In 1969 an aging Boston Celtics club was the defending NBA champion, but the green machine was showing cracks in its armor during the pursuit of an unprecedented 11th title in 13 years.
Their talented, experienced starting lineup featured four future Hall of Famers but they averaged over 32 years of age, with John Havlicek the youngest at 29.
A year before, the Celtics had rallied from a 1-3 deficit in the Eastern finals to knock off the defending champion 76ers, the team that had ended the historic Boston run of eight straight NBA titles in 1967.
Havlicek recalled years later that after ending the Boston streak of championships, 76er fans had prematurely chanted “Boston is Dead”, carrying large homemade banners also to that effect – which served to help motivate the Celtics in their historic 1968 comeback. It was the first time a team had rallied from a 3-1 deficit o win a playoff series in NBA history.
After polishing off Philadelphia 100-96 on the road to win the 1968 eastern finals series 4-3, the 54-28 Celtics took on a familiar Finals foe in the 52-30 Lakers for the championship series.
Heading into game five the tightly-contested series was tied 2-2. The clutch Havlicek netted 31 points as the Celtics took control of the series with a pivotal 120-117 overtime win at the Boston Garden.
Out in Los Angeles for game six, Havlicek led Boston past the Lakers with 40 points in a title-clinching 124-109 win at the brand new Forum. After a brief one-year absence, the crown had returned to Boston for the 10th time in 12 years.
Had the NBA started giving out the Finals MVP award in 1968 instead of the following season, Hondo would have won the honor. He averaged 27.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game in the 1968 championship series, and shot 89 percent from the foul line.
Fast forward a year later, and Boston looked to be a long-shot to repeat as champions. Bill Russell and Sam Jones were in their mid-30s and slowing down noticeably in their final season.
The Baltimore Bullets, behind Rookie of the Year/MVP center Wes Unseld, were racing to the best record in the East at 57-25. The rival 76ers, led by Billy Cunningham and coached by Jack Ramsay, finished second at 55-27. The revamped New York Knicks would also finish ahead of Boston in the East, just a game behind Philly.
The Knicks had become a title contender under new coach Red Holzman after trading Walt Bellamy and Butch Komives to Detroit for All-Star forward Dave DeBusschere a week before Christmas, giving their long-suffering fans an early holiday present. The Knicks were 18-17 when they made the trade, and ended up 54-28.
The move allowed Willis Reed to move from forward to his natural center position, giving the pass-happy Knicks five good defenders and perimeter shooters, as well as room for each to drive. Detroit native DeBusschere, a heady and intense former player-coach with the Pistons, became the missing piece for the Knicks. His rugged defense, rebounding, unselfish passing and outside shooting put the Knicks over the hump.
Young NY guard Walt Frazier and ballyhooed Princeton Rhodes Scholar forward Bill Bradley also came into their own, making the Knicks a legitimate threa to the Celtic crown.
Ironically, the Knicks played the Pistons in the very next game after the DeBusschere trade. Dave scored 21 points, grabbed 15 boards and passed out six assists to lead New York to a 135-87 blowout win over his former team. The rejuvenated Knicks posted a 36-11 regular season record after acquiring DeBusschere, best in the league over that span.
Passed by the streaking Knicks and 76ers, when the calendar turned to February it looked like Boston would secure the fourth and final playoff spot in the highly competitive East. Seeing they were likely locked into the fourth slot, savvy player-coach Russell decided to pace his cagey veteran club and rest/prepare for the playoffs, hoping to avoid the rising Knickerbockers as long as possible.
The Celtics rolled into Texas 14 games over .500 at the 2/3 mark of the long, grueling season to play the second game of a February doubleheader against the then-San Diego Rockets.
In their second NBA season, the Rockets were struggling to gain a foothold in the balmy climate of southern California. They had already started to look for greener pastures and thus played some games in Houston, where they would move in two years.
The original incarnation of the Rockets wore green and gold, and their nickname was appropriate since it paid homage to San Diego’s then-theme of “a city in motion.” The city’s locally-based General Dynamics plant also developed the Atlas missile and booster rocket program, lending itself to the team moniker.
Wanting more of a western presence in the league, the Rockets franchise was born in San Diego in 1967. The Rockets played in the San Diego Sports Arena, which hosted the 1975 Final Four, site of John Wooden’s swansong 10th NCAA title for UCLA.
The growing league had added several expansion teams from 1961-70 – Baltimore (originally Chicago), the Chicago Bulls, Phoenix, Portland, Seattle (now Oklahoma City), Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo and San Diego – to compete with the fledgling American Basketball Association and extend the established league to new markets.
The first Rocket All-Star was underrated swing-man Don Kojis, followed by University of Houston standout Elvin Hayes, the number one pick in the 1969 draft. The Big E became only the second rookie ever, along with Wilt Chamberlain, to lead the league in scoring as a first-year NBA’er.
Despite having several star players, the Rockets moved to Texas after just four seasons in 1971 due to generally poor play (119-209, a .363 win pct.) and low attendance. The record crowd drawn for the Celtic-led twin-bill in Houston probably convinced the Rocket brass that Houston was a viable alternative to San Diego, where the great weather, poor play and lack of pro basketball history combined to doom the Rockets there – and later the ABA Conquistadors/Sails, as well as the Clippers.
The first game that Feb. 4 at the Astrodome was contested between the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings franchise) and the DeBusschere-less Detroit Pistons. The outcome ended up in favor of Cincinnati by a 125-114 count.
Oscar Robertson led the Royals with 37 points while fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas contributed 18 points and 26 rebounds. Bellamy tallied 19 for the Pistons, who were topped by star guard Dave Bing’s 29 markers. The 6-0 Komives, a former NCAA scoring champion at Bowling Green, added 16 points.
Another interesting player competed for those Pistons. Terry Dischinger was a 6-7 All-American forward from Purdue who won the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 1962-63 for the Chicago Zephyrs (which means a strong wind, hence the nickname for the windy city franchise).
Dischinger averaged 25.5 points and eight rebounds a game as a rookie for the Zephyrs, who moved the next year to Baltimore and were renamed the Bullets. After three seasons of 21 ppg play in the NBA, Dischinger volunteered at the peak of his career to serve in Vietnam. Incidentally, Bellamy had also been NBA Rookie of the Year in 1961 for Chicago after averaging 31 points and 19 rebounds a game.
Following two years in the military, Dischinger came back to the NBA for six more seasons, but was never as effective as he was before his self-imposed hiatus.
He ended his career in 1973 with Portland, then became a coach, a TV color commentator for the TrailBlazers and eventually one of the nation’s tallest dentists. Dischinger scored 11 points for Detroit in their loss to the Royals in that Astrodome doubleheader.
Then in the nightcap on February 4, 1969 the Celtics faced the San Diego Rockets – forerunner of the Houston Rockets – in the Houston Astrodome as the premiere attraction of the doubleheader. Doubleheaders, often held at non-NBA venues to boost attendance and interest in the league, were fairly common in that era.
In the 1950s, the financially-struggling league often scheduled twinbills with the popular Harlem Globetrotters playing in the opener before an NBA regular season game. It was not uncommon for a good portion of the crowd to leave before the NBA nightcap started.
But this Astrodome twin-bill was a special one. It attracted an NBA regular season record crowd of 41,163 to the four-year old mega-structure, at the time the only domed stadium in America, dubbed the eighth wonder of the world.
The regular-season attendance record would stand for 19 years, when the Celtics again were the featured visiting attraction in a domed venue. Boston played at the Silverdome against their fierce new rival of Detroit on January 29, 1988 before a record 61,983 fans. On that night, the 30-11 Celtics lost 125-108 despite a Larry Bird 25-11-8 performance as the balanced Pistons placed eight men in double figures.
The previous spring, the Celtics had beaten Detroit 4-3 in a memorably rancorous Eastern finals series, punctuated by the famous Bird steal at the end of game five. In 1988, the rivals would meet again in the eastern finals, with the bruisign Pistons coming out on top this time, 4-2.
Celtic rookie guard Don Chaney had starred for the then-second ranked University of Houston in 1968’s made for TV “Game of the Century” vs. defending champion UCLA. A massive crowd of 52,693 packed the Astrodome and a national TV audience also watched the Cougars upset the top-ranked Bruins and 7-2 All-American Lew Alcindor 71-69, snapping their 47-game win streak.
Rocket rookie Elvin Hayes outscored his later-renamed UCLA counterpart 39-18 in that epic game, the first nationally-televised regular season college basketball game. Two Hayes foul shots broke the final tie and provided the slim margin of victory.
Now in 1969 Hayes and Chaney were on opposite teams a year later in an NBA game between the Rockets and Celtics at the same cavernous venue where the closest seats were still far from the court. In 1971, UCLA would gain a measure of revenge and win the Final Four at the Astrodome over Kansas and then Villanova in the finals, 68-62.
Now commonplace for Final Four venues, the year 1971 marked the first time the national semifinals and finals were played in a massive domed stadium.
Bill Walton and the Rockets
The San Diego Rockets used to practice occasionally at Helix High School, where a slender, redheaded high school center prodigy named Bill Walton was starring. Future 1985-86 Celtic Sixth Man of the Year Walton even used to play in pickup games vs. the Rockets as a high schooler, where he reportedly more than held his own against Hayes and the other Rockets.
Of course the Rocket nickname fit well in Houston due to NASA being based there. Plus, Louisiana native Hayes had been a college superstar for the Houston Cougars. After moving to southeastern Texas, the Rockets changed their color scheme from green and gold to red and gold.
In that record-setting doubleheader nightcap, Boston came in with a 34-20 record while San Diego sported a 23-32 mark.not bad for a second-year expansion team. But the Celtics would be playing without Russell for the third game in a row, which was a huge boon to 6-9 rookie Hayes.
With Russell, Boston had won the previous two meetings between the Celts and Rockets in November by scores of 134-113 and 120-112.
Hayes was held to 17 points in the first meeting, then tallied 26 points with 17 boards in the rematch five days later in San Diego The high-flying Kojis poured in 29 points in the first game against Boston, and followed that up with 32 points and 12 caroms in the second contest before 10,183 in the SD Sports Arena.
Over two months later in their Houston meeting, Boston raced to a 67-58 halftime lead behind star swing-man Havlicek before 41,163 fans curious to see the dynastic Celtics in person for the first time.
Yet the Rockets turned the game around with a 46-25 third period outburst that put them in front 104-92 in the high-scoring game. They then held off Boston despite the Celts outscoring them 34-31 in the final stanza to post a 135-126 triumph.
It was Boston’s third defeat in a row with injured player-coach Russell working the sidelines as head coach only.
Russell’s absence was clearly felt as the Celtics had no capable or experienced backup center. In years past that thankless task had been held down by players like aging All-Star Clyde Lovellette or youngsters Mel Counts and John Thompson, the future Georgetown head coach. All saw less action than the Maytag repairman.
For even in his 13th season, coach Russ played himself nearly 43 minutes a game, leaving little playing time for undersized journeyman backup Jim “Bad News” Barnes and 6-7 rookie Rich Johnson.
The 6-8 Jim Barnes averaged 5.1 points and four rebounds a game for the Celtics that season. A former Knick and Laker reserve from Texas Western, he was the original “Bad News” Barnes, pre-dating Providence standout Marvin Barnes, who later under-performed for Boston.
Barnes scored seven points vs. San Diego at Houston before fouling out. Don Nelson and Satch Sanders also fouled out, while Johnson contributed one basket.
Without Russell hounding him, Rocket standout Hayes led all players with 32 points and 23 rebounds in the SD win, making him 2-0 at the Astrodome. He would lead the NBA in scoring at 28.4 ppg as a rookie.
Rocket guard Jim Barnett, a Celtic first round pick in 1966 who averaged 14.5 ppg in 1968-69 for San Diego, tossed in 31 points against his original team. It was the second-highest point total of the season for Barnett, who tallied 4.1 ppg as a backup for the 1966-67 Celtics after being picked eighth overall in the draft out of Oregon by Boston.
But before he could carve out a Celtic career, Barnett was selected from Boston by the Rockets in the 1967 expansion draft. A heady. good-shooting 6-4 swing-man, “Crazy Horse” Barnett would play for seven teams over a 12-year career, averaging 11.7 points and three assists per game.
In 1970, he was ironically traded to Portland for long-time Celtic guard Larry Siegfried, who had also been plucked from the Boston roster in that year’s expansion draft by the new-born TrailBlazers.
While playing for the Blazers in their maiden season of 1970-71, Barnett averaged a career-high 18.5 ppg. In a game against the rival Lakers, he attempted a desperation, long-range shot that went in, prompting Portland play-by-play announce Bill Schonely to exclaim “Rip City! All right!”
The phrase “Rip City”, which Schonely has no explanation for (it was probably his improvised description of the shot ripping through the net), caught on and has become synonymous with the team, and the city of Portland.
Since 1985, Barnett has been the highly-acclaimed TV analyst voice of the Golden State Warriors, for whom he played from 1971-74.
LA native and USC product John Block scored 16 points for San Diego vs. Boston, while future Laker head coach Pat Riley, the top draft pick of the Rockets in 1967 out of Kentucky, tallied 14. All-Star swing-man Kojis also netted 14 markers.
Rocket backup southpaw guard Rick Adelman, another future NBA head coach with the Kings and Blazers, added nine points. Art “Hambone” Williams, who would go on to average four ppg as a backup guard for Boston from 1970-74, scored eight points for the Rockets against his future team.
The second-year Rockets would finish a respectable 37-45 and make the playoffs, only to lose 4-2 in the West first round to the Atlanta Hawks. It would be the lone Rocket playoff appearance during their four seasons in San Diego.
In their final SD season of 1970-71 under coach Alex Hannum (the only coach to beat Boston in Russell’s dynastic playoff run, first with the 1958 Hawks and then in 1967 with the 76ers), the Rockets won their final seven contests to finish with their best San Diego record at 40-42. But they missed the playoffs by one mere game behind the Warriors, and shortly thereafter moved to Houston.
Havlicek led Boston in the Astrodome defeat with 24 points. Future Hall of Fame forward Bailey Howell netted 20 while Siegfried, Hondo’s best friend and teammate at Ohio State on their 1960 NCAA champion team along with Lucas and a reserve named Bob Knight, contributed 19.
Hondo and Ziggy were road roommates, and Havlicek was very upset when the Celtics lost Siegfried to Portland in the expansion draft. Siegfried scored 11.6 ppg and shot 85.5 percent from the foul line in seven seasons for Boston from 1963-70. He averaged eight ppg for San Diego in 1970-71, then 4.8 ppg for the Rockets the next year when they relocated to Houston.
So stubborn was Siegried that even though the Ohio native was selected in the draft by the Cincinnati Royals in 1961, he refused to play for them. His Ohio State team had lost to Cincinnati in the 1961 NCAA finals, and there were such hard feelings that Larry would not play for that city.
Instead, in 1961-62 played with the fledgling American Basketball League team called Cleveland Pipers – who were owned by a young George Steinbrenner. Along with Dick Barnett, Siegfried helped lead the Pipers to the only ABL title in 1962 under head coach Bill Sharman, the ex-Celtic Hall of Fame sharpshooter who had recently retired.
The next season, the ABL folded before New Year’s Day and on Hondo’s recommendation, Red Auerbach acquired Siegfried for Boston. Larry helped the Celtics win five NBA titles as a third guard and occasional starter. The ABL champion Pipers were actually set to join the NBA as an expansion team after they also acquired the rights to another Ohio State great in Jerry Lucas.
The NBA had programs printed up for their 1963-64 opener at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks, and schedules were drawn up with the Pipers included. But when the bombastic Steinbrenner failed to meet his team payroll, the NBA got cold feet on the Pipers and pulled out on their league entry.
It would be seven more years before Cleveland would get an expansion team in the NBA as the Cavaliers in 1970. Future Ohio State football head coach Jim Tressel, by the way, was the first Cavalier team ballboy that year.
Sweet-shooting 6-6 sixth man Nelson, the future winningest coach in NBA history, also scored 19 points in the well-attended Celtic/Rocket game at the Astrodome. Tom Sanders netted 18 and Sam Jones added 15 markers.
Chaney, who holds the distinction of being the only man to play with Russell and Larry Bird – he was a rookie in his Bill’s last season, and in Don’s final season he was a reserve alongside rookie phenom Bird in 1979-80 – went scoreless. The long-armed future defensive ace on the 1974 NBA champion Celtics averaged four ppg as a rookie.
Just eight days short of his 35th birthday on February 4, player/head coach Russell was in the midst of missing four straight games. Yet the ironman played 77 out of 82 games that season, averaging 9.9 points, 19.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists a game in a whopping 42.7 minutes per outing. His rebound average was second only to Chamberlain’s 21.1 mark.
Blocked shots were not kept as an official NBA statistic until 1973-74, four seasons after Russell retired in 1969. But it is reasonable to assume that even in his final season he averaged at least four blocks per game – plus several other intimidations or hurries that forced misses.
Boston’s record in the five games Russell missed as a player in his final season was just 2-3. Even though his scoring average dipped to a career-low at just under 10 ppg in his last season, the center’s stout defense, prodigious rebounding and unselfish passing, as well as his intangibles, were very key to winning.
Russell had mastered the subtle art of maximizing his teammates, understanding their games and how his unique skills could bring out the best in them. Russ was kind of like a bigger, better and higher-scoring version of Dennis Rodman, without the baggage. Wilt, who was arguably the superior individual player, never learned the rare skill of bringing out the best in his teammates until late in his career.
Ironically with Russell retired, an aging and less mobile Wilt morphed into a reasonable facsimile of his long-time nemesis in his last seasons as a Laker under new coach Bill Sharman, helping the Lakers to the 1972 title (where he was named Finals MVP), and to the 1973 Finals in his last campaign.
Under ex-Celtic great Sharman, Wilt concentrated on defense, rebounding and triggering the lethal Laker fast break while shooting infrequently but at nearly a 70 percent clip, mostly on dunks and finger rolls.
With Russell and Jones retired before the 1969-70 season, depleted Boston sank to sixth in the East with a 34-48 record, 26 games behind the champion Knicks. Fianlly able to draft high, they capitalized by choosing unheralded and undersized 6-8.5 redhead center Dave Cowens out of Florida State, who helped form the foundation of the second Celtic dynasty in the 1970s.
New coach Tom Heinsohn began the arduous job of rebuilding and was able to get Boston back into the playoffs in 1972 after a rare two-year post-season hiatus.
With the additions of JoJo White and co-Rookie-of-the-Year Cowens to go with the tireless Havlicek, who was the reliable bridge from the Russell era to the Cowens epoch, the Celtics went 44-38 in 1970-71, yet still narrowly missed the playoffs.
But back in 1969, the Celtics were still determined to show all the doubters they had one last championship run left in their weary legs.
The leading scorers for the well-balanced 1968-69 Celtics were Havlicek (21.6), Howell (19.7), Jones (16.3), Siegfried (14.2), Nelson (11.6) and Sanders (11.3). Siegfried topped the NBA in foul shooting at an 86.4 percent clip. Hondo was named second team All-NBA and second team all-defense that season. Russell, DeBusschere and Frazier made the first team all-defense squad.
Boston finished 48-34, nine games behind the first-place Bullets in the East. The 76ers edged the Knicks by a single game with 55 wins, good for second-place.
But in the weird NBA playoff format then, the fourth-seeded Celtics got to play the second seed 76ers in round one, while the top seed Bullets played number three New York. With Chamberlain having been traded from Philadelphia to the Lakers before that season, Boston dispatched the rival 76ers 4-1 as Havlicek led the Celtics with 27.2 ppg in the series to offset 24.4 ppg by Cunningham.
The red-hot Knicks swept Baltimore 4-0 to reach the East finals against the rival Celtics. The victory was part of a trio of New York upsets over Baltimore that year – the Miracle Mets upset the juggernaut 109-53 Orioles 4-1 in the 1969 World Series, and the Joe Namath-led AFL Jets upset the favored NFL champion Colts in Super Bowl III.
The Knicks and Bullets would go on to meet every year in the playoffs from 1969 through 1974, with New York winning five of those six hotly-contested series. The Bullets did upset the defending champion Knicks 4-3 in the 1971 East finals, winning by a point in game seven when Unseld tipped Bradley’s last-second corner jumper..
In the 1968-69 regular season, the rising Knicks beat Boston six out of seven times, giving their long-suffering fans hope that this was finally their year to win a first NBA title – and take out the rival Celtics in Russell’s farewell run.
Boston seized homecourt advantage from the Knicks with a 108-100 win in game one at Madison Square Garden. In the pivotal fourth game, the Cetlics held off NY 97-96 when Reed missed a potential winning jumper with eight seconds left. Unheralded veteran guard Em Bryant, a former Knick, sank two foul shots to clinch the victory for Boston, giving them a 3-1 lead.
After losing game five, Boston then closed it out with another one-point win in game six by a 106-105 count as Jones poured in 29 points against a hobbled Frazier, slowed by a groin injury. It was a case of the more savvy and veteran Celtics being able to narrowly get past the up-and-coming Knicks, whose players had relatively no playoff past.
It was also, Harvey Araton wrote in his recent book “When the Garden was Eden,” the biggest disappointment of Red Holzman’s coaching career. “That was supposed to be our year, not theirs,” he lamented.
Russell sagely predicted the NBA needed to watch out for the Knicks after the 1969 playoffs, saying they were the coming powerhouse of the league. Bryant also told a distraught Reed in the locker room after the Celtics beat the Knicks in 1969 to “be patient…you guys are next.”
Their predictions came true when New York won their first NBA title the next spring in 1970 over the Lakers in another memorable Finals (and another agonizing LA Finals loss), 4-3.
But back in 1969, the Celtics had to face the Lakers for the sixth time to conclude that turbulent decade in the Finals. Yet after losing the previous five times to Boston, this time LA enjoyed home court advantage – and had added Wilt to their vaunted one-two punch of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
The trio formed probably the most star-studded guard-forward-center trio in NBA annals. But only West of the threesome was in his prime. Baylor was slowed by knee injuries and was 33. Witl was on his third team in five years and his umpteenth coach, a stubborn college mentor named Butch Van Breda Kolff, who had coached Bradley at Princeton.
The Lakers won the first two games in the Forum as the determined West fired in 53 and 41 points, respectively. “I think Jerry West was the equal of Michael Jordan,” said an admiring Tom Heinsohn years later.
West’s second outburst offset 43 Havlicek markers in game two. Back home in the Garden, Boston took a must-win game three 111-105 as Siegfried tossed in a series-best 28 points to support 34 from his pal Hondo.
With LA ahead late in game four at the Garden and apparently headed for a 3-1 lead, the series pivoted. In the final seconds with LA on top 88-87, Boston missed a shot but Baylor stepped out of bounds trying to save the ball.
Given another chance by the crucial turnover, the clutch Jones took a Havlicek pass behind a triple screen and launched an off-balance 18-footer from the circle at the buzzer. It hit the front rim, caromed to the backboard and dropped in as Howell jumped up for the tip and pulled his hands away at the last second to give Boston an improbable 89-88 victory, tying the series and setting off a wild on-court celebration.
The Lakers had to believe they were snake-bitten after that crushing defeat. Instead of leading 3-1 with a chance to close it out in game five at home in the two-year old Fabulous Forum, they were tied 2-2.
The teams traded wins in games five and six to set up the decisive seventh game in LA one of the most dramatic contests in NBA annals. It was the third game seven Finals showdown between the rivals in the decade. “We’ve done it before,” said Russell, when asked if Boston could win a game seven on the road, referring to the 1968 eastern final win at Philadelphia.
In 1962 Laker guard Frank Selvy had missed an open, left side 16-footer as time expired to force overtime, where the Celtics went on to prevail 110-107. Four years later, Boston staved off a late West-led Los Angeles rally to post a 95-93 game seven win in Auerbach’s last game as head coach.
Now in 1969, the Lakers had shored up their big weakness at center when facing Russell and Boston. Not only that, they had great hunger, home court and all the motivation in the world to knock off a clearly declining Celtic dynasty.
Yet they lacked the knowledge and experience of how to pull off that tall task, something only the 1958 Hawks of Bob Pettit and Wilt’s 1967 76ers had been able to accomplish since their dominating run began in 1957.
The aging Celtics, under player-coach Russell in his final game, ditched their pre-game strategy and decided to run the younger Lakers after feeling disrespected by a couple of brazen pre-game moves by Laker brass. First, owner Jack Kent Cooke had hundreds of balloons suspended high above the Forum floor in netting in anticipation of a post-game celebration release.
Sam Jones also found a print-out sheet courtside detailing how the Lakers planned to arrange interviews with Baylor, West and Wilt in order after the seventh game victory. When Jones showed this to Russell, the veteran player-coach had found the extra motivation needed to fire up his team.
With the Lakers paralyzed by expectations of winning, Havlicek gunned Boston to a 91-76 lead heading to the fourth period after a 32-20 third quarter outburst. Yet the valiant West, playing with a strained hamstring, led a gallant Laker rally.
Giant rivals Wilt and Russell each had five fouls in the final period in their final meeting, and played cautiously – Wilt had never fouled out of an NBA game and never did.
After he came down awkwardly with a defensive rebound midway through the fourth quarter, Chamberlain limped to the Laker bench and took himself out of the game with a jammed knee.
Yet LA began to rally behind West and reserve center Mel Counts, a former Celtic. West shot the Lakers within a point by hitting several baskets, but they never got over the hump. He missed a long jumper that would have given them the lead, then lost the ball when he tried to split a double team.
Wilt asked back in, but was denied re-entry in a controversial move by coach Van Breda Kolff, who explained that he felt the team was playing better without him in there. A tying Counts jumper was disallowed for traveling, and later Russell blocked a reverse layup by big Mel that might have tied it.
The speedy Havlicek came up with a huge steal when Keith Erickson passed up an open corner jumper in an attempt to hit Baylor under the basket. Hondo saw the pass coming and streaked from the foul line to the baseline to deflect the pass.
After coming close only to lose to the Celtics so many times, the Lakers simply could not get over the mental block of beating Boston, despite several late chances.
Siegfried then hit three clutch late foul shots. One last bit of ignominy haunted the Lakers, however. With the shot clock running down, Erickson poked the ball away from Havlicek and sprinted upcourt for a potential tying layup.
But his defensive slap-away instead served instead as a perfect pass, traveling several feet right into the hands of a wide-open Nelson at the foul line. Nelson’s infamous 15-foot jumper hit the back of the rim and bounced higher than the top of backboard before coming straight down through the hoop to provide the difference in a dramatic 108-106 win.
In that case, the leprechaun had followed the Celtics to Los Angeles. In Nellie’s case, it had to be a particularly sweet shot since the Lakers had cut him four years before.
Siegfried ended up with the ball as time expired and as a veteran of many championships, he matter-of-factly handed the ball to referee Earl Strom before jogging off the court to the locker room to be with his happy teammates.
Auerbach crowed after the delicious win, asking rhetorically how the Lakers were going to get those ballooons out of the netting suspended high above court, one by one. But even Red stopped short of the locker room to praise West’s great effort to ABC color analyst and former Royal All-Star forward Jack Twyman.
“One more time, one more time,” he gloated in the locker room celebration as Russell spoke with Twyman, rubbing his head in relief and disbelief. “Jack…I wouldn’t trade these guys for anyone,” he said of his Celtic teammates, then he hugged a smiling Havlicek.
Due to his heroic 42-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist performance in game seven, West was named Finals MVP, the only time in 50 years that a player from the runner-up team has won the honor. West averaged 37.4 points and 7.4 assists a game in those Finals, shooting 49 percent from the field and 84 percent from the foul line.
Without making excuses after the bitter defeat, a hobbled West climbed the stairs to the top of the Forum to accept his award. Ironically he was given a green car for winning the Finals MVP, which he never drove and reportedly gave away because the color reminded him of the Celtics.
After losing by a point in the 1959 NCAA finals to California for his home state West Virginia squad West lost six times in the NBA Finals from 1962-69 to the Celtics – three times in game seven by a combined total of seven points, once in OT. It was enough to drive a fierce competitor like “The Logo” crazy.
When Jerry finally earned the championship ring in 1972 as the Lakers beat the Knicks 4-1, he was so haunted by all the close championship defeats that he could not truly enjoy the belated triumph. All those bitter defeats helped motivate West to build the 1980s/early 2000s Laker powerhouses as their general manager, winning eight more rings.
Havlicek led Boston with 28.3 points and added 11 rebounds per game in the historic 1969 Finals. Russell averaged 21.1 rebounds, 9.1 points and a team-high 5.1 assists a game in the series to neutralize Wilt, who averaged 11.7 points and 25 rebounds per contest.
Chamberlain sank only 24 of 64 foul shots in the Finals (37.5 percent), including 4-13 in game seven. Russell, himself a career 56 percent foul shooter, canned only 39.7 percent of his field tries (25-63) in the Finals.
Jones added 18.7 ppg, including 24 points in his game seven swansong, before fouling out late trying to contain West. The acclaimed bank-shooter shot 10-16 from the field in his victorious finale. In nine career playoff do-or-die seventh games, Jones averaged 27 ppg and never lost one time.
Russell recorded six points, 21 boards and six assists in his career finale while Havlicek led the way with 26 points. Wilt contributed 18 points and 27 caroms in the epic seventh game, his final showdown with Russell.
After his retirement, during a speaking tour Russell criticized Wilt for removing himself from the seventh game, saying “anything short of a broken leg isn’t a good enough reason.” The public slight fractured their tenuous friendship for several years, until they eventually made up.
More historic scheduling quirks
In the wake of the Celtic/Rocket 1969 Astrodome success, an almost completely unknown and truly unique NBA oddity took place during the 1971-72 season between the Rockets and Warriors, who met in a memorable seven-game NBA conference finals series last spring,
In the talented NBA draft of 1970 that also featured Hall of Famers Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens and Pete Maravich, the Rockets added best pals and future stars Rudy Tomjanovich of Michigan, and 5-9 dynamo Calvin Murphy out of Niagara.
But the Rockets, who were then in the East, were never able to win a playoff series until 1975 when they beat New York 2-1 in the first round. DeBusschere, Reed and Lucas had retired after they fell in the 1974 East finals to the eventual champion Celtics, and the Knicks were a shell of their championship selves without the trio of aging Hall of Fame frontcourt stars.
Ironically, Jim Barnett averaged 10.3 ppg for the Knicks in their first round loss to the Rockets. The Rockets then lost to the Celtics 4-1 in the 1975 eastern semifinals. Hondo led seven Celtics in double digits for the series with 24.2 ppg. Cowens added 20 points and 16 rebounds per contest.
The diminutive Murphy led all series scorers with 26.6 ppg, followed closely by Tomjanovich with 25.8 ppg.
In 1980, Houston and Moses Malone lost to rookie Bird and Boston in the eastern semis again 4-0, as perennial All-Star Rick Barry retired after the sweep. Celtics Cowens and Pete Maravich also called it quits after that season.
The Rockets then moved to the Western Conference and reached the NBA Finals in 1981, losing to the Celtics in six games. Rudy T retired after the 1981 season and later coached the Rockets to the NBA title in 1994 and 1995.
In 1986 the Twin Tower Rockets of Olajuwon and Sampson (and guided by 1981 Celtic title coach Bill Fitch) again eliminated the Lakers out west and returned to the Finals, only to be grounded once more by the Celtics in six games.
One of the original eight NBA teams still in existence, the Warriors started in Philadelphia as a descendant of the dominant South Philadelphia Hebrew Association teams of the 1930s and ‘40s. The renamed Warriors won two NBA titles in 1947 and 1956 before moving to the Bay area. To be precise, their 1947 title was won in the very first year of the BAA (Basketball Association of America), which merged with the National Basketball League to form the NBA in 1949.
The Philly version of the Warriors were a big rival of the Celtics from 1958-62. They met four times in the playoffs, with Boston taking each series.
In 1962, the last Warrior year in Philly, the rivals met in the East finals for a seven-game thriller. Warrior jump-shooter Paul Arizin, a college star at Villanova and a Hall of Famer, retired at age 34 after the season rather than move west even though he had a few good years left. In his last campaign of 1961-62, the two-time NBA scoring champ still averaged 21.9 ppg and made his 10th All-Star Game.
This was also the season Wilt Chamberlain hit for 100 points against the Knicks and averaged over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game under coach Frank McGuire. Amazingly, he also averaged over 48 minutes per game in 1961-62 due to overtimes and rarely sitting out.
The Celtics and Philly Warriors capped their fierce rivalry with a seven-game thriller in the 1962 eastern finals. The clubs alternated wins through six games for a 3-3 tie heading back to the Boston Garden for the decider.
In a classic barn-burner, Boston rallied from a 56-52 halftime deficit to win 109-107 and return to the Finals for a sixth straight year. Unfortunately, no known footage remains of this epic series.
Two years after the Warriors moved west, Boston beat the San Francisco Warriors, led by original Twin Towers Chamberlain and rookie Nate Thurmond, 4-1 in the 1964 NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors were known as the San Francisco Warriors from 1962-1971, when they announced the name change to Golden State – California’s nickname as a nod to the 19th century west coast gold rush.
The Warriors also changed their name because they were going to play some home games in the vacated San Diego market/arena, as well as in Oakland and SF. This despite the fact that northern California San Francisco and extreme southern California stronghold San Diego are separated by close to 500 miles.
Thus it was very ironic that in the 1971-72 campaign the newly-minted Houston Rockets and newly-renamed “Golden State” Warriors met twice during the NBA season in the Rockets’ former home of the San Diego Sports Arena.
The Rockets were coached by future Hall of Famer Tex Winter, the man who invented the famed triple-post or triangle offense that Phil Jackson later borrowed while Tex was his assistant with the Bulls in the 1990s.
Golden State was led by ex-Warrior guard Al Attles, who would guide the team to the 1975 NBA crown behind Finals MVP Rick Barry.
In their historic first meeting vs. the Warriors on November 21, 1971 the Rockets returned to San Diego with a 3-17 record. A curious crowd of 6,297 fans showed up to see their recently-relocated former team.
Led by sharpshooting guard Mike Newlin’s 31 points, Houston outscored Golden State 32-10 in the fourth period to rally and upset the 14-6 Warriors by a 115-96 count.
Murphy and the Big E each contributed 17 points, while Rudy T added 11. Cazzie Russell led Golden State with 24 markers.
On March 3, 1972, the old Rockets and semi-San Diego Warriors again met in the SD Sports Arena. This time the Warriors blasted the Rockets with a 30-10 second quarter outburst, then held off a big fourth period rally to beat Houston 108-107.
Swingman Jeff Mullins paced Golden State with 30 points as the Warriors improved to 44-26. Tomjanovich topped Houston (28-41) with 26 points, while Murphy netted 25 and future Laker announcer Stu Lantz added 23.
A total of 6,264 fans watched the rematch, more than what the Rockets averaged over their four seasons in San Diego. The two teams also met in Oakland once that season, a 115-99 Rocket upset win.
Playing their first NBA season as Houston Rockets in the Pacific Division, Winter’s Rockets led by Hayes, Tomjanovich and Murphy finished fourth with a 34-48 record, 17 games behind the 51-31 Warriors.
Houston ended up 35 games behind the eventual champion Lakers, who set an NBA season record for wins that 1971-72 season with 69, a mark that stood for 24 years.
Led by Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain, LA also set the still-standing league record for consecutive wins with 33 in that campaign.
Ironically, the streak started the same night all-time great Elgin Baylor retired nine games into the season – and ended at Milwaukee against the defending champion Bucks over two months later – the team who had set the previous win streak record of 20 just the year before.
Although Houston played 13 home games at San Antonio in 1972-73, the San Diego Golden State/Rocket experiment was not renewed again.
In 1978 another expansion franchise, the eight-year old Buffalo Braves, moved to the vacated San Diego market and were christened as the Clippers. In 1979 they signed hometown great Walton as a free agent, and the center played to varying levels of success through parts of several injury-plagued seasons as a Clipper before moving on to Boston in 1985 as a result of the Cedric Maxwell trade.
Six years later in 1984, like the Chargers did 33 years later, the Clippers moved north from San Diego to Los Angeles. But the Chargers actually originally played in the old American Football League for the city of Angels in 1960 before moving south to San Diego a year later.
The colorful ABA also housed the mostly-inept San Diego Conquistadors/Sails franchise from 1972 until they folded in 1976. After retiring from the Lakers following their 1973 Finals loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain was actually named player-coach of the San Diego Conquistadors in 1973-74.
But the Lakers still held a one-year player option on his contract, and combustible LA owner Jack Kent Cooke would not allow him to play for the rival ABA team after he jumped the club at age 36 to try out the six-year old rival ABA.
Thus Wilt was only allowed to coach the Q’s, whom he led to a 37-47 record, the best in the brief annals of the franchise. SD lost in the western semis to eventual 1974 ABA runner-up Utah, 4-2. Future Philadelphia 76er seven-footer Caldwell Jones was the top player on Wilt’s squad, and Chamberlain predicted future stardom for CJ.
Jones went on to play a key role as a defender/rebounder for the 76ers in their early 1980s rivalry with the Celtics. Philly and Boston met in three straight Eastern Conference finals from 1980-82, winning in five in 1980 and in seven in 1982.
Boston rallied form a 3-1 deficit to beat the 76ers in 1981 en route to the title, just as they had in 1968. In 1982 vs. the rival Sixers, Boston again rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie it in the East finals. It appeared that the Celtics would repeat their rally of a year ago at home. But without injured play-maker Nate Archibald, the Sixers avoided another embarrassing fold and won the decider in Boston.
At the end of that seventh game, the Celtic crowd started the infamous “Beat LA, Beat LA” chant to inspire the 76ers past LA but they los tin six to Los Angeles. Once again the NBA narrowly missed out on a dream Bird/Johnson, Celtic/Laker Finals, something they would have to wait until 1984 to savor.
As coach of the Conqusitadors, often called the Q’s for short, legend has it that Wilt often came to practice late (when he bothered to show) via helicopter from his LA home with sand in his hair after playing volleyball on the beach. He coached games in sandals as well.
When Wilt didn’t show up, assistant/future NBA head coach Stan Albeck and Q’s reserve guard Jimmy O’Brien, later a successful head coach at Boston College and Ohio State, ran the team.
Among the men who coached the ABA San Diego club after Wilt’s lone season were ex-Kentucky great Alex Groza, a 6-7 former NBA All-Star barred from playing after the discovery of his collegiate involvement in a gambling scandal, and controversial former University of Minnesota mentor Bill Musselman.
The renamed Sails folded early in the ABA’s final season of 1975-76 with a record of 3-8. Mark Olberding, a long-time 6-9 forward with the Spurs, Bulls and Kings, was a 19-year old rookie with those Sails. After one season as a Golden Gopher, he followed Musselman from Minnesota to the ABA before NCAA sanctions hit his alma mater.
The burly Olberding averaged 15.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game for the Sails. After the club folded, he was picked up by the Spurs and spent the next seven years with San Antonio.
Unlike sports-mad Boston and its highly successful teams, great-weather San Diego has long been a graveyard of pro sports, in particular basketball.
To contact the author, you can email Cort Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.