He came out after the final triumph in a coal-black suit, the coat a frock that was cut slim and long, in the style of another era. With the tall, gaunt, slouch figure, the beard and an old, scarred valise, the silhouette he outlined across the California night made a wildly impressionistic tableau, like Abe Lincoln leaving for Freeport to even up the series with Stephen Douglas. The kids chased after him, reaching out to touch him, to snare the frock for a moment. "Loo-oove him," one of them said loudly, hoarse with awe. Bill Russell, the very epitome of ability and victory in sport, and his Boston Celtics had won again. There were some who just stood on the parking lot and watched till his rented car had gunned down the 400 block of South Prairie Avenue and its taillights had merged into the traffic at the intersection of Manchester Avenue.
Red Auerbach, his coach for so long, had stood in the balcony at the Spectrum in Philadelphia four weeks ago and watched Russell that very same way. Russell had been warming up then for the fifth game against the 76ers. The Celtics were down 3-1 and, despite all the never-say-die bromides that have been tossed around since then, it is doubtful that at that stage anybody truly believed Russell and Boston would go on to their 10th world championship in 12 years. Auerbach himself, at that dark time, lapsed into the past tense. "There are some people," he said, biting off the words because the notion so angered him, "who have already forgotten how great that man really was."
But Russell was about to remind them all. His Celtics beat Philadelphia 4-3, and then last Thursday night in Los Angeles they closed out the Lakers 4-2 in the NBA finals, as Russell achieved a personal accomplishment unique in the history of team sport. Russell coached and he starred but, more than that, as he has for the past 15 years, he positively determined the nature of the game and, in the end, the result. What more is left for him to achieve in his sport? "Well, I don't know, because I never had a goal," Russell said, nodding. "To tell you the truth, it's been a long time since I tried to prove anything to anybody." He paused. "I know who I am," Bill Russell said.
"He is an unbelievable man," Jerry West said, shortly after the Lakers had lost the final game 124-109. "To be frank, we gave them the championship. We gave them the first game and we gave them the fifth. But I take nothing from them. There is something there, something special. For instance, twice tonight the ball went on the floor and Siegfried dove for it. He didn't just go for it hard, he dove for it. And they're all that way on the Celtics, and you can't teach it."
Whatever it is, an aura, a drive, a tradition, it hangs on the Celtics like a fine early dew. It was typical that without warning in the playoffs Don Nelson, a Laker reject who was once waived by every team in the league, would dramatically emerge as a sixth man in the classic Celtic mold, and that John Havlicek, having himself risen in these playoffs from sixth-man stature, would move all the way into the ranks of the NBA superstars.
As the team captain, Havlicek is officially Russell's deputy. He alone stands with Russell, a sidekick, Tonto to his Kemo Sabay, spiriting the offense as Russell does the defense, transmitting Russellian rebuttals and suggestions to the officials.
There has been no such tandem on the Celtics since the halcyon days of Russell and Cousy, and while the reserves played out the last seconds of the final game, Russell sat on the bench with Havlicek and in high glee wrapped a taped hand about his captain's shoulders and hugged him again and again. Sitting together—both tall and thin, long-muscled and angular, similar yet most dissimilar—they were reminiscent of the two happy scotties that adorn a Scotch bottle. Havlicek is as white—a pale sea-shell hue—as his coach is black. Russell's shoulders sag while Havlicek's always remain effortlessly high. Little rivers of perspiration are always dripping down the V that is Russell's face, eventually trickling off the tip of his beard, while everyone marvels at how Havlicek hardly seems to break a sweat. He appears to lose more moisture at the knees, which are forever bloodied, like a little boy's.
Dry and cool, Havlicek is never fazed by having to shift constantly from guard to forward, a move that is the key to Boston's offense. The transition affects only the opposition. When L.A. Coach Butch van Breda Kolff was ejected from the fourth game his only specific parting instructions to his fill-in, Guard Gail Goodrich, were what changes to make when Russell moved Havlicek.
Because Havlicek can play the whole game at top speed and because he can move about the lineup so nimbly, he makes it possible for Russell always to replace whoever is tired or cold with the best man on his bench, regardless of position. Never has a coach had that flexibility. Indeed, using Wayne Embry—who played a vital role against Philadelphia—and Tom Thacker only sparingly, Russell managed to beat the Lakers with one center, two guards, two forwards and Havlicek.
This demands a wise and precise rotation of substitutions, and Russell managed it superbly. There was no repetition of the playoff gaffe last year when he apparently completely forgot that Sam Jones was sitting on the bench in one game.