Age, too, seemed to be a Boston liability. Of the five starters, K. C. Jones is 33, Sam Jones 32, Naulls and Russell 31 and Sanders 28—the oldest group of regulars in the league. Were they slower? Could they recover from injuries as quickly as formerly? Russell scoffed at such questions. "You guys have been saying that we're getting old for the past five years now," he told the press, "and still we keep winning. It's going to be the same this year."
None of the other Celtics were in need of tranquilizers either. "I don't think there's anything to be alarmed about," said Havlicek. "There's no worry, not yet," said K. C. Jones. "Once we start worrying, then we're in trouble. You have to have that confidence." Auerbach fretted least of all. "After those three losses everybody panicked but my players and me," he said.
Red was so confident that he took off most of last week to visit his family in Washington, to deliver two elder-statesman speeches in Tennessee and to work on his autobiography, due in the bookstalls next fall. (His first work, Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach, has sold 600,000 copies and has been translated into Italian, Polish, Rumanian and Russian. If the next Russian Olympic basketball coach wears wild sports jackets and gripes constantly at the referees, the world will know why.) In the boss's absence Russell ran a series of tough practices at the Cambridge YMCA.
In one scrimmage Ron Bonham was playing against Willie Naulls. Both are normally as mild-mannered as Clark Kent. In fact, Bonham had been razzed because he had not always fared well last season as a rookie in the NBA's cruel initiation rites of shoving, hacking, elbowing and other humiliations borrowed from the middle of the Chicago Bears' line. In the rough play this day Naulls lost his temper after catching one too many elbows and started punching. Their teammates separated them, and Bonham stalked off the court toward the locker room.
Russell ordered him back, apparently to stage a handshake ceremony, but the combatants started bickering again and Bonham hit Naulls in the face. Again teammates had to step in. The two were finally cooled off and went through the rest of the workout without incident. If the Celtics were not worried, they were at least edgy and anxious to prove something to themselves as well as the rest of the league.
Friday night they did, beating the Baltimore Bullets 129-118 for their first road victory of the season. Naulls, none the worse for his boxing exhibition, scored 28 points, and Sam Jones added 27, mostly in the second half. Now Boston was 4-3 but still third in the Eastern Division.
Saturday night in the Boston Garden the Celtics met the first-place team, the Philadelphia 76ers. If something besides injuries and Heinsohn's absence was wrong with the Celtics, it certainly would show up in this game. Even if nothing else developed, those two handicaps could easily prove crucial against Philadelphia, which had always battled the Celtics on even terms and now had a strong, hustling rookie in Billy Cunningham and a new backcourt man, Wally Jones, who could shoot nearly as well as teammate Hal Greer and could run a sparkling fast break. Every NBA team, sick to death of the perennial champions, was eager to exploit Boston's supposed weakness. This was especially true of the 76ers. They had lost the seventh and final game of the Eastern playoffs last year by a single point when Havlicek anticipated a last-seconds out-of-bounds play and intercepted the pass.
A capacity crowd wedged into the Garden, leaving hundreds stranded outside. The fanatics down in Philly watched on television. It was a natural. There was Russell vs. Chamberlain in a duel of the $100,000 pivotmen. Their various and vocal supporters had always argued over which was better; now they were debating which had the fatter wallet. If the 76ers were bitter, the Celtics resented the fuss over Philadelphia's early victories. " Philadelphia hasn't done anything yet," Auerbach said. "They've won two games at home and one on the road. I don't think that's so much. What is this, anyway?" It was a good buildup for the game, that's what.
From the tip-off, both teams played as if it were the final game of the playoffs all over again instead of an early-season conditioner. Russell and Chamberlain batted so many balls away from their respective baskets that it sometimes looked like a two-man volleyball game. The Celtics jumped off to a 13-6 lead in the first quarter, but Naulls felt his injured hamstring hurting again and Sam Jones reinjured the little finger of his shooting hand. Both stayed in the game. Boston led at the end of the first quarter 28-23, mainly because Naulls, Russell, K. C. and the others were battling for, and getting, the second and third shots. It was a scrappy offensive rebounding exhibition that Heinsohn, sitting in the stands, must have admired. Auerbach kept Havlicek beside him on the bench through this period, waiting for the proper moment to unleash his sixth man. When Havlicek got in he was cold at first, and though he began to hit in the second quarter the other Celtics could not locate the basket and Philadelphia left at half time with a 48-45 lead. Chamberlain was agitated at his own and others' mistakes and was acting as if he cared desperately about the outcome. Greer and Cunningham were superb.
It took almost the entire third period for the Celtics to battle back to a 69-69 tie, thanks largely to beautiful moves and sharp shooting by Havlicek, K. C.'s defensive work and, surprisingly, the play of that Los Angeles castoff, Don Nelson. The husky 6-foot-6 former Iowa star blocked a shot � la Russell, was the center man once on a fast break and had eight points and eight rebounds in less than half the game.