In a year when the boys are wearing the long hair, the Yankees finish in the second division and Texas loses three football games in a row, a man looks for verities to cling to. He looks to Boston. And there he finds a million sports fans declaiming as one: As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow over Plymouth Rock, the Celtics will win the championship of the National Basketball Association, just as they have done for seven years in a row.
Bostonians, of course, need to believe this. They are burdened by the ice hockey Bruins, the football Patriots and the baseball Red Sox. Something has to work. That leaves it up to the Celtics. And last Saturday, after their worst start in 10 years, in a game as furiously fought and fast-paced as a playoff final, the Celtics beat their toughest Eastern Division rival, reaffirming at least one verity in a heretical year.
The Celtics were bought in the off season by New York's Ruppert brewery (the same outfit that owned the Yankees in Babe Ruth's heyday), but that did not change things very much. Any opponent silly enough to drive toward Boston's basket would still encounter Bill Russell and have the ball smashed down his throat. K. C. Jones would harass rivals into silly errors for one more year before taking over the head coaching job at Brandeis. The other Jones, Sam, would bank-shoot a zillion points, and John Havlicek would come off the bench to play either forward or guard and score his 20. And when victory was clinched long before the buzzer, Coach Red Auerbach would sit back to gloat and light up his cigar. This was gospel. As Havlicek put it, "When you get a group of athletes used to winning, losing just isn't right."
The Celtics opened the season at the Boston Garden and won two straight, beating the Cincinnati Royals and Los Angeles Lakers by four points apiece. True, Auerbach had to save his stogies for the locker room, because the games were close, but Russell had 36 rebounds in one game, 29 in the next. Sam Jones scored 33 and 30. It looked as though the Celtics were breaking out of the starting gate as fast as in the last four years, when after 10 games they were 9-1, 8-2, 9-1 and 10-0.
Then they ventured outside New England, and the crash was as loud as if Russell had tumbled off a 10-foot stepladder. St. Louis beat them by 10 points. They went on to Cincinnati and a five-point loss, mainly because of a great performance at both ends of the court by the Royals' Jerry Lucas. The next game of the road trip, in Detroit, was a disaster. Boston led by 16 at one point but still blew the game, even though the Pistons are probably the worst team in the NBA. It was the Celtics' first loss to Detroit in 14 games. Auerbach held a post-game meeting with his players and riddled a few eardrums with the kind of talk he usually reserves for officials and his other natural enemies. "I wanted to get a few things clarified," he said.
"He really gave it to us," said one player. "Things will be different now."
Still, hopeful fans and players in other NBA cities began to ask, perhaps a trifle early in a long season, "What's the matter with the Celtics?" The Celtics themselves believe the main trouble was the two-week training camp at Babson Institute in Wellesley, Mass. Not that they have anything against Babson—except that it is an all-male school—but it was probably the most accident-prone camp in the team's history. Agreeing with this, Trainer Buddy LeRoux also insists, "We've always had a lot of injuries. On all championship ball clubs this will happen because of the extra effort that a champion puts into his game. Look at the New York Yankees and the Montreal Canadiens."
At Babson, Tom Sanders, the finest defensive forward in the league, leaped to block a shot, was bumped from the side by a rookie and turned head over sneakers. He landed on the back of his neck and right shoulder, suffering a considerable amount of muscle damage and severe bone bruises. He missed all but two days of camp and will not be 100% effective for another month. Forward Ron Bonham tore ligaments in his left foot and had a double dislocation of the thumb on his shooting hand. Willie Naulls tore a hamstring muscle, and John Havlicek suffered a muscle separation in his left thigh. When Havlicek's leg was X-rayed doctors found he had a "big piece of calcium on the back of the femur" from some unremembered high school injury. He will have to wear a specially built thigh pad the rest of his career. Seven-footer Mel Counts, tuning up his defense by trying to guard a teeny backcourt man, fell and broke his right wrist and has yet to play in either an exhibition or regular game.
Bad luck hounded the team in other ways. Sam Jones's car was forced off the road on the way to the Boston airport, and he barely managed to steer it between two poles. And a suitcase containing Havlicek's thigh pad was stolen. The theft got as much publicity in town as the Brink's job, but the suitcase and pad turned up a few days later at Boston's South Station.
The retirement of Forward Tom Heinsohn could not be discounted easily either. Always a tough offensive rebounder and a clutch point-getter, he had rarely been given credit for his alert ball-sniping. He was just 31 in August but insisted he wanted to quit to give full time to his insurance business, though he hinted that he would return if alma mater got in trouble. Heinsohn has not worked out, however, and is nowhere near playing shape. "We're going to miss Tommy," said Auerbach, "and I got no help in the draft." As a dim hope to partially fill the vacancy, Auerbach acquired Don Nelson, who had been put on waivers by Los Angeles.