In the final minutes before they stroll out on the playing floor, the Boston Celtics sprawl around their dressing room in poses of taped serenity, like boxers on rubbing tables, limp and sleepy-eyed. Except one man. Ronnie Watts sits on a bench, 6 feet 7 and 230 pounds, flexes his shoulder muscles and breathes hard. He knots and unknots his hands. Then he slips a white rubber mouthpiece under his upper lip and bites down on it savagely. When he smiles the effect is ghastly. "This here rookie," says Coach Red Auerbach, "is a mean one."
With good reason. Watts is in roughly the same spot as Barbra Streisand's understudy. A rookie who hopes to make this squad has to believe he is the toughest, meanest newcomer in the pro basketball world—and even then he must face the prospect of not getting into a game until after Auerbach has lighted up his victory cigar. True, after seven consecutive world championships, the betting odds are inexorably swinging against the Celtics. Sooner or later they must miss one; the league is agreed on this much. But there is little reason to believe this is the year. Forget that Auerbach has had last pick in the draft for nine consecutive years. He has the knack of buying up NBA rejects and retooling them to Celtic caliber—the latest is Si Green, just purchased from Baltimore. And with a lineup that includes Bill Russell, K.C. and Sam Jones, Tom Sanders, Willie Naulls and John Havlicek, he can take his time in the process. Last season Oregon State's Mel Counts almost developed a smoker's hack sitting next to Auerbach. This year, says Red, he will be the better man for it. Other occasional Celtics, true to Auerbach's formula, will emerge as regulars—if not stars—this season. Larry Siegfried, his confidence in his scoring ability restored, will start often, and Ron Bonham, always a deadly shooter, is coming around on defense. Rookie Watts's role in this cast—if he can just get on stage—will be to supply the muscle at forward alongside Sanders, replacing Tommy Heinsohn, who has retired to a life as the world's highest-scoring insurance executive. Watts is admirably suited for this action. "He figures he owns the backboards," says Auerbach. "Somebody gets a rebound from him, he gets mad as hell." Watts also faces a potential threat in former Philadelphia- St. Louis Forward Woody Sauldsberry, who is available and wants to become an Auerbach restoration and who has an edge in experience.
Last week Auerbach, still acting uncommitted, mused that "we might not have a rookie this year." There were the faintest signs he might waver. "That Watts," he said. "Boy. When I came out of the draft meeting at the Plaza in New York, who was waiting for me? Watts, my No. 2 pick. He wanted to tell me what a good choice I had made."
There was a terrible night in Raleigh, N.C. recently when Billy Cunningham must have wondered what a sweet, unspoiled lad like himself was doing in a place like that. The blooding of a professional basketball rookie—even in exhibition play, as this was—often is a sight to make strong spectators turn aside. Since this game was in the area where Cunningham was a college whiz ( University of North Carolina), the Philadelphia 76ers played him more than they would the average rookie. For the same reason, the education-minded Boston Celtics played him in their own grim way. It was, for Cunningham, a memorable evening of catching knees, elbows, forearms and backsides. Bruises notwithstanding, the fact that he lived the night through ( Philadelphia won 103-100) indicates that Billy is not a rookie to be shouldered aside.
The Eastern Division's almost-champions last year (they lost the title on one unhappy play that Boston diagnosed and blocked), the 76ers now have a refurbished look about them. For one thing, they will begin the season with Wilt Chamberlain, who joined them at midpoint last year. For another, they now have Wally Jones, no rookie but hustling like one, to complement Hal Greer's hot hand in the back-court. Finally, Lucious Jackson and Chet Walker have mastered their trade and are ready to produce up to capacity. Under these conditions rookie Cunningham seems to fit handily, though he likely will be in the middle of the action a great deal right from the start because of the lack of experienced depth, which is Philadelphia's big weakness. What Cunningham can provide is a man to work a swing shift like the Celtics' John Havlicek—tall for a guard but mobile enough to handle that job, fast as a forward and therefore hard to handle in that position. Former college center Cunningham, at 6 feet 5�, seems adaptable.
The night of Cunningham's initiation in Raleigh also marked the introduction of onetime Villanova star Jones in a Philly uniform. He impressed both sides with his play-making and ball handling. "This kid," said Coach Dolph Schayes, hopefully, "could make me a genius." Genius or not, the likable Schayes may be in for a heady year, though those who insist that a full-term Chamberlain will make all the difference should be reminded that the 76ers were 22 and 23 before Wilt last year and only 18-17 after Wilt. Chamberlain makes any squad tough and is the only man in basketball who gives you an even chance when the other team has Bill Russell. But the tactical demands of using him to his best advantage severely diminish his own team's versatility and generally create morale problems among those who want the ball as much as he does. In a short two-team series Philly could beat anyone in the league. Over an 80-game season it is still a second-place club.
It is reassuring to note, in a fast-moving world, that the Eastern Division has for years leisurely devoted the months of October, November, December, January and February to eliminating the Knickerbockers. The rule that has made this possible is obviously an agreement among gentlemen, and it has given the Knicks every opportunity, however wearing on the fans that might be. Now—hold the smirks—it is possible that there will finally be basketball competition in the division all season, not just in the playoffs. The truth is that there has been competition in the East since midway through last season. For the last seven weeks the Knicks had the same record as Cincinnati (18-19), they played only a game or so behind Philadelphia's pace and only, for that matter, half a dozen games worse than Boston's. New York is short on experience, but the team has talent, exceedingly good depth and is improving rapidly.