SI Vault
Frank Deford
April 28, 1969
Boston goes into the finals against Los Angeles graying with age, with no backup man for Russell and its best shooter ready to retire, but that was also the sad situation before the New York series
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April 28, 1969

...and That Old Celtics Wheel Rolls Again

Boston goes into the finals against Los Angeles graying with age, with no backup man for Russell and its best shooter ready to retire, but that was also the sad situation before the New York series

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They are always around at playoff time, the former Celtics, the alumni—back to visit. It seems almost the way it is when Tex Ritter calls the honor roll of oldtimers in Hillbilly Heaven, only with the Celtics, of course, this is invariably a happy time. After all the who-shot-John that goes on from October to March, the Celtics just go out and win the playoffs. So the old players come in and joke with Red Auerbach, the headmaster emeritus, and shake the few remaining familiar hands on the team. Every year, though, each alumnus appears as a somewhat hazier image—like hearing an old song that you know was very important to you at one time but now you can't remember precisely why. There are so many old Celtics who figured in so many old championships.

Bill Russell sits at his locker and tries to find new ways to explain the Celtics, because they have just beaten the New York Knicks for their 12th Eastern playoff title in 13 years. Russell goes along with the ritual, but the odd thing is that he best described what was to become the Celtic experience before he ever got to Boston. He was still at the University of San Francisco, and K.C. Jones had been lost to the team for the NCAA tournament. Someone asked what effect this would have on the team. "You change the spokes," Russell said, "but the wheel keeps rolling."

And that is the way it is. Some Celtics play alongside Russell, some sit on the bench, some retire and come back to shake hands. The spokes change. Each supporting star leaves, as Sam Jones will now and the soothsayers forecast doom. The wheel keeps rolling.

Win the playoffs? The Celtics are a fourth-place team that did not even play .500 ball the whole last half of the season. The Celtic regulars average over 31 years of age. That is about three years older than the world champion Detroit Tigers last year, six years older than the New York Jets. Of course, the Celtics will be younger next season since Sam, who is almost 36 and the oldest player in the league, will assume his duties as athletic director at Federal City College in Washington.

"Finis. End. Through. This is it," Sam says. Certainly he looks it. In a narrow-lapel, three-piece herringbone he moves through the mod Age of Aquarius like some fine old period piece. For diversion during the playoffs he has been studying Tommy Armour's golf tips for the middle-aged. His oldest of five children is Aubre, 11, who prefers hockey to basketball and roots for the Philadelphia 76ers. Never trust any team over 30.

Sam—the surname is seldom used except in box scores—has played old this year, too. He was injured, missed 12 games and did not come back fast enough to please Russell. He has had some good games in the playoffs, but he began to run down. The Celtics won the fourth game over the Knicks despite Sam—he shot 4 for 18—and then he was 1 for 8 when New York won to cut the Boston series lead to 3-2.

The Knicks had been putting pressure on the corners, so Russell decided that it was time his guards exploited the opening in the middle. Walt Frazier, just voted the best defensive player in the league, had pulled a groin muscle in the last seconds of the fifth game, and his lameness would make New York even more vulnerable. "I put myself into a higher pivot," Russell explained. "We would start our play like before, as if we were going to the corners, then turn them around and head things back to the middle, where the guards could use me as a pick."

Wasn't this a gamble—to have the offense depend on an old man who was shooting five for 26? Russell was pained. "That is two games," he said. "You know what Sam can do. I had to have him come out shooting."

Sam, in his stoical way, was ready. He has prospered in the league for so long, many think, in large measure because his attitude insulates him. He relaxes, away from the court, neither bugged by the last game nor anxious for the next one. "You get out there," he says, "and sometimes you have it, passing, shooting—sometimes you don't. It's all split seconds, and I just don't worry about it."

So Sam came out shooting—he was to put up 31 shots—and got free off Russell at the top of the key for the game's first basket. Frazier, pushing one hand against his sore muscle to try to still the pain, dogged Jones manfully, but Sam hit six baskets in the first half and Russell decided to start him in the third quarter, too, which he has seldom done lately. Sam broke it open with five baskets that put the Celtics 10 up. Moreover, the Knicks often double-teamed him, and this left Emmette Bryant wide open for 19 points. Sam had 29.

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