1968 NBA Finals: Boston 4, L.A. Lakers 2
Boston is Alive and Well
Many times in the years to come, John Havlicek would think about that night in Philadelphia in 1967 when the 76ers beat the Celtics for the NBA championship.
"The Sixers' crowd kept yelling Boston was dead," he recalled in 1989, "and I kept reminding reporters we were dead only until October. I think I also expressed the feeling we'd had too many proud days to start hanging our heads that night."
The next season, Boston again finished second in the division standings at 54-28, eight games behind Philadelphia. The 76ers won 62 games, again the best in the league, and Wilt Chamberlain was named the regular-season MVP. That, of course, mattered little to the Celtics. They were just eager to get into the playoffs for another shot at Philadelphia.
"We were very anxious, of course, for them to begin," recalled Celtics forward Bailey Howell, who averaged 19.8 points. "The season had been very long and very tiring. But we felt like we had a good shot at it. It was like a new season. We knew that the Philadelphia team was very strong, and if we could get by them, then we had a real shot at winning it."
K.C. Jones had retired to move into the college coaching ranks, and Larry Siegfried took his place in the backcourt. Satch Sanders, Bill Russell and Howell started up front, with Don Nelson and Wayne Embry working as subs. Havlicek rotated between guard and forward.
In the postseason battles, the Sixers fell one at a time. Billy Cunningham fractured his wrist and was out; Lucious Jackson had a badly pulled hamstring; and Wilt injured his big toe. None of that seemed important heading into the Boston series, but it would in retrospect.
The Celtics, meanwhile, were reasonably healthy and ready. They needed no extra motivation going into the conference finals, Howell recalled.
"Everywhere we went, especially in Philadelphia, they had a chant. 'Boston's Dead. Boston's Dead. The dynasty is over,'" he said. "You'd hear it at the airport when you got off the plane in Philadelphia. The cab drivers would be on you, riding you a little. Everywhere you went, the fans were real vocal. So it just made you more determined, really. It just helped you to play. It's tough, playing as often as you do, to be emotionally ready every night. When you get some help like that from opposing fans, it's really a lift."
Emotions took another turn that Thursday, April 4, the day before the series was to open, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The first thought was to postpone the game. Chamberlain and Russell met on the issue the afternoon of the game. The 76ers even put it to a team vote, but only Chamberlain and Wali Jones were for postponement. So the players agreed to go on with it, although the mood in Philadelphia was somber. In fact, the tragedy cast a pall over the whole series. In honor of King, the second game was delayed from Sunday to the following Wednesday.
Things quickly took a bad turn for Boston. The Celtics won the first game in Philadelphia, but then the 76ers won three straight. Things seemed hopeless for Russell and his players as they returned to Philadelphia for the fifth game. Even general manager Red Auerbach sensed the inevitable. "There are some people who have already forgotten how great that man really was," he said sadly as he watched Russell warm up before the game.
But the Celtics won two in a row to even the series, then returned to Philadelphia on April 19 to miraculously claim the seventh game in a final-second thriller. Down 98-96, the 76ers controlled a jump ball, and Chet Walker drove for a shot that was blocked by Russell. Philadelphia's Hal Greer got the loose ball, shot and missed. Russell rebounded, and Boston went on to win 100-96.
In Los Angeles, the Lakers, having swept the Warriors in the Western Division Finals, had been watching Game 7 on television and were pulling for Boston. They figured Russell would be easier to beat than Chamberlain. The Lakers still had no post strength, although they had a new coach. Butch van Breda Kolff, the former Princeton boss, had been hired to replace Fred Schaus, and he brought a major change in style to the team. He came into camp stressing conditioning, and he wanted to get the rest of the team involved in the offense with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
"There was a change in the attitude surrounding the team. He was a volatile person who pretty much said what he thought," West said of van Breda Kolff. "He felt that was the way to do it. You simply cannot do that at the professional level."
The Lakers struggled at first, but in January they acquired Erwin Mueller and Fred Crawford, two bench players who gave them quickness, a quality the Lakers lost whenever Baylor and West left the floor. They went 38-9 from that point on, good enough for a 52-30 finish, second in the Western Division behind the St. Louis Hawks.
Los Angeles alternated Mel Counts and Darrall Imhoff in the post, and Mueller's quickness helped out on the boards. Archie Clark joined West in the backcourt, with Gail Goodrich and Crawford coming off the bench. Baylor was still the man in the corner, but Tommy Hawkins had returned to the team to provide depth at forward. At age 31, he still had no range to his shot, but he was playing the best ball of his career.
The Lakers opened the series with a split in Boston Garden. They lost the first game 107-101, when West shot only 7-for-24 and Baylor 11-for-31. But the team pulled its usual surprise and won the second game 123-113. The Celtics returned the favor when the series switched to Los Angeles, winning Game 3, 127-119. Then West scored 38 points and Baylor added another 30 as Los Angeles evened the series with a 118-105 win in Game 4, after van Breda Kolff had been ejected.
That victory appeared bittersweet when West sprained his ankle in the closing minutes. The injury looked serious enough to keep him out of Game 5 back in Boston; he played anyway and scored 35 points, but it wasn't enough to counter the Celtics, who jumped to a 19-point first-quarter lead.
In the third quarter the lead was still 18 points, but Los Angeles came back to tie the score at 108 apiece in the fourth. The Lakers were down by four with less than a minute to play when West stole the ball and found Baylor downcourt for a layup. They tied it when Clark got another steal and West scored. In overtime, however, Russell blocked a Baylor shot and Nelson hit a late free throw to give Boston a 120-117 victory and the series lead.
The Celtics had five players with big numbers. Havlicek, the team captain, led them with 31 points, while Nelson, the former Laker, scored 26.
Russell, Boston's player/coach, had moved Sam Jones to forward, where he posted Goodrich up and forced van Breda Kolff to go with a taller, slower lineup in Game 6. That didn't work, at the Celtics triumphed in a 124-109 blowout, as Havlicek scored 40 points. The Lakers trailed by 20 at the half, and Boston had its 10th title. "The Garbageman," Bailey Howell, had scored 30 hard-earned points.
For Russell and his men, it was an exhilaratingly sweet victory.
"We weren't a dominant team," Howell said after the game. "Unless everyone was playing well and together, we couldn't win. And so we wouldn't have won without every guy on that team."
"He is an unbelievable man," West said of Russell afterward. "To be frank, we gave them the championship. We gave them the first game, and we gave them the fifth. But I take nothing from them. There is something there, something special. For instance, twice tonight the ball went on the floor and Siegfried dove for it. He didn't just go for it hard, he dove for it. They're all that way on the Celtics, and you can't teach it."
On the bench for the final minutes, Russell and Havlicek hugged each other with glee. Afterward, Russell, dressed in a black suit, turned to face reporters. They asked him what he had left to accomplish.
"Well, I don't know," he replied after a moment, "because I never had a goal. To tell you the truth, it's been a long time since I tried to prove anything to anybody. I know who I am."
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