouse they were to become, that I came of basketball age, studying the game, the skills and deficiencies of the players on every team, and I haunted Madison Square Garden, arriving well before the first games of double-headers to seek out Leonard Koppett of the New York Herald Tribune, who wrote with passion and clarity on pro basketball, and whom I regarded as a kindred spirit. Before games, I would follow Koppett as he roamed the sidelines chatting with players and league or team officials, at first from a distance, and then boldly approaching him with absolutely terrific basketball questions, like, "Do you think a round-robin is the answer to the playoff muddle?"

"I do not," he replied, and was off.

"Do the Celtics have a shot at Syracuse?" I asked on another occasion.

"Decidedly," Koppett told me, a response I wrote down in a notebook, so encouraging was the vigor with which it had been spoken.

It was, you see, the spring of 1953, and the playoffs were around the corner. This was the year the Celtics were determined to at least advance through the first round of postseason play. They faced a two-out-of-three playoff against the Nationals without the home-court advantage. Having finished third in a five-team division, one game behind second-place Syracuse, the Celtics would have to go to Syracuse for a Thursday-night opener before returning to Boston Garden on Saturday afternoon.

Thursday evening I went out on the terrace after dinner. On the fence that my father had erected to prevent basketballs from plummeting 12 stories to the sidewalk, I had strung four large floodlights and a complicated system of extension cords to create nighttime basketball.

I shot my way through the evening, imagining Cousy and Sharman and Auerbach fighting against all odds in an arena where the fans under the Syracuse basket would shake its supports when the Celtics shot fouls, making the rim quiver.

At 11 p.m., I went inside and tuned the radio to a sports-scoreboard program. Exhibition baseball. Hockey. Endless hockey. And at long last: "In the National Basketball Association, the Boston Celtics shocked the...." That's all I remember. The Boston Celtics shocked the.... In Syracuse. In front of all those animals.

I let out a cry of delight that brought my father running.

"Are you O.K.?" he shouted through my locked door.

"You bet your butt," I told him, which was something I had heard Auerbach say. "Can you beat Syracuse?" he had been asked by Marty Glickman on WMGM. "You bet your butt," Auerbach had replied.

The game against the Nationals on Saturday was the first opportunity for the team I now felt very much a part of to allow me to feel the elation of a crucial victory. In the previous two years the Celtics had dropped four of the five playoff games in which they had participated. But this season they had miraculously defeated Syracuse in Game 1 of a best-of-three series. Another victory would propel them into the next playoff round, something I had never witnessed.

Clearly, I had to be there, to actually go to Boston. Telling my father of a fictitious track meet at school, I set out by bus at 7 a.m. with $25 I had scraped together by selling Georgia Gibbs records to classmates.

The day was cool and windy. Boston Garden, buried in a railroad station, seemed strangely inaccessible. I was told: down this tunnel, up two flights, through three hallways, down a green staircase. "Don't get on no train," said a cheerful Irishman. They were all Irishmen in the labyrinth of North Station. One of them offered me a balcony seat for $6 that turned out to have an obstructed view.

It took me the first quarter to adjust to the pleasures of actual home-court participation. My little "boo," uttered in the direction of Dolph Schayes, the celebrated Syracuse forward, might have an impact. It would float down like a piece of lint, buffeted by the air currents in the Garden, descending, descending and finally landing at the feet of the Nationals as they grouped in a huddle. "What's this?" Al Cervi, the playing coach, would say, scooping up my boo from the court. "Why, it's from the kid in the balcony. It's a boo." "My God," Earl Lloyd, a massive forward, would say, unfacetiously. "We might as well pack it in."

Cousy was in a white uniform rather than the road green I'd become accustomed to in New York. He glided magnificently over the parquet court. And there was no risk to his person. We were his allies. I was moved and delighted to hear the crowd support my point of view. I had always been the little voice out of step when the Celtics played the Knicks in New York. "Sit down, schmuck" was as much a part of my life as "Pass the salt."

What unfolded in the next two hours cemented my devotion to the NBA for the rest of my life, through the championships of the '60s and '70s, through Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, right through to now, to Larry Bird and Bill Fitch. To this moment.

Boston defeated Syracuse 111-105. In four overtimes.

Some of my memories of the events of that game:

1. Cousy making a running 40-foot push shot with no time left on the clock and the Celtics down by two.

2. Paul Seymour of Syracuse severely spraining his right ankle, but being forced to continue because all the other available players had fouled out. Seymour limped about heroically in a kind of zone defense.

3. Cousy shooting 32 foul shots and making 30.

4. Cousy scoring 50 points.

5. Auerbach lying on his back by the Boston bench in an absolute rage over a disallowed Celtic basket.

6. Myself, smacking my head on the railing behind me and slumping, unconscious, in my seat, to be revived by my new friends in the balcony.

7. The Celtics, with a six-point lead in the final seconds, getting the ball to Cousy, who drove and stopped and changed hands, dribbling, dribbling, close to exhaustion as the final glorious buzzer sounded, the siren of Boston Garden that brought to an end one of the most remarkable games that had ever been played.

Following their victory over Syracuse, the Celtics were eliminated in four games by the Knicks. For the next three seasons, Boston made the playoffs, only to be eliminated by Syracuse each time. What Boston lacked was the imposing center who could dominate a game and create the kind of defense that Auerbach had envisioned for so long. He arrived in the person of Bill Russell for the 1956-57 season. Tommy Heinsohn joined the team as well, fresh out of Holy Cross and ready to shoot. And shoot.

The Celtics finished first in the East, got by Syracuse in a best-of-three playoff and attained the finals, in which they would meet Bob Pettit and St. Louis for the NBA title.

"Dear Libby," I wrote a girl at Bennington College, "I have taken a room at the Bradford Hotel in order to best follow the final series of the NBA playoffs, involving the Celtics and a team from St. Louis. It begins March 30th, and if it goes the distance, that is to say, seven games, it would end on April 13th. This includes about a week between the second and third games. Would you consider joining me for all or part of that time? I would be honored. The Bradford is extremely pleasant. You are extremely beautiful."

Libby's favorite word was extremely. "I am extremely, extremely sad," she would say, lowering her large green eyes. "I am extremely, extremely fatiguèe." French dribbled out of her once in a while, usually "Pourquoi?" Occasionally, and unaccountably, full thoughts: "Quelle très, très belle journèe!" or "Je suis très, très ennuyèe."

Libby Worthington—which is not her real name—left Bennington, Vt. by bus and arrived in Boston on the afternoon of March 30, 1957, extremely, extremely fatiguèe. I had bought two tickets to the home games. The radio would take care of the games in St. Louis.

I went to the opener alone, pursuing Leonard Koppett and behaving festively. The Celtics lost in double overtime, 125-123, and I slunk back to the Bradford and lay awake all night watching Libby sleep.

For two weeks Libby and I lived in a cramped and dusty room, eating cautiously at Bickford's and roaming through Boston on the bright spring afternoons. For the first time we discovered the complexities of cohabiting. In the claustrophobia of our unformed relationship we would fall silent, come together, and then creep away from each other irritably. Suddenly I would attack Libby's rampant sloppiness. Then she would moan that she couldn't stand one more minute of talk about basketball and the "crummy Celtics."

"Pourquoi?" I asked viciously, leaving the room with a slam of the door.

The crummy Celtics did what I knew they'd do all the while: they played a seven-game series, pinning me to the Bradford and to Libby Worthington, with our money evaporating as rapidly as our tolerance for each other.

After the St. Louis victory in the first game, the Celtics won commandingly the next night and journeyed to Missouri. They fell behind for the second time, absorbing a 100-98 defeat, only to tie again by beating the Hawks 123-118. Back in Boston for Game 5, the Celtics forged ahead with a 15-point victory. The sixth game in St. Louis broke my heart, a two-point loss that I listened to, crouched by the radio in the Bradford, my head in my hands.

It had come down to one game. One game against a team with momentum and Bob Pettit. One game, to be played at Boston Garden on Saturday afternoon, April 13, 1957. Libby, sympathizing with my anguish, whispered in the night, "I'm extremely sorry I called them crummy."

I went to the game alone, Libby insisting she'd be nothing but bad luck if she came with me. "I'll listen to it on the radio and pray for you," she said earnestly.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the Celtics behind 101-93, I left my seat, unable to cope with the apparent truth: they were going to lose. I went to the men's room, and then down a corridor, and then, hearing a wild cheer from the arena, I took a glimpse at the court from the back of an aisle. The Celtic deficit was now four.

Again in my seat behind the scorer's table, I vowed to stick it out, remain where I was, to face whatever music would be played. It was, after all, only a game, and I, it now seemed, was an adult.

The adult watched Heinsohn gun. From the corners, from the middle, from impossible distances and with shots I didn't know he had.

Cousy and Sharman were well off their games. I had never seen the two of them as jointly inaccurate as they were that afternoon; they shot 5 for 40 from the floor. It was left to the rookie from Holy Cross to keep the Celtics in contention. With Russell menacing on defense (he would pull down 32 rebounds), and with Russell and Frank Ramsey supplying crucial baskets and foul shots, the Celtics took a two-point lead. They had scored 10 unanswered points.

But then Pettit hit two free throws to tie the score 103-103. With six seconds left, Boston had a chance to win. Sharman took the shot. He missed, and we were in overtime.

Near the end of the overtime, with Auerbach waving his rolled-up program wildly, the Celtics had another shot at winning. Sharman again took it, that wonderful little jumper of his that had hit the front rim at the end of regulation play. He hit the front rim again. Double overtime.

That overtime, like the first, is a blur, except for the final second. I saw something then that is as clear to me now as it was 23 years ago. The Celtics seemingly had the game won, with a two-point lead, one second to go and no time-outs left for either team. Alex Hannum, the playing coach of the Hawks, took the ball out of bounds under his own basket and threw it the length of the court. His notion was to strike the far backboard and have the ball carom back to Pettit, who was all alone, standing perhaps 10 feet from the basket. With any decent rebound he could put it up easily, tie the game and send it into a third overtime.

The rebound was not only decent, it was terrifyingly perfect. Pettit had the ball with all the time in the world. I glanced at Auerbach, whose jaw had dropped. I looked back to Pettit, who was just about to shoot. I remember thinking, "He's surprised."

Bob Pettit, one of the greatest all-stars in the history of the NBA, took a 10-footer. He missed. The siren sounded. There was bedlam.

I raced to touch someone, something, to offer my fingertips in congratulations. White Celtic shirts bobbed about. Fearful of being trampled, I retreated to the sideline. I know I was weeping; it is my tendency.

At 7 p.m. I went back to the Bradford, filled with beer and joy. As I waited for the elevator, it dawned on me: the Celtics had won the seventh and final game by the same score, 125-123, that they had lost the first game and also in double overtime.

Excited by this amazing discovery, I raced up the six flights of stairs, impatient with the slow elevators, to get to Libby with the news. The room was empty and in order, strangely so in view of her untidiness. On her side of the bed, on her pillow, I found a note, written in pencil on Bradford Hotel stationery. It is a note that I have to this day.

"Dear heart," it began, which was an expression I'd never heard her use, "I am extremely, extremely happy for you. I have gone back to college with mixed feelings. I'll write you a long letter and will tell you everything. My congratulations to you and Red."

As it turned out, Libby's note, which I read and reread, standing in the middle of Room 620 of the Bradford Hotel, was our final correspondence. I never saw her again.