1959 NBA Finals: Boston 4, Minneapolis 0
Celtics Sweep Past Minneapolis
Even though the St. Louis Hawks had won the 1958 title, many insiders felt the Boston Celtics were the superior team heading into the 1958-59 season.
About the only thing undermining the glorious beginning of Boston's dynasty was the undercurrent of racial discord. The NBA and the Celtics were integrating ahead of society. There were few, if any, problems on the team, but Boston was a racially troubled town, as were many American cities. Some sportswriters in Boston made little effort to mask their contempt for Celtics center Bill Russell, and road games were sometimes rough, particularly in St. Louis, where the fans delighted in verbally abusing the player.
As with the rough play on the court, Russell wasn't about to back down.
"Russ has always been extremely militant, and he is to this day," Celtics point guard Bob Cousy said. "He came into Boston with the proverbial chip on his shoulder. His militancy had been honed before he arrived. Of course, there were good reasons for the way he reacted, and I've said many times I would have been far more radical than he was. He couldn't play golf at the local courses. At one point, vandals broke into his house and defecated in his bed."
A master psychologist, coach Red Auerbach created an atmosphere of give-and-take, a unique mix of toughness and fun in which pranksters thrived amid grueling practices, an atmosphere that allowed exploding cigars and other silly gags to bring a soft edge to Auerbach's hard drive for winning. Within this system, the Celtics liked each other and got along, mainly because they all liked winning.
When Russell arrived, Boston's veteran center, Arnie Risen, took him aside and talked about the ins and outs of the competition around the league. Another veteran on another team might not have imparted such knowledge to a rookie, Russell later noted, but Auerbach surrounded himself with people who cared only about winning.
The Celtics started the 1958-59 season having added veteran backup bruiser Gene Conley and newly arrived K.C. Jones, who teamed well with Sam Jones off the bench when Auerbach wanted to step up the defensive pressure. The league enjoyed a banner season, with the Knicks averaging crowds of better than 18,000 in New York. The Celtics, meanwhile, pulled in an average of 8,100 fans per game. Again Russell and Cousy led the league in rebounds and assists, respectively, and again Boston powered to the Eastern Division title, this time by 12 games, with a 52-20 record.
Despite winning the championship the previous season, St. Louis had undergone several major changes, the biggest of which was the retirement of Ed Macauley. Also, Alex Hannum had left as coach because he wanted more control over the team, and owner Ben Kerner wouldn't give it to him. Kerner first hired Andy Phillip to coach the team, but he lasted only a few games into November. The mercurial owner then selected Macauley.
The team had changed its look in the frontcourt with the addition of Clyde Lovellette, who had been picked up in a trade with Minneapolis. During the regular season the Hawks were nearly as powerful in the West as the Celtics were in the East. Bob Pettit had perhaps his best season ever, breaking the league scoring record by averaging 29.2 points. But the Hawks lost in the semifinals to the Minneapolis Lakers, led by rookie sensation Elgin Baylor, who had averaged 24.9 points in his first season.
Boston nearly suffered a similar fate against surprising Syracuse and Dolph Schayes. Their semifinal series went to seven games, with a dramatic finish in Boston Garden. At one point Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most got so excited that he nearly lost his dentures over the rail of the upper press deck.
"We were down by eight points at the half," Most recalled, "and it looked as if the Celtics dynasty would be over before it ever got started. In the second half, it was the most perfectly played basketball game I've ever seen. [Tom] Heinsohn often said it was the best game he ever played in."
The Celtics charged back in the third period, only to have Syracuse surge again before Boston finally won 130-125. "I remember after the game that Cousy said they were gonna take Minneapolis in four straight, and they did," Schayes recalled.
The prediction seemed safe enough. In their last regular-season meeting, in February, the Celtics had humbled the Lakers, 173-139. (The score was so large that it caused commissioner Maurice Podoloff to check into the possibility of point tampering. The game, however, was found to be clean, thoroughly embarrassing the Lakers.) In fact, Boston had beaten Minneapolis 18 consecutive times over the two previous seasons. Many considered it a miracle that John Kundla had gotten his team into the NBA Finals.
The Lakers still had Vern Mikkelsen left over from their old crew during the George Mikan era. They had picked up former Piston Larry Foust, and Hot Rod Hundley started in the backcourt. They also got nearly 14 points per game from Dick Garmaker. This cast, led by Baylor, had finished the regular season at 33-39.
Despite the low expectations, the Lakers managed to keep every game close in the Finals -- they just couldn't get a win. Boston won the first game in the Garden, 118-115, then won Game 2, 128-108. Game 3 was in St. Paul, where the Lakers fell, 123-120. Two nights later, on April 9, Boston finished the sweep with a 118-113 victory in Minneapolis. It was the first sweep in Finals history.
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