In the early 1950s, professional basketball was a much different game from the one we know today. Only occasionally would it rise to the heights of the fast-paced exhibition of grace and athleticism now taken for granted; more often it was a rough, physical struggle marked by fouls and stalling.
Remember, those were the days before the 24-second shot clock, so once a team got the lead it would go into a stall. It had no incentive to shoot, since a miss (and no team shot as high as 40 percent) would give the other team a chance to catch up. So the team in the lead would stall, its players standing around and playing catch or dribbling aimlessly as the seconds ticked away -- and the fans got bored.
"The game was stagnant," recalled Celtics Hall of Game guard Bob Cousy. "Teams literally started sitting on the ball in the third quarter. That was the way the game was played: get a lead and put the ball in the icebox, while the paying customers started reading the program. The whole game slowed up."
The only way a team that was behind could get back into the game was by fouling. And the sooner the foul was committed the better, since it allowed more time for the comeback. It didn't take long for teams to realize that in order to protect their leads, it made sense for them to foul as well. If you were going to get fouled and come away with one free-throw attempt every time you got the ball, you couldn't very well sit back on defense and allow the other team a chance to score a basket. So the teams in the lead also started fouling as soon as possible, and games frequently deteriorated into parades from one free throw line to the other.
In the 1953 playoffs, the Boston Celtics and Syracuse Nationals engaged in one such game. While the score was high for its era, 111-105 in favor of Boston in four overtimes, the game was hardly a fast-paced affair. It was dominated by fouls, especially in the overtime periods, when each team was afraid to let the other gain a significant lead.
Cousy, nicknamed the Houdini of the Hardwood for his ballhandling prowess, emerged as the dominant factor. Celtics coach Red Auerbach ordered his team to keep the ball in Cousy's hands, and the slick guard dribbled until he was fouled. He set playoff records by attempting 32 free throws and making 30 of them, and scoring 50 points as the Celtics outlasted the Nationals. Those marks still stand -- Chicago's Michael Jordan is next in the record book, having shot 23-for-28 against New York in a playoff game in 1989.