1966 NBA Finals: Boston 4, L.A. Lakers 3
Red Lights Cigar to Close Coaching Career
The doctors told Los Angeles Lakers star Elgin Baylor that his knee injury had ended his playing career. For a while, he believed them.
The main ligament in his knee had been severely damaged and his kneecap had been split practically in half. Immediately after the injury in the 1965 Western Division Finals, he was worried about just being able to walk again. But the pain subsided, and Baylor found he still had some mobility. "The more I thought about it," he said, "the more determined I became to prove the doctors wrong."
By training camp that next fall, Baylor was able to see limited action. Eventually he returned to full speed, but he was never again the dynamic player he had been. Before, Baylor had dazzled opponents with his fearless approach to driving and rebounding. After the injury, that part of his game diminished.
"I wasn't the same player," said Baylor. "I was about 75 percent of the player I had been."
That, of course, was still better than the vast majority of players in the league.
Baylor played in 65 games in 1965-66 and averaged 16.6 points. Jerry West, who was scoring at an average of 31.3 points per contest, became the top option in the Lakers' offense. But Baylor's mere presence was enough to make them a stronger team. They won the West with a 45-35 record and eliminated the Hawks in a seven-game conference finals series. The team was further bolstered by the emergence of a pair of guards, Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich. Both had starred for John Wooden's national championship teams at UCLA.
The Eastern Division, meanwhile, was a dogfight. Wilt Chamberlain led the Philadelphia 76ers back to take some of the steam out of the Boston dynasty. Tom Heinsohn had retired from the Celtics at the end of the previous season, and John Havlicek became a starter. Don Nelson, acquired on waivers after Los Angeles had released him, inherited the role of sixth man.
For the first time in a decade, the Celtics didn't win the Eastern Division title. The 76ers won 55 games and Boston won 54. But Boston regrouped in the playoffs. Philly had received a first-round bye, while Boston fended off Cincinnati in a preliminary round. The layoff hurt Chamberlain and the Sixers. They were caught flat in the Eastern Division Finals as Boston won in five games. Boston had lost six of 10 games to Philadelphia during the season, but again it was Bill Russell's team that went on to play for the title.
The 1966 championship series quickly turned into another typical Celtics-Lakers scrap. The Celtics had a 38-20 lead in Game 1 in the Boston Garden, but the Lakers fought back to tie it late in the game. With the score even in the final minute, Russell blocked a Baylor shot and was called for goaltending. Sam Jones scored for Boston to send the game into overtime, in which Baylor and West propelled the Lakers to a 133-129 win. Baylor had scored 36 points, West 41. But instead of the psychological edge falling to the Lakers, the attention abruptly shifted to Boston.
After the game, Red Auerbach announced that Russell would be his replacement as head coach, starting with the 1966-67 season. As player-coach, Boston's center would become the first black head coach in a major American sport. Auerbach had talked briefly with Bob Cousy and Heinsohn about taking the job, but both men had agreed that no one could better motivate Russell than Russell himself.
The announcement made headlines the next morning, while the Lakers' hard-fought Game 1 victory was obscured.
With the future of the team settled, the Celtics bore down on the Lakers, winning the second game in the Garden, 129-109, then adding two more victories in Los Angeles. The major problem for the Lakers was Havlicek, who could swing between guard and forward. Lakers coach Fred Schaus had tried to play Rudy LaRusso, a forward, on Havlicek, but it hadn't worked.
"No one in the league his size is even close to Havlicek in quickness," Schaus told reporters.
So the Lakers coach put LaRusso on the pine and played Goodrich on Havlicek. West moved to forward, and this three-guard lineup left Los Angeles weak on the boards. But it worked for a time. West, Baylor and Goodrich lashed back and won Games 5 and 6 to tie the series at three games apiece.
Game 7 in the Garden was another classic. The Celtics took a big lead as Baylor and West went a combined 3-for-18 from the floor in the first half. But as usual, the Lakers came back, cutting the Boston lead to six points with 20 seconds left. It seemed safe for Red to light another victory cigar, but the Lakers cut the lead to 95-93 with four seconds left.
The fans then rushed the floor as they always did to celebrate a Boston championship. The earlier the better, it seemed. This celebration was a bit premature. Russell, who had played with a broken bone in his foot but had still amassed 32 rebounds, was knocked down. Orange juice containers on the Boston bench were spilled across the floor. Satch Sanders lost his shirt to the crowd. Somehow, K.C. Jones got the inbounds pass to Havlicek, who dribbled out the clock for championship No. 9.
At Auerbach's retirement dinner, Russell addressed the gathering. "When I took this job, somebody said, 'What did you take it for? You have nothing to gain. You've got to follow Red Auerbach.'
"I don't think I'm going to be another Red Auerbach," Russell continued, and turned to his longtime coach. "Personally, I think you're the greatest basketball coach that ever lived. You know, over the years ... I heard a lot of coaches and writers say the only thing that made you a great coach was Bill Russell. It helped. But that's not what did it.
"Now this is kind of embarrassing, but I'll go so far, Red, as to say this: I like you. And I'll admit there aren't very many men that I like. But you I do. For a number of reasons. First of all, I've always been able to respect you. I don't think you're a genius, just an extraordinarily intelligent man. We'll be friends until one of us dies. And I don't want too many friends, Red."
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