1957 NBA Finals: Boston 4, St. Louis 3
Celtics Officially Launch Their Dynasty
With no air-conditioning, Boston Garden ran the range of temperatures. It could be cool and drafty or hot and steamy. Some say these conditions relied not so much on the weather but on what the Boston Celtics need for a particular game.
Regardless of the climate, the atmosphere was almost always oppressive in the dank, smelly building, with the umpteen NBA championship banners hanging in the rafters above the chipped and aged parquet floor. They called this atmosphere the "Celtic mystique," but it was far more tangible than that. Over the years, Boston's winning tradition virtually hovered over opponents' shoulders, weighing down their shooting percentage and deflating their confidence.
Unbelievable as it may seem, there was actually a time when Boston didn't sit atop the basketball world, when the Celtics were just another struggling team in a struggling league. Slowly but surely, that was all to change when the Celtics would acquire players who would change the face of the game.
First it was Easy Ed Macauley, a 6-foot-8, 190-pound center who was not intimidating, but had a graceful offensive style and could run the floor. Next, it was Bob Cousy, a 6-foot-1 All-American guard at nearby Holy Cross. Cousy had a complete repertoire of fancy moves, from behind-the-back dribbles to no-look passes.
The Celtics added another great player in Bill Sharman, a sharpshooter and defensive hawk out of Southern Cal who was playing baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sharman's ability at both ends of the floor gave the Celtics the best backcourt in basketball. He and Macauley had the speed and agility to complement Cousy. They were slick and fancy and exciting to watch, but speed and flash weren't enough to get them past the division finals.
Coach Red Auerbach was in the process of looking for that special inside player when his old college coach, Bill Reinhart, told him about Bill Russell, then a sophomore center for the University of San Francisco.
Russell was an unusual package. He was 6-foot-9 and exceptionally athletic. (He could run the 440-yard dash in 49 seconds.) His sense of timing made him an excellent rebounder and shotblocker. But his offensive skills were so unrefined that much of his scoring came from guiding his teammates' missed shots into the basket.
Like Auerbach, Russell cared only about winning. Player and coach didn't have to spend much time together to sense this in each other. "He was the ultimate team player," Cousy said of Russell. "Without him there would have been no dynasty, no Celtic mystique."
St. Louis selected Russell with the third pick in the 1956 draft, then traded him to Boston for Macauley and the draft rights to Cliff Hagan. Auerbach picked up two other jewels in the '56 draft: Tom Heinsohn, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Holy Cross, and K.C. Jones, Russell's teammate at San Francisco.
The Celtics finished the regular season 44-28, six games ahead of Syracuse in the Eastern Division, as Russell averaged 19.6 rebounds. Cousy led the league in assists and was voted the NBA's MVP. As the playoffs began, Heinsohn was named Rookie of the Year.
Boston pushed Syracuse out of the way rather easily in the Eastern Division Finals. But St. Louis had battled to the Western Division championship after tying for first place during the regular season with only a 34-38 record. The Hawks, however, were a team that had jelled late and had downed both Minneapolis and Fort Wayne in the playoffs.
Taken at face value, the Finals matchup didn't seem like much. The Celtics had finished the schedule 10 games better than the Hawks. But there was so much more to the 1957 NBA Finals than face value. The fortunes of both the players and the management of the Hawks and Celtics had become intertwined over the years.
Auerbach had worked for Hawks owner Kerner when the franchise was the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Macauley had played six seasons in Boston. Hagan had been brought into the league by the Celtics, then dealt to the Hawks. St. Louis had traded Russell's draft rights. Charlie Share, who played in the St. Louis frontcourt, had been drafted by Boston and then released. Cousy, of course, had been the property of Kerner's Blackhawks, who had traded him to Chicago. Just about every player, it seemed, had a history with the other team.
The Hawks matched up well with Boston, too, despite their record. They had the incomparable Bob Pettit at forward, as well as Macauley, Hagan, Jack Coleman and Share in the frontcourt. Their guards were excellent as well. Slater Martin ran the team. (The Lakers had traded Martin to New York, but he had remained there just a matter of weeks before the Hawks acquired him.) The other guard was Jack McMahon, a solid pro whom the Hawks had gotten from Rochester in a trade that included Coleman.
The Hawks proved that they were ready to do that right off the bat in the Finals. Sharman scored 36 points for the Celtics in the first game at the Garden, but Pettit scored 37, and Macauley and Martin added 23 apiece. With that kind of firepower, the Hawks pushed the home team to double overtime. Miraculously, St. Louis won 125-123 on a long shot by Coleman as the 24-second clock expired. The Celtics got the ball back but couldn't score.
It was immediately clear that the matchup would be intriguing. St. Louis did most of its scoring in the frontcourt with the offensive touch of Macauley and Pettit, who had been effective against Russell in Game 1. Most of Boston's offense came from its guards, but St. Louis had two excellent defenders and floor leaders in Martin and McMahon. Boston answered with defense in Game 2, holding Pettit to 11 points and winning 119-99 to tie the series at one victory apiece.
Game 3 began and quickly developed into a tense defensive struggle. Characteristically, there were many fouls, and both teams did well at the line. But Pettit hit a long shot at the end to give the Hawks a 100-98 win and the series lead.
Boston came right back to win the fourth game in St. Louis, 123-118, to tie the series again. Cousy scored 31 points to counter 33 by Pettit. Then the Celts defeated St. Louis 124-109 in Game 5.
The series returned to St. Louis, where the Hawks waged another defensive battle and held Cousy to 15 points. He could have won it with 12 seconds left and the score tied at 94 apiece, but he missed at the free-throw line. As expected, the Hawks gave Pettit the desperation shot, which he missed, but Hagan tapped it in for a 96-94 win.
Tied at three games apiece, the series returned to the Garden. Auerbach stood on the brink of a championship, something he had coveted for more than a decade. Like most coaches who had never won a title, he had his share of self-doubt. As a high school coach he had put together a championship-caliber team that had been defeated. His good Washington Capitols teams had suffered the same fate.
Those doubts continued while he struggled in Boston to put together a team. "I would look around at the other coaches," he recalled, "and I would say to myself, 'I still think I'm as good as they are.'" Yet as the 1957 NBA Finals progressed he found the doubts returning. Here he was again in a championship game. What if he lost once more?
Auerbach's experience didn't prepare him for what followed. Game 7 was a classic, except for the performance of the Boston backcourt: Cousy shot 2-for-20 and Sharman 3-for-20. They combined to make only 12.5 percent of their field-goal attempts. The pressure fell on the rookies, who responded in fine fashion, Russell with 19 points and 32 rebounds and Heinsohn with 37 points and 23 rebounds.
The Celtics jumped out to an early lead, but the Hawks wound up leading 28-26 at the end of the first quarter. Boston went on a tear from there, moving up to 41-32. Hagan put the Hawks back in it with a six-point outburst in the closing minutes of the half. They led 53-51 at intermission.
The Celtics went ahead late in the third quarter, 73-68, and pushed that lead to eight points early in the fourth. The Hawks answered again with a 9-0 run to take the lead, and they held a four-point edge with less than two minutes left. Boston hit three free throws to trail 101-100. With less than a minute, St. Louis had the ball, and Coleman put up a shot that would have iced it.
At that moment, Russell illustrated the importance of his new defensive science. He blocked the shot and scored at the other end to give Boston a 102-101 lead. The Hawks couldn't score, and Boston again got possession. Desperate, the Hawks fouled Cousy, who had a chance to clinch the title at the line. He made one of two.
With the Celtics leading 103-101, Pettit sank two free throws in the closing seconds to send the game into overtime. But foul trouble began to catch up with the Hawks. McMahon went first, then Hagan fouled out. Still, St. Louis stayed close.
As the extra period wound down, Boston held a 113-111 lead, but Coleman, who had won Game 1 for St. Louis, hit another clutch jumper for another overtime. With just seconds to go in the second extra period, Macauley went to the bench after fouling Loscutoff. The muscular forward hit two free throws for a 125-123 Boston lead.
With only one chance to tie, the Hawks had to take the ball inbounds with a full-court pass to Pettit. Player-coach Alex Hannum, the last eligible player on the Hawks' bench, entered the competition for the first time in the series. He planned to bounce the pass off the backboard in the hope that Pettit could tip it in. Incredibly, Hannum banked the pass off the board to Pettit, but the final shot rolled off the rim as time ran out.
The Celtics celebrated by shaving Russell's beard in the locker room, downing a few cold ones and going out to dinner. It was the first of the good times for Boston. Cousy remembered it as the most satisfying of all.
So did Auerbach. "It was hard," he said. "The first one is always the hardest, and it's also the most satisfying. Everywhere I went that following summer, I could tell myself, 'I'm the coach of the world champions.' And basketball is a world game."
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