The Foundation of a Dynasty
In 1957, the Celtics won their first-ever title and laid the groundwork for the greatest championship run in sports history
It is the greatest dynasty in NBA history. It began 49 years ago. It is still hard to believe.
It started in 1957, when the Boston Celtics defeated the St. Louis Hawks in a tough seven-game series. That was the first of an incredible 11 championships in 13 seasons. Viewed in today’s sports world, it is nothings short of astonishing. And it was the same way at the time.
The foundation arrived in the form of Bill Russell in 1956. With Russell manning the middle, the Celtics owned the rest of the league – at least when it counted. No other team in league history has ever been so good at winning championships for so long.
On the 49th anniversary of Boston’s first championship, it is worth a look back. The year was 1957. The names included Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, and Russell. The team was the Celtics. And their place in history will last forever.
“The Celtic dynasty provided an anchor for the league, said Cousy, the Hall of Fame point guard. “Just like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird later, the Celtics gave the league people to focus on. Fans in Boston loved us, other people loved us, and some people in other cities hated us. But even the people who didn’t like us would follow what we did, hoping that we’d get beat. It was a different time, and we were a team with a lot of pride, and we never lost our hunger. I don’t think you’ll ever see a run like that again.”
The dynasty started when Auerbach, Boston’s legendary coach, engineered one of his many brilliant trades to acquire Russell. Before the 1956 draft, Auerbach traded the rights to Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley to St. Louis in exchange for Russell, who had been the Hawks’ first round pick. The Celtics were changed forever.
“We liked to play, we liked to win, and we liked to have fun,” said Auerbach. “That’s what made it work for so long. You always hear all the crap about chemistry, but we really had it. We’d take summer vacations together. We’d visit each other’s houses. It was really a family.
“Plus, I believed in paying guys according to how much they contributed to winning. I stuck to that, so guys never worried about stats. You could have 20 points one game, two points the next, but you didn’t have to worry about that, as long as you helped us win.”
The Celtics were already a good team before Russell arrived. They had Cousy, one of the greatest point guards of all time, who led the league in assists. They had Sharman, a deadly shooter, who led the league in free throw percentage. They had Heinsohn, a 6-7 rookie from Holy Cross who played like a veteran. They had Jim Loscutoff, a muscular forward who was an enforcer. They had Frank Ramsey, who created Boston’s tradition of a sixth man, plus veteran reserves like Andy Phillip, Arnie Risen and Jack Nichols.
But the arrival of Russell turned the Celtics into a great team. He joined the Celtics late during his rookie season, because he played in the 1956 Olympics in Australia, which didn’t end until early December. By the time Russell showed up, the Celtics were already 13-3. But Russell provided the final piece to Boston’s championship puzzle. He was the most dominant defensive presence that the league has ever seen, blocking shots, snagging rebounds and igniting Boston’s potent fast break.
The 1956-57 Celtics finished with the league’s best record (44-28). There were only eight teams in the NBA, and the power was in the East. All four teams in the Western Division had losing records that year, with St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Fort Wayne posting identical records of 34-38.
Boston entered the playoffs as the overwhelming favorite, and the Celtics cruised through the Eastern Division finals, sweeping Syracuse in three games. Meanwhile, St. Louis won the Western Division for the right to meet Boston in the Finals.
Neither the Celtics nor the Hawks had ever won the championship, so the 1957 championship series was guaranteed to make history. It turned out to be one of the greatest Finals of all time. It went seven games. Two of the games went into overtime. And the underdog Hawks, led by Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit, still believe they should’ve won.
“When you’re a professional athlete, you always feel you’re going to win. At least I did,” said Pettit, who led the Hawks to their only championship In 1958. “Nobody could have imagined in 1957 that the Celtics were about to start a dynasty. You look back on what they accomplished, and you’d have to say they were probably the greatest team ever assembled. But when we played them for the championship, we felt great about our chances.”
Not only did the Hawks have Pettit, but they had a great backcourt featuring Slater Martin and Jack McMahon. And they were player-coached by Alex Hannum, who, 10 years later, became famous for coaching the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers to a 68-13 record and the championship.
The Hawks were not in awe of Boston or Russell, and it showed in Game 1. What was supposed to be a one-sided series became a war. How physical was the action? McMahon fouled out of every game in the series. The Hawks and Celtics played each other nine times during the regular season, and this was a case when familiarity bred contempt. Neither team was fond of the other, and emotions ran high, both on and off the court.
Stunning the Celtics and the Boston Garden crowd, the Hawks won 125-123 in overtime. Boston bounced back to win Game 2, 119-99, but then the series shifted to St. Louis for the next two games.
Game 3 was bizarre from the outset. Before the game, Auerbach punched Hawks owner Ben Kerner in the mouth, earning Auerbach a $300 fine. Auerbach laughed when he recalled the incident.
“Before the game, a couple of our players told me that the basket was too low, so I had the referees check it,” said Auerbach. “The basket was actually at an angle. All of a sudden, Kerner comes running out of the stands screaming, saying I’m up to one of my old tricks. He started calling me every name in the book. I hit him with a left hook – boom. They fined me, but I told them from the beginning that I wouldn’t pay it. I was right.”
Auerbach won his fight that day, but his team didn’t. The Hawks celebrated their return home with a 100-98 victory in Game 3 to take a 2-1 edge in the series, but the Celtics didn’t fold.
Boston came back to even the series by taking Game 4, 123-118. Both teams protected their home court in the next two games, with the Celtics winning Game 5, and the Hawks winning Game 6. Cousy was spectacular in Game 5, passing for 19 assists, which is still a Celtics playoff record.
Game 7 was one of the most memorable in NBA history. It was played on a Saturday afternoon in Boston Garden, in front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience, and it was great exposure for the league.
The game featured 38 lead changes and 28 ties, and it looked as if it might last until Sunday morning. Two free throws by Pettit in the closing seconds of regulation sent the game into overtime. The Celtics thought they had the game won in the first overtime, but a basket by Jack Coleman of St. Louis forced the second overtime.
Finally, with two seconds left in the second overtime, Luscutoff made two foul shots to give Boston a 125-123 lead. Hannum called timeout and set up a play designed for Pettit. Hannum threw a long pass that intentionally ricocheted off the backboard. Pettit soared high for the rebound and shot the ball in one motion, but it bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
Celtics fans poured onto the court in celebration of the team’s first title, and Auerbach lit a victory cigar. Pettit had 39 points in a losing effort, while Russell had 32 rebounds. But the star of the game was Heinsohn, a rookie who enjoyed one of the great games of his career, with 37 points and 23 rebounds. Heinsohn still has vivid memories of that game.
“People talk about the triple-overtime game we had against Phoenix in 1976 when I was coaching the Celtics,” said Heinsohn. “That was also a great game, but it was Game 5. This was Game 7. I mean, there hasn’t been a double-overtime game in Game 7 of the Finals since. You don’t see much footage of that game, and that’s a shame. It was definitely one of the greatest ever played.”
And for the Celtics, it was the beginning of an era. With the addition of players like K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and John Havlicek in the coming years, the Celtics became a machine. St. Louis got revenge in 1958, winning the championship by beating the Celtics in the Finals. But the next eight titles belonged to Boston.
During those glory years, it seemed that somehow, some way, the Celtics always found a way to win. It was a memorable dynasty that created Celtic Pride and Celtic Tradition. Ultimately, the Celtics won 16 championships. All were tremendously satisfying, but that first one – 49 Finals ago – will always be special.
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