Celtics Lakers

This is Part 6 of our The Worst of Celtics-Lakers series. And I hate to break this to you, but it turns out that, sometimes, '69 isn't gratifying for both parties involved.

1969 NBA Finals

Deck stacking: Some NBA conspiracy theorists -- Jeff Van Gundy prime among them -- have half-seriously suggested that there should be an investigation into the Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol this season. But with all due respect to Mitch Kupchak, that transaction was nothing compared to the coup that Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke pulled off on July 9, 1968. That was the day he sent Darrall Imhoff, Jerry Chambers and Archie Clark -- otherwise known as "Who, who, and who?" -- to Philadelphia for one Wilton Norman Chamberlain. For comparisons sake, that would have been like Kupchak getting Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard for Ronny Turiaf, Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic.

Of course, the transaction was made possible by the fact that Cooke was willing to pay out the ass for Wilt: An NBA record-busting $250,000 after taxes. (Yes, Wilt insisted that his employers pay his taxes as part of his contract.) To provide some perspective, Jerry West -- who had been the Lakers top moneymaker -- was getting $100,000 before taxes. And in case you were wondering, the answer is: Yes, this kind of deal would be impossible today given the current salary cap restrictions.

Expectations: This was supposed to be The Year for the Lakers, no question about it. Adding Wilt to a championship-caliber squad that already included Jerry West and Elgin Baylor made them the NBA's first superteam. It was literally impossible at the time to imagine they would lose to anybody, let alone the creaky, old Celtics. Not that Boston didn't receive an appropriate level of respect and reverence for what they had accomplished over the last decade, but come on. Sam Jones was 36. Bill Russell was 35 and playing through leg injuries that had hospitalized him during the regular season. They snuck into the playoffs with a 48-34 record, last among the Eastern Division playoff teams and their worst record since 1950. (And yes, that was BA; Before Auerbach.) Of course, that record was a little deceiving because of...

The first Shaq. You know how The Big Coffee Break likes to take mini-vacations during the regular season so that he'll have that oh-so-fresh feeling for the playoffs? Well, Bill Russell was way, way ahead of him on that front. According to John Havlicek: "One of the reasons we finished fourth (in the Eastern Division) was that Russell missed a lot of games near the end of the season, and that was a blessing because he had two or three weeks where he didn't play. He sort of came back to the playoffs rejuvenated." Yup. Bill Russell did a little sandbagging in his time. Funny how nobody ever mentions that.

Getting it wrong (again): Sports Illustrated declared as early as 1963 that the Celtics were too old to win another championship -- good call, huh? -- and their opinion certainly hadn't changed with the passing of six more years. This is how SI's Frank Deford put it: "As all schoolchildren know, the Celtics are too old. Too old. Too old. This is a recording." But in all fairness, Frank wasn't alone. At the time, many sportswriters were regularly referring to Bill Russell as "the old man." Oh, and Las Vegas had the Lakers as nine-to-five favorites to beat their hated rivals. So, yeah, pretty much everybody was getting it wrong.

Misdirection: On the subject of sandbagging, Bill Russell passed Jerry West while on his way to the Celtics pregame practice before the series opener, and he asked The Logo how he was feeling. This is how Jerry responded: "I feel like I got nothing in me. This season's been two years long."

West's "nothing" turned out to be good for 53 points in 46 minutes, which propelled the Lakers to a thrilling 120-118 win (despite 39 points from John Havlicek). West was so hot that Russell approached him during the third quarter and said: "Empty, huh? I'm getting so I just don't believe you country boys anymore."

Fun fact: Mr. Clutch said that his hot hand actually started to embarrass him late in the game, causing him to pass off to Elgin Baylor and Johnny Egan rather than take more shots. Seriously. (Can you imagine, say, Kobe getting embarrassed by how many shots he was taking?) After the game, West's shooting arm was so sore that it had to be iced down.

The Boston defense: During their championship years, the Celtics had always used defense as their primary weapon. It failed them in the first two games. By a lot. As noted, they got shelled by West and the Lakers in Game 1, and it happened again in Game 2: West finished with 41 of his team's 118 points and the Lakers took a 2-0 lead that felt more like a 7-0 lead...to everybody outside the Boston locker room.

A critical turnover, Part I: Boston won Game 3 to get back into the series, and Game 4 turned into an all-out defensive battle that the Lakers should have won. But of course they didn't. L.A. was ahead 88-87 with 15 seconds left and they had the ball. The only thing standing between them and a 3-1 series lead was a simple inbounds play...which they totally screwed up. Emmette Bryant stole the pass and the Celtics broke downcourt to try and steal the game.

A critical turnover, Part II (or "Home cooking, Part I"): After Bryant's steal, Sam Jones misfired on a potential go-ahead basket. Wilt slapped the rebound to Elgin Baylor and the game should have been over. But it wasn't. Referee Joe Gushue called Baylor for stepping out of bounds. Suffice to say, Baylor disagreed -- vehemently -- but Gushue ignored him and awarded the ball to the Celtics...giving the home team one last shot at, well, a miracle.

The unstoppable miracle, Part I: This is only a "worst of" if you're a Lakers fan. The Celtics had seven seconds to score. John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried convinced Russell to run a triple-pick play they called "Ohio" (so named because John and Larry had used it when they played together at Ohio State). The play was complicated, almost ridiculously so, and the Celtics had never actually used it in a game (Russell hadn't even attended the practice at which the play had been introduced). But they ran it anyway.

Sam Jones, who was the designated shooter, ran into teammate Baily Howell, which caused him to slip up while shooting. Knowing he had little chance to hit while off-balance, Jones threw up a high-arcing shot hoping not that it would go in but that Russell would get the rebound. There was only one problem with that idea: Russell had taken himself out of the game, figuring the Celtics needed another shooter more than they needed a rebounder. It didn't matter. Sam's shot went in, and Boston won.

Stat curse, Part I: The Lakers went on to win Game 5 at home (117-104) but Wilt got poked in the eye by Emmette Bryant and Jerry West strained his hamstring. Both players seemed to have recovered by Game 6, but the Celtics won anyway (99-90). After that loss, The Big Dipper was unable to restrain his titanic ego and boldly predicted that the Lakers were a mortal lock to win Game 7 back in L.A. Nostradamus he wasn't.

Bill Russell, quote machine: When Wilt's brash (read that: stupid) words were related to Russell, Boston's player-coach went nuclear: "Who cares what Wilt says? That's all I've heard over and over again through the years -- 'Wilt this and Wilt that.' I don't give a damn what Wilt has to say." Wow. Overreact much, Bill? (Seriously, doesn't that sound more like something you'd expect Rasheed Wallace to say rather than Bill "Mr. Classy" Russell? Yeah, me too.)

Stat curse, Part II: Jack Kent Cooke was a confident man. So confident, in fact, that he planned a wild celebration for his team's inevitable Game 7 victory. The locker room was stocked with expensive champagne. More than 5,000 balloons were strung up in nets on the ceiling to be released after the game. And the University of Southern California's marching band was waiting behind the scenes to play "Happy Days Are Here Again" after the game. Why, Cooke even had a post-game program printed up outlining how the celebration was going to play out (Elgin Baylor was to speak first, followed by Jerry West, and concluding with Wilt).

Unfortunately for Cooke and the Lakers, Bill Russell got a hold of that program. And the Celtics were not amused. Boston literally ran out to a huge lead, using a fastbreaking attack to build a double-digit lead that grew as large as 21 points in the fourth quarter. But the Lakers came back, even despite...

The Big Dipper Quitter: With five minutes left and the Celtic lead cut to a manageable nine points, Wilt came down with a rebound -- his 27th -- and twisted his knee. Lakers trainer Frank O'Neill sprayed Chamberlain's knee with Freon (no, seriously), but Wilt couldn't go and asked to be taken out.

These days, it's fairly common for an injured player to take himself out of a game, even if only temporarily. But in the 1960s, it simply wasn't done. "Real men" were expected to play unless a limb fell off or they exploded. (Red Auerbach, in fact, had once said: "There are no such thing as injuries.") So while it's entirely probable that Wilt really was too hurt to play at that moment, Russell (among others) thought he was faking to avoid getting blamed for losing to the Celtics once again. However, some people (as Basketbawful reader David pointed out) felt as though Wilt was protecting his perfect record of having never fouled out of a game (Chamberlain had 5 fouls at the time).

Butch Van Breda Kolff: Of course, the Laker comeback continued and they eventually cut the deficit to only three points. It was at that point that Wilt asked to be put back into the game. Van Breda Kolff refused, choosing instead to stick with Mel Counts. Chamberlain was enraged and kept stalking around, asking again and again to re-enter the game. Butch finally told him: "I'm not putting you back in. We're playing better without you."

Van Breda Kolff was as good as his word; he never did put Wilt back in. After the game, Butch called Wilt a quitter and Wilt called Butch a liar, and the two men nearly came to blows before being restrained. Which was much better for Van Breda Kolff than it was for Chamberlain, who would have torn the (relatively) teeny man to even teenier pieces.

A critical turnover, Part III: With less than two minutes left, Counts hit a shot to put the Lakers up by one point. It would have been L.A.'s first lead of the game, but Counts was called for traveling and the basket was taken away. It was a huge mistake. Huuuuuge.

The unstoppable miracle, Part II: With less than a minute to go, the Celtics had the ball and a one-point lead. West poked the ball away from John Havlicek, but it ended up in the hands of Don Nelson, who immediately tossed up a 15-footer that hit the back rim, flew up about 30 feet, and dropped straight back down into the basket to give Boston a three-point lead. And that lead would turn out to be insurmountable.

Of his famous shot, Nelson later said: "That was the luckiest shot I ever made in my life. The 24-second clock was running down, and Havlicek made a move. Somebody from behind hit the ball, and it came right to me. I was cutting across the paint. I just grabbed it and shot it very poorly, and it made that crazy bounce and went in. There was no time to chuckle. It was like I planned it that way."

The Lakers' freethrow shooting: Talk about shooting yourself in the foot: L.A. was 28-for-47 from the foul line in that fateful Game 7. Wilt, naturally, was responsible for nine of those misses (he was 4-for-13 on the night). I'm not a mathematologist, but even I know that 19 bonked freethrows probably had an impact on the Lakers' two-point loss. (Thanks to David for the reminder.)

The consolation prize: Despite being a member of the losing team, Jerry West was named Finals MVP...mostly because everybody felt so damn sorry for him. (Also, it probably didn't hurt that he was white.) It remains the one and only time that the Finals MVP went to someone who wasn't on the winning team. West averaged nearly 40 PPG for the series and had a triple double (42 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists) in Game 7.

West received a car for winning that award. But here's the ironic part: The car was green.

More sour grapes: Wilt, being Wilt, was angry and bitter after the game. And again, being Wilt, he chose to vent to the press: "The thing that kills me, they didn't beat us. We beat ourselves. You don't mind too much being beaten by a really superior team, but to go out and beat yourself, it's a shame." Naturally, Bill Russell heard about Wilt's remarks, and that might be at least part of the reason he eventually said whe he said...

Post-mortem: Shortly after the Finals had ended, Bill Russell was speaking at the University of Wisconsin when a student said that the only reason Russell had always defeated Wilt was because he, Russell, always had the better teammates. Not only did Bill disagree -- naming off Wilt's past and present teammates such as Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, Guy Rogers, Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West -- he blasted Wilt for taking himself out of Game 7 while his team still had a chance to win.

Mind you, Russell was retired. He would never have to face Chamberlain on the court again. He could finally speak his mind, and it seems as though there was a little bitterness built up. Russell continued: "Now, in my opinion, if he's hurt so bad that he can't play in the seventh game, he should go straight to the hospital. But if he's hurt and then five minutes later recovers, there's something wrong with that injury. You can't quit like that and win championships." And he wasn't done: "Wilt copped out in the last game. Any injury short of a broken leg or a broken back isn't good enough. When he took himself out of that game, when he hurt his knee, well, I wouldn't have put him back in either." Finally, Russell said: "He asks for [criticism]. He talks a lot about what he's going to do. What it's all about is winning and losing, and he's done a lot of losing. He thinks he's a genius. He isn't."

When Wilt heard about what Russell had said, he was outraged. After all, the two men were longtime friends. Said Chamberlain: "He's been my house guest and he's broken bread with me. I'd like to jam a ball down his throat." Russell refused to apologize or even amend what he had said, and the two men didn't speak for over 20 years. Which, really, was quite a waste of time they could never get back.

Sources: NBA.com, Wikipedia, Basketball-reference.com, Ever Green by Dan Shaughnessy, The Rivalry by John Taylor, and Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, by Wilt Chamberlain and David Shaw.

Further reading: Go read my Lakers Versus Celtics: A Not-So-Brief History post at Deadspin.

Labels: , , ,

Blogger AnacondaHL said...
I miss your pop-culture sequel references for each of these reposts.

This is Part 7 of our The Worst of Celtics-Lakers series. Which, much like Harry Potter 7, will try too hard to change tones and themes while leaving you scratching your head and kinda unsatisfied with how it all ended.

This is Part 8 of our The Worst of Celtics-Lakers series. Much like Internet Explorer 8, it may not be a complete steaming pile of shit, but a much improved lesser shit, still vastly inferior to its competitors.

This is Part 9 of our The Worst of Celtics-Lakers series. Which, much like Star Wars Episode 9, will be a contest for lesser authors bid for a shot to try and imitate the original, but ultimately fail while cashing in.

Blogger Dylan said...
I hate when sports writers try to make a splash with their writing by saying outlandish things. 99% of the time they fail. Just write normally, please.

Blogger Dylan said...
I meant to post that on your other post of the day. My bad.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Van Breda Koff lets Chamberlain come out and doesn't let him back in and that makes Wilt a quitter.
People are morons.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Wilt, despite of his injuries, was a quitter because he asked to be taken out unlike West and Baylor who are playing injured on the court.

And besides, if i were Van Breda Kolff, i wont insert an "injured" player on the court and mess up the chemistry of the lineup who was able to erase a huge deficit in such a short time.