As they fought through the final game of the National Basketball Association championship last week those longtime rulers of the sport, the Boston Celtics, had a lot of things going for them. There was big Bill Russell, their defensive wonder, knocking opposition shots away from the basket with the casual ease of a man swatting flies. There was the Celtic offense, which attacks with the intuition and confidence of a man raiding his own icebox in the dark. There was Coach Red Auerbach, shouting strategy as his face turned the color his nickname suggests; and there were 13,900 partisan fans creating a din that ranged from amazed anguish to gasping relief.
As it turned out the Celtics needed all these things and very nearly more to finally defeat the young, eager and hungry Lakers from Los Angeles. By winning their fourth straight NBA championship, the Celtics prolonged their reign for yet another season. But never had a Boston title come so hard.
Indeed, the Lakers were within a scant three inches and the flick of a finger of upsetting the Celtics. They had the ball at midcourt with only seven seconds remaining and the score tied, 100-100. Laker Guard Frank Selvy drove through a forest of waving Boston hands and released an easy jump shot. It was three inches too high and rolled off the rim. Los Angeles' great forward, Elgin Baylor, way up in the air and ready to tap the shot in, thought it was going in by itself. He pulled back his hand, giving Bill Russell a chance to snatch the rebound as time ran out. Russell hugged the ball against his chest and sank to the floor on one knee, like a man giving prayerful thanks for his good fortune. He remained there—motionless—for 25 seconds, before getting up and walking slowly over to a rickety chair where the Boston trainer poured a pitcher of ice water across the back of his neck. Then he came back to lead the Celtics to a 110-107 overtime win. It had been that close.
The Celtics themselves realized that the Lakers' play marked the maturity of a rugged rival. Next season Los Angeles, led by the most successful young coach in the league, Fred Schaus, and helped by experience and a big draft choice—Center LeRoy Ellis of St. John's—will be tougher still. Perhaps too tough for a Celtic team on which a Cousy is near retirement and a Russell is dreaming about it.
"There is still no one on the horizon who can counteract the things Bill Russell can do to you," says Fred Schaus. "The Celts will be strong until they lose him." Russell is not so sure. After scoring 30 points and getting 40 rebounds in the final game, during which he never stopped running, passing, or intimidating opposing shooters, the end of his ordeal caused a tremendous emotional release. He got sick the moment he reached the locker room. Then he began to cry.
Russell needed only a quick shower to regain his poise. And he did some thinking out loud while he smoothed his neat goatee. "This one meant more to me than any other," he smiled. "Those Lakers give me the feeling things aren't going to be the same next year."