Bill Russell was chatting a few hours before Boston was to play San Francisco in the third game of the National Basketball Association finals. He looked down at his watch. It said 5:30, which meant that it was 2:30, because even though he had been in San Francisco for a day, Russell had not set his watch back. Why bother? In the NBA, time is not measured in hours. The season started back in September in Honolulu and Salisbury, Md. There were weeks of exhibitions, then 80 regular games and then for the last five weeks, the playoffs. The playoffs carried the NBA into Daylight Saving Time, through 14 days of the baseball season, and could have gone into the month of May were it not for the fact that Boston dispensed with San Francisco in five games.
This sort of thing happens every year. They play all those games from September to May, and it always turns out that the Boston Celtics win. They are now the only professional team in history to win six straight championships. (The Yankees won five, 1949-1953, and the Montreal Canadiens five, 1956-1960.)
"The difference, you know," Russell said, "between all the teams in this league is very slight. All you need is an edge. When the game starts there are 10 guys out there just looking for an edge. That's why one team can win by 20 points and then turn around and get beat by the same team by 20 points—losing the edge." Russell was quite the bearded prophet. After trouncing the Warriors two in a row, the Celts got beat by 24. It was their last loss. The Celtics seldom get beat by 24, or beat at all, because they do not have to find an edge. They have a built-in edge named Bill Russell.
Russell played a routinely masterful series against San Francisco—and he had to rise to heights against the Warriors to neutralize Wilt Chamberlain, who was finishing his finest year. This was Wilt's first championship. He rebounded magnificently, but it was not often enough that he could work himself in when he got the ball in the pivot. Russell forced him to depend on his fall-away jumper, a shot that takes Chamberlain completely out of the action if he misses. In addition, K.C. Jones helped Russell when he could, pestering Wilt with flailing arms and attempted steals. Russell also had to contend with Warrior Rookie Nate Thurmond, 6 feet 11, an agile giant who complements Wilt and gives the Warriors the equivalent of the two-big-backs backfield with which the Green Bay Packers shocked pro football a couple of years ago.
Still, this awesome San Francisco front-line power could not match the overall Boston depth and aggressive defense, and the intimidating presence of Russell. "He never stops showing you something new," Warrior playmaker Guy Rodgers said after the fourth game. "Once he blocked Wilt's big shot, and then Thurmond got it and Russell came over to the other side of the basket and blocked Thurmond's shot, too."
A lot of players have begun to block shots since Russell showed how it can be done, but with most of them it is a desperation move, and if it is successful the ball is merely knocked out-of-bounds. The other team still has the ball and can try to score again. When Russell blocks a shot, he nearly always sends the ball, in the same motion, into the arms of a free teammate. The Celtics then have a four-point play: the opponents have lost two, and Boston has gained two. Five such plays a game and Boston has a 20-point edge.
The fourth was the key playoff game, the first close one and the only one in which the home-court advantage was lost. The Warriors regrouped, fought off injuries and came back valiantly in the fifth game, but it was not quite enough. Down 100-92 with 1:55 left, they cut it to 101-99 with 19 seconds to go. Then Tom Heinsohn missed a driving hook, but Russell got the rebound and stuffed away that sixth straight championship.
It was a sudden burst of Heinsohn's shooting shenanigans that won the important fourth game, when the Warriors still had a reasonable chance. Until midway in the third quarter, Heinsohn had not had a good series. His shooting was off, and he was definitely bothered by Thurmond, who is four inches taller. Heinsohn is the shooter in a city where the glories of Cousy's passing and Russell's defense are as much a part of the native folklore as the spirit of '76 and the MTA. Heinsohn is known, sometimes affectionately, as "Gunner," and he is easy to spot on the court. He is the guy with his hand up, waving at whoever on his team has the ball—because he wants it. He is, actually, an outstanding offensive rebounder, but his reputation is based strictly on his shooting and his temper. Heinsohn is so intense that he regularly draws technical fouls in team scrimmages. All this is a far cry from the off-court Heinsohn, who is a most genial sort. The NBA players have made him their league representative.
During Heinsohn's shooting lapse in the playoffs, roommate Frank Ramsey had watched him closely from the bench. "You know," Ramsey told him, "from where I was sitting, a couple of times you were driving directly at me, and I could see your eyes. You are watching out for Thurmond and Wilt so much that you hardly even look at the rim before you shoot." Heinsohn was trying to overcome Thurmond's advantage in size with all kinds of hesitation shots to fake him out. "Thurmond doesn't play you so you can feel him," Heinsohn said. "You have to watch him."
But it was not until Heinsohn took Ramsey's advice and looked at his shooting target that he had any success against Thurmond. In the most devastating personal streak of the series, Heinsohn broke open the big game. The Celtics were behind 52-51 when Heinsohn, trailing on a fast break, broke through for a three-point play. He tipped in a basket seconds later, and after Sam Jones stole the ball Heinsohn hit a jump shot. Two free throws by K.C. Jones made it 63-55, and then Heinsohn went berserk. Consecutively, he tossed in another jumper, a hook driving down the middle, another hook cutting across and finally a layup on a fast break—the way it had all started. By then it was 71-60 and time for a rest.