The Eastern Division of the National Basketball Association, once the exclusive fief of the Boston Celtics, is caught up in the wildest championship race in its history (see cover). The battle is among Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and, of course, Boston—four teams playing superbly and packing in such big crowds that NBA attendance is up 12% over last year. Baltimore has a 4-1 record against Boston, Boston is whomping Philadelphia 4-2, Philadelphia has beaten Baltimore three out of five and New York, currently the hottest team in the league, has an edge over each of the other three. They are elbowing each other out of the way like commuters on the Tokyo subway.
In Madison Square Garden last Saturday night, before a sellout crowd of 19,500, the New York Knickerbockers outscored San Francisco 15-0 in a third-quarter splurge and went on to their 11th straight win, a club record, and 20th straight at home. Before an equally jammed house the previous Saturday night they demolished division-leading Baltimore with a similar spurt in the fourth quarter.
But the Bullets refused to collapse. Playing in Baltimore's Civic Center last week, they won the fourth of their last five starts, all without the help of Captain and All-Star Forward Gus Johnson, forced out for the rest of the season with torn knee ligaments.
In Boston Garden, Bill Russell, who for one stricken moment thought he might be through for the year with a similar injury, returned after a week and played 45 minutes. Dragging his sore leg behind him, he led the defending champion Celtics to an overtime victory over Philadelphia.
In the Spectrum, earlier, Philadelphia beat New York in a double overtime as the 76ers' Billy Cunningham, only the team's sixth man last year, scored a career high of 44 points.
All four teams are fairly certain to make the playoffs (starting the week of March 23), but the players have not let up. They want the prestige of first, or at least second, place and, more to the point, they want the cash that goes with finishing higher. It is possible for each man on the team winning the playoffs to take home an extra $10,000. Fourth place, says the Celtics' John Havlicek, is to be sneezed at. "We have to play playoff ball right now. You don't get a damn thing for finishing fourth except you get into the playoffs. A team splits up only $10,000 for finishing second."
With New York in second after last weekend, long-frustrated Garden habitues were treating Knick tickets as if they were fifth-row orchestra seats at Promises, Promises. An estimated 8,000 were turned away from the Baltimore game and, despite the Great Snow Fall, 12,000 souls mushed through unplowed streets to watch a midweek game against lowly Phoenix. The Knicks, 6-13 on Nov. 21 and 38 of 46 since then, had become New York's new in team.
"The year before we got off to a bad start but then got to know each other," says Guard Walt Frazier. "This season we came back and we were like strangers again. You'd have one guy working and four guys looking at him. We had numerous meetings to figure out what was wrong and we'd still go out and lose. Then we got confidence and after the trade we really got going."
The trade, which is talked about now almost mystically, sent Center Walt Bellamy and Guard Howard Komives to Detroit for 6'7" Dave DeBusschere, and it might be remembered as the deal that decided the NBA championship. DeBusschere gave New York an experienced and tough forward who could shoot, rebound, run, play defense and think (he was Detroit's player-coach at age 24). His presence allowed Forward Willis Reed to move over and resume his former identity at center, where he was runner-up as the NBA rookie of the year four seasons ago.
"It's like being in a foreign country for a long, long time and then coming back to your old home town," he says joyfully.