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"Then Russell Said to Bird ..."
The Greatest Celtics Stories Ever Told
By Donald Hubbard
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Donald Hubbard
All rights reserved.
The Celtics Begin
The beefy man felt the first fresh air he had experienced in hours, having just done something that might not work or might prove revolutionary, an all-or-nothing type of deal. Having just met with fellow arena owners and a few entrepreneurs, he had joined in on a new venture with them, the formation of a professional basketball league, risky because basketball never seemed to make any money for anyone.
But World War II had just ended, jobs abounded, and people wanted to spend money on entertainment and frivolities again, having submitted to rationing for The Cause. Sucking in the humid July air, Walter Brown jumped on the pavement and began worrying about many things, and surging to the top of the list was, What the hell did I just do?
Then he calmed down, as he always did, and began to untangle a myriad of logistics. How to accommodate the new team both for practices and games? Who would help him manage the enterprise? How was he going to get a coach and form a roster, all necessary before opening night in less than four months? Was anyone going to show when the doors opened?
To the manor born was Walter Brown in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, in 1905, a fierce Irish American whose father managed the Boston Garden among other successful entrepreneurial pursuits, and like his contemporaries, the Kennedy boys, he navigated the social reefs inherent in devout Catholic young men making it in an old-money WASP society. No proper Bostonian, he nevertheless attended Phillips Exeter and then helped operate a dingy Boston Garden, warm in the winter, cold in the summer, inhabited by sports lovers and rats alike.
A big-hearted man, he often popped off and said stupid things, the types of statements that might pitch him into a Sensitivity Training regimen today, but few held it against him because he almost always apologized later. He never grew up and he never grew old, dying before his 60th birthday, venerated at death and honored today by one of Boston University's hockey arenas being named after him, and, for a while, the NBA championship trophy. Most important, a symbolic No. 1 hangs from the latest incarnation of the Boston Garden, because it all started with him and survived only because of his tenacity and belief in a sport he did not particularly enjoy for well over half his life.
He preferred hockey, coaching an American team to its first international gold medal, dismissively referring to basketball as "bounceball." An avid sportsman, he certainly knew about Boston's last failed attempts at founding and cultivating professional basketball clubs and as a businessman appreciated the lunacy of giving Boston a third strike at the sport.
But Walter Brown had seats to fill, having taken over the management of the Boston Garden after his father's untimely death in 1937. Another local institution, Eddie Lee, meticulously kept ledgers of every event planned for the Garden, be it Bruins games, prize fights, circuses, or Communion breakfasts. The Garden had way too many vacant seats, a big old barn sandwiched between the North End and West End of the city.
Besides money and control of the Garden, Brown had another secret weapon perhaps even he did not appreciate: as soldiers and sailors returned from World War II to their homes in Southie and Charlestown, Walk Hill and Jamaica Plain, they got married and had kids, lots of them, named Francis Xavier, Mary Margaret, Mary Katherine, Michael, Thomas, Billy, Caroline, Joseph, and just plain Mary. In the streets off of Blue Hill Avenue, first-generation Bostonian Jews gravitated to basketball, a core group of fans awaiting the professional sport. The Depression had ended, and with a slight hiccup here and there, men had some money to spare to watch their teams play, rather than just read about them in one of the city's still numerous dailies along Newspaper Row.
Some of the best stories surrounding the Celtics are not true; one of the first false gospels asserted that because Walter Brown took so long signing a coach, Honey Russell, the team started off with a disadvantage as their competitors ran off and signed all the best talent first, leaving the Celtics with crummy players. By mid-July 1946, the club had signed Honey — Brown's second choice after Rhode Island State coach Menty Keaney, as Keaney's doctor thought the experience might kill his patient — with Walter Brown establishing his philosophy for assembling his team, stating, "We won't bid fantastic prices against Western industrial teams." Fiscal responsibility ensured that the Celtics, along with the Knicks, emerged as the only original teams in the league to survive to this day in their original cities, yet in the short run consigned Boston to initially unleashing an inferior product on the floor.
Incidentally, at this time Boston had a coach but still no nickname, with renowned sports scribe Harold Kaese endorsing "The first nickname offered [which] was the Boston Yankees, an extremely bright suggestion." Had Brown listened to that sports scribe, fans in the 1940s at Fenway Park who hollered "Yankees suck!" most likely would have referred to their own basketball team and not the opposing baseball club from the Bronx.
Thankfully this did not occur, but still Brown had a team without a name; neither did he have much of a staff, but he did have Howie McHugh, an astute salesman who marketed his product through all the plagues that wiped out almost all of the founding franchises of the new league. He huddled with Brown to christen their creation. Whirlwinds came up at one point, a nod to the long-defunct Boston basketball club, but why saddle the new club with a failed past? The most famous basketball team of all time was the Celtics, a dominant group of barnstormers spawned from the tough west side neighborhoods of New York, such as Hell's Kitchen; one year they ran up a record of 193–11–1. They had whittled away by the 1930s, finally dying, but with Boston having such a teeming Irish population, it seemed natural to dub the club the Celtics, a delusion of grandeur for what initially became a gaggle of misfits with no illusions.
Linking the new club to the original Celtics, it was reported at the time that Honey Russell played for the old New York Barnstormers in 1919, though probably he did not. He apparently once suited up to play football as "Reggie Russell" for George Halas and the Chicago Bears in 1928, later switching back to his status as "one of the greatest guards that ever stepped on a basketball court." After playing thousands of games as a professional, he coached thereafter most notably at Seton Hall, though Brown signed him away from Manhattan College with a three-year contract.
A keen storyteller, Russell recalled playing at the old Boston Arena shortly after the end of World War I, which "had the floor laid over the ice, was as cold as a refrigerator, and had the baskets upside down and two feet too high when the gates were opened." Recalled Russell, "Boston was always good basketball territory, but the pro game didn't click, because it never had adequate halls, didn't have proper publicity and promotion, and lacked players. Now it has everything."
Everything but players, as it transpired. Maybe Menty Keaney's doctor knew what he was talking about.
An old hockey man like Walter Brown, Howie McHugh once guarded the net for Dartmouth but seamlessly shifted much of his devotion to the hardwood to ensure this new venture survived in Boston. A natural at public relations, McHugh saw the game flourish in large part due to his exertions as team publicist, and in time he became the franchise's greatest fan, screaming obscenities at offending referees such as Sid Borgia. Not restricting his communications to refs, he once requested some coins from the Celtics trainer during a tough game in Philly, made worse by some hecklers. Currency in hand, he approached the hecklers and punched them both in the mouth. Once, so excited about the return to action of a Celtic player in the early 1960s, he grabbed the phone to call a sports reporter back in Boston, speaking on the wrong end of the receiver the entire time. The McHugh/Splaver Tribute to Excellence Award, named after Howie and Bullets PR man Marc Splaver, is awarded annually to honor an NBA executive for excellence in the public relations field.CHAPTER 2
A Taste of Honey
In that first NBA season, the Washington Capitols dominated, with their head coach, Red Auerbach, leading his charges to victories in more than 80 percent of the games that they played, although oddly they failed to win the league championship. Boston had Honey Russell, and Washington had piss and vinegar. The Capitols had some stars too, but most teams gravitated toward picking up local collegians; Washington picked off a bunch of Hoyas, Chicago went after Loyola and Notre Dame, and so forth. Except Boston, which ignored Holy Cross and Boston College and instead picked up two players who never attended college, a rarity then.
Lacking in seasoning and experience, Brown also signed Mel Hirsch, the shortest man to ever play in league history before Tyrone Bogues and Earl Boykins laced up more than 40 years later. The club rounded up five men in New York and brought them aboard. Again, Brown shied from stars with large contracts in a venture haunted by the specter of bankruptcy.
So after Honey Russell had signed on, he found a bare cupboard, and of course opposing coaches such as Auerbach exploited these roster weaknesses. Other than assemble the finest professionals in the country and pay them, the Celtics explored every alternative to construct their team. For instance, when NYU baller Johnny Simmons came up to Boston, driven by his "little" brother Connie (who had never played college ball), Honey and his assistants astutely recruited the younger brother on the spot, the best signing they made that year. Johnny played only for a year, but his little 6'8" brother enjoyed a career stretching into the mid-1950s.
Before Chuck Connors wrecked the backboard, another game had already wrapped up in the Arena that evening as the North Cambridge Knights of Columbus defeated the Pere Marquette Knights of Columbus. These warmup games went on for years, generally involving competing fraternal or neighborhood groups, undoubtedly to sell tickets to the friends and family of the players in the first game who wanted to see their favorite son play at the great Arena or Garden. Meanwhile, across town, there was no shortage of potent potables poured into glasses as John F. Kennedy won his first election as a United States Congressman.
Still, Boston did not lack for stars, as it signed Kevin "Chuck" Connors, who later relocated to Hollywood as the lead in the old Rifleman television series — quite a feat for a kid from Brooklyn. Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels, reruns of Connors' show have returned, with even fewer basic formats than Auerbach plays. In most episodes, the Rifleman's son gets kidnapped, saved only by the timely intervention of some local nut job or town coot.
Awaiting the day to commence his natural calling, Connors had everyone laughing from the start, sitting in bars, holding court by reciting long poems and stories from heart. One of his more entertaining moments occurred in the very first home game in team history as the Celtics warmed up in the Boston Arena, now Northeastern University's Matthews Arena. Shut out of the Garden by a rodeo show, Connors heaved up a shot, shattering the backboard.
Having no replacement board in the building, Howie McHugh raced across town to the Garden to pick up a new one, only to find some bulls standing between him and his glass backboard. Fortunately, McHugh rousted up some buzzed cowhands to grab the backboard without being mauled, and after he loaded up his prize, sped back to the Boston Arena. Meanwhile, the Celtics, resplendent in their striped socks, shorty shorts, belts, and shirts that looked like cheap softball tees, entertained their fans by engaging in a free throw shooting contest as bored spectators began to exit the building like a fire had broken out. Too bad. They missed a good game as Boston lost to the Stags in overtime 57–55.
Having coached Connors at Seton Hall, Russell knew the Rifleman was lucky to have even hit the backboard that night but kept him on if only to enhance the gate. Recalled Connors years later, "I'm positive my greatest value to the Celtics was as an after-dinner speaker. It seems to me I did more public speaking for the team than playing that first season. They sent me all over New England on speaking engagements. I'd pick up $25 or $50 an appearance, whatever the traffic would bear. When I wasn't apologizing [for the few wins the team had], I was doing things like 'Casey at the Bat' and 'Face on the Bar Room Floor.' I did 'Casey' at the Boston Baseball Writers Dinner that first winter, and Ted Williams was there too, after winning the 1946 American League MVP Award. Ted was very kind to me and laughed his head off at my rendition. Afterward, he said to me, 'Kid, I don't know what kind of basketball player you are, but you ought to give it up and be an actor.' So doing those after-dinner speeches was my raison d'etre."
Having haphazardly assembled a team, Russell watched his men lose 10 of their first 11 games, finally winning a couple against the Pittsburgh Ironmen, a team more woeful than his own. Only the classic upcoming Notre Dame–Army football game and the nearly complete absence of interest generated by the Celtics saved poor Honey Russell.
Other than Connie Simmons, Honey Russell coached only one decent player, small forward Al Brightman. Honey lost Brightman after that first season in peculiar fashion; it seems Brightman and his wife had driven across the country from Seattle to Boston for his second year, but Al had left his wallet home and headed back to Seattle to retrieve it ... and never came back East. Eventually, Brightman became a coach himself, cultivating Seattle University into a national powerhouse and in later incarnations coaching in the ABA and operating one of Chuck Connors' resorts.
The roster that year revolved at the expense of evolving. Everyone was technically a rookie, but some ballers had seen their first hardwood floor during WWII; others, like Connie Simmons, had just polished off their high school civics courses. The alliterative Virgil Vaughn from Western Kentucky laced up for 17 games and shot at a .192 clip from the floor, while Don Eliason attempted only one field goal in his NBA career. He missed.
Billeted in rooms in the annex of the Boston Arena, the players had to lie on undersized beds on the occasions they traveled and did not have to catch their sleep on the train. Or buses.
Poor players hampered Coach Russell that first year as his men staggered to a 22–38 record, but the Celtics survived as a franchise, no mean feat as Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh folded. The game bored its fans, with poor shooters, no three-point shots, and no shot clock to prevent teams from freezing the ball with endless passing. At times the game resembled the siege of a castle, with set shots resembling the deliberate firing of medieval catapults.
Admitted Honey, the basketball season is "not too long for the players; it's too long for the coaches." After one trying game on the road, Russell addressed his charges by imploring them, "I know you're all nuts, but I have to go home and I'm leaving you on your own. Please act like gentlemen." Instead, they stole "the tail off the buffalo in the railroad station and wound up in [jail]." Imagine Walter Brown's response to that one: "Come again? They stole the what off the what, where?"
Trimmed down to eight teams, the NBA endured for a second autumn, with the Celtics profiting principally from the addition of Ed Sadowski, a pickup in the dispersal draft from the defunct Cleveland Rebels. Fueling the insanity, in their one year of existence the Rebels had dominated the Celtics, winning four of their six contests, yet they ceased operations. By living to fight another year, the Celtics scooped up Sadowski, for free, and made the playoffs, quite undeservingly considering they posted a 20–28 record. In a low-scoring league with only 48 games (a reduction of 20 percent of their contests from the previous seasons), Big Ed scooped rebounds and scored 910 points, earning first-team league-wide honors while alienating everyone on the parquet.
Excerpted from "Then Russell Said to Bird ..." by Donald Hubbard. Copyright © 2013 Donald Hubbard. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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