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The World's Greatest Team
By Jeff Greenfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Jeff Greenfield
All rights reserved.
The Celtic Tradition
The north end of Boston is the hub of the Hub; the two square miles of land that jut out into the harbor contain most of the town's excitement. Just across the Charles River, facing the North End, are two educational giants: Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rising from the river on the Boston side is the quaint and very high-priced Beacon Hill section, with its cobblestoned streets, gas lights and genteel sensibility. A few blocks away is Government Center: a mass of new office buildings and an ultramodern city hall. Within this small area are some of the best restaurants in any city: Anthony's Pier 4 and Jimmy's, built out on piers into the bay; Durgin Park; the Union Oyster House; Joseph's; 1814.
But along Causeway Street, close by this old charm and new elegance, is a run-down, seedy neighborhood dominated by North Station, a massive, yellow-brick building, half-hidden by the elevated tracks and highways that surround it on every side. Almost everything about North Station and its environs suggests abandonment, decay, a better time long ago. Canal Street, which runs across the front of the station, is filled with rooming houses; winos sit in the hallways. There are pornographic movies in the nearby theaters, a Golden Haven cafe, a century-old cigar store, Joe Patti's Sanitary Barber Shop. A block away, along Friend Street, is the New Garden Gym. Prominent boxers once trained at the old Garden Gym, but the sport is moribund now, and the gym is virtually deserted.
Adjacent to North Station, a part of the same complex, is the old Madison Hotel, now called, in a vain attempt at modernity, the Madison Motor Inn or (depending on which sign you read) the Madison Motor Hotel. Its lobby has a vague Art Deco look and a sense of faded grandeur. Years ago it was a good hotel, like the first-class station hotels of England, a convenient place to stay for businessmen and celebrities who came up from New York on fine trains like the Pilgrim and the Colonial. The Madison Grille, once a favorite meeting spot for such visitors, does not open for dinner any more. Today the people with money come by plane and stay at the Sheraton-Boston in Prudential Center, or at the Ritz-Carlton or the Copley Plaza, the two great old-world hotels of Boston.
Inside the train station is a dimly lit bar called the Iron Horse, a bookstore, a vegetable stand, a Boston Bruins pro shop, a newsstand; the only new look is the vending machine dispensing tickets for the state-run lottery. On the dingy green walls are posted notices of reduced train service; the trains are dying here, as in every other big city, and most of the land in back of North Station, where the tracks once ran right up to the building, is now paved over with asphalt to form a giant parking lot holding 1,000 cars.
Built over North Station is the Boston Garden, nearly a half-century old, originally constructed by New York's Madison Square Garden Company, then bought by the Boston Arena Corporation more than forty years ago. It was designed primarily to accommodate hockey, the dominant winter sport at the time; to this day, when the Garden floor is converted into a basketball court, several hundred of its seats offer obstructed views. Up on the rafters—in whose direction a newcomer's eyes frequently wander as he waits for the roof to collapse of old age—are rails from which the championship pennants of the city's teams are suspended.
When the Boston Bruins, with their half-century and more of National Hockey League play, are competing, two black-and-gold banners hang from the roof, symbolizing two Stanley Cup victories. But when the other Garden team competes, the arena is filled with thirteen green-and-white banners. They stand for the National Basketball Association championships won by the Boston Celtics. Eleven of those titles were won in thirteen years, eight of them in a row. In this neighborhood, this building, this arena that stands abandoned by the present, the banners of the Boston Celtics symbolize the single element of enduring grandeur: the presence of the greatest team in the history of American professional spectator sports.
From 1957 through 1969, the Boston Celtics built a record that is unique in professional sports. Not simply eight consecutive championships, but a team so good that, were it not for an injury to Bill Russell in 1958, they might have won ten in a row. Not simply a burst of adrenaline in the playoffs, but season-long consistency that earned them nine consecutive Eastern Division titles. During those thirteen years, the Celtics won 706 games while losing 299, a remarkable .702 winning percentage.
Compare this achievement with other sports dynasties. The Montreal Canadiens won five straight National Hockey League Stanley Cups (1956–60), and the Detroit Red Wings won the NHL season title seven years in a row (1949–55). Football's Cleveland Browns won a conference title six years in a row during the 1950's but lost the NFL championship as often as they won it, and the reputation of the Green Bay Packers rests on the strength of five NFL titles in seven years, plus victories in the first two Super Bowls.
Only the New York Yankees' record stands as a potential challenge to the Celtics. The Yankees won fourteen pennants in one sixteen-year period (1949–64). Over those years, they won the World Series nine times. But the combination of regular-season titles and playoff victories gives the edge to the Celtics, particularly since the Yankees were not competing in a league that sought to equalize teams by giving first draft choices to the least successful teams. Further, the Yankees usually had the money to buy the best available players; the Celtics achieved their dominance in the face of persistent financial hardship.
Almost as remarkable as the record of the Celtics is their continuity. With the New York Knickerbockers, Boston is one of the two original franchises left from the 1946 founding of the Basketball Association of America (soon to become the NBA) still playing in the original city. They are the only NBA team playing in their original building. More important, in the last twenty-five years, a period in which professional sports has been constantly destabilized by expansion, franchise shifts, new leagues, collapses of teams and leagues, and endless shifts of players, coaches and owners, the Celtics have had two presidents, two general managers, three coaches, and one style of play. And one man, Arnold "Red" Auerbach, has served at times in all three jobs, and is the creator of that style of play. He developed the theory, and acquired the players that brought the Celtics from failure to contention to dynasty.
The Celtics have won without ever fielding a player who led the league in scoring. They have won without the seven-foot center hovering near the basket, an element which experts have come to consider an essential part of any championship team (against the evidence provided by the Celtics themselves). Indeed, they have won by finding a place for the small player who swaps height for speed and skill. They have won by remembering that basketball is not a five-man game, but an eight-, nine- or ten-man game, in which the bench may make the difference between defeat and victory. Year after year, the Celtics have played with members on the bench who were better than the starting five, and whose entrance into the game sparked a scoring burst or defensive pressure that won the game. And the Celtics have won by making a reality of the oldest cliché in sports: teamwork. As a team, they have had on their rosters more than their share of powerful egos, but virtually without exception those egos were subordinated—on the court—to the Auerbach game.
A Celtic fan who woke up from twenty years in a deep sleep not only would find his team at the same old stand, but would see the same philosophy at work. He would see the Celtics attempting to catch the opposition by surprise, breaking downcourt on a fast break the instant the ball changed hands. He would see the ball handler sweep down the middle, with the forwards cruising along the sidelines and a shooter following behind as a trailer, free for an uncontested fifteen-foot jump shot if the opposition raced downcourt to keep up with the break. He would see a player, usually better than one or two of the starting five, sitting on the bench, ready to come into the game and give the Celtics a lift. He would see a center with an aggressive approach to defense, moving beyond the basket area to harass a ball handler into a mistake. Rarely would he see four Celtics clear out a side while some dazzling ball handler went one-on-one against the defense, for such a style of play is antithetical to the basic Celtic concept.
This is the persistent paradox. Basketball is a game in which the most talented youngsters practice one-on-one ball; the playgrounds of the inner-city black ghettoes produce the most flamboyant players, those who often become the stars, the scorers, the focus of their team. But on the most successful competitive team in professional sports history the single mortal sin is individualism; the most pervasive value is individual sacrifice on behalf of the common good. It is as if a major manufacturing corporation preached socialism to its employees. For the Celtics, it has worked. It worked in 1957, when Boston, a perpetual bridesmaid, added two rookies named Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn to the starting line-up and won its first championship; in the early 1960's, even after the two starring guards of the Celtics, Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy, retired from play; in the late 1960's, when Boston was seen as a collection of weary old men, unable to keep up with the younger, flashier teams. It worked until the keystone of the Celtic dynasty, Bill Russell, retired from play. Then, after one disastrous year, a new center named Dave Cowens began to lead them back into contention. In the quarter-century of Auerbach's reign as coach or general manager, the team played under .500 ball only once.
The Celtic tradition is still working, not only for Boston, but for the men who played with Auerbach's teams and remembered that tradition after they playing days were over. Every member of the 1962 Celtic squad coached after retiring. In all, more than thirty former players have applied what they learned under Auerbach as coaches elsewhere, and current Celtic players like John Havlicek, Paul Silas and Don Nelson are likely to be coaches in the future. As a group, the men who have been part of the Celtic tradition have influenced their sport more than the members of any other team in any other sport in history.
Despite this remarkable achievement, there has been throughout the years a strong undercurrent of doubt about the Celtics. Some critics have argued that their success had nothing to do with philosophy; that they won because of one man, Bill Russell. Yet no other basketball team ever approached the Celtics' achievement even with such dominant players as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And after Russell retired, Boston only had one losing season. Within four years of his departure, they were champions again.
How the Celtics built their dynasty—and later rebuilt it—is a story in itself. Time after time, Auerbach found players other teams did not want, could not use, and made them a part of his championship teams. Sam Jones came from an all-black North Carolina college; K.C. Jones was considered too inept on offense to play in the pros; Andy Phillip, Arnie Risen, Gene Conley and Willie Naulls each gave the Celtics a few important years as experienced reserves after they had apparently outlived their usefulness. Don Nelson was picked up from the Los Angeles Lakers for the $1,000 waiver price after they had sent him home. Other key Celtics, including Frank Ramsey and Bill Sharman, were acquired by Auerbach's scrupulous—some said unscrupulous—attention to the complexities of NBA draft rules. Indeed, in all the Celtic championship years, Auerbach engineered only one straight player-for-player trade: Bailey Howell for Mel Counts in 1966. His other trade—for the draft choice that brought Bill Russell—involved giving up two All-Stars for a college player who couldn't shoot.
Year after year, against all the odds and often against the experts' predictions, Boston won the championship on the strength of the total team talents, not the prowess of any one man. And it was done in an atmosphere that would have taken the heart out of a less disciplined, less motivated team. Building the world's best basketball team in the city of Boston had about it the quality of a Twilight Zone episode in which a man walks down a busy thoroughfare, desperately asking people to notice him, but going unseen and unheard. The Celtics played their game in a city without a basketball tradition, without a basketball constituency; a city whose public schools did not teach or play the sport, and whose newspapers spent years studiously ignoring what was happening. In the dynasty years, the Celtics rarely filled three-fourths of the Boston Garden, and only after the collapse and rebuilding of the team in the 1970's did they average more than 10,000 paying spectators a game.
The championship teams were not a box-office success, but the Celtic achievement must be measured by what happened on the court. The difference between the dynasty that was and the dynasty that might have been for other teams—those on which Wilt Chamberlain played, for example—often came down to one game, one quarter, one shot. There are those who choose to see in the string of Boston's championships nothing more than a constant succession of lucky breaks: a lucky bounce off the rim, a crucial misplay by the other team.
"Well," Bob Cousy said recently, looking back on the Celtics' string, "there was a lot of luck involved. But Arnold [Auerbach] directed that luck. I give him much more credit for what he did after he won the first few championships than before. At the start of every year, the guys—particularly those who had been through the losing years—knew what it meant to win. And each year, they wanted it again and again."
Consider, in capsule form, the years of the Celtic dynasty, and a pattern emerges; a pattern of a team making for itself the big break, the turning point of a series or game, supplying a player to bring the team back from defeat. For one year, for two, luck might be the right word; for a thirteen-year record of all but unbroken success, the word is achievement:
1957—With Cousy and Sharman settled in the backcourt, Frank Ramsey back from military service, and rookies Tommy Heinsohn and Bill Russell, Boston swept to an Eastern Division title and beat the Syracuse Nationals in three straight to reach the NBA finals. But the St. Louis Hawks, with former Celtics Easy Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan, were far stronger than their sub-.500 mark over the season suggested. Led by superstar Bob Pettit, the Hawks split the first six games. In the seventh, with two minutes to go, they led the Celtics by 4 points. The Celtics scored 6 straight points, but then a pair of free throws by Pettit sent the game into overtime. At the end of the overtime period, the score was still tied. With two minutes left in the second overtime and the score still tied, Russell blocked a crucial shot and Ramsey threw up a ridiculous twenty-foot jump shot. It went in. With two seconds left, the Celtics still led by 2. Then it happened—almost. The Hawks' Alex Hannum threw an inbounds pass the length of the court; the ball slammed off the backboard, and Pettit leapt to tip it in ... and missed. Boston had its first world title. The star of the game, with 37 points and 23 rebounds, was rookie Tom Heinsohn.
1958—Boston had little trouble repeating as division champion, and they faced St. Louis again in the playoff finals. But this time, in the third game, Russell came down hard after blocking a shot. He ripped tendons on both sides of his right ankle, and chipped a bone. Boston won the fourth game with Bob Cousy playing the pivot. But the Hawks' Bob Pettit scored 32 points in the fifth game and 50 points in the sixth to give St. Louis the championship. Suddenly, the Celtics were only ex-champions.
Excerpted from The World's Greatest Team by Jeff Greenfield. Copyright © 1976 Jeff Greenfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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