Following on the heels of the rumor that Beatle Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by an impostor came the shocking reports out of Boston last week concerning another lefthander. There was evidence, not mere rumor, that after 13 years and 11 world championships Bill Russell was indeed missing from the Celtics. Apparently, Red Auerbach has spirited away a center named Henry Finkel from San Diego to assume Russell's place on the court, and has cleverly disguised Finkel in a green-and-white Celtic uniform. In addition, Red has put a State Mutual of America insurance salesman from Natick, Mass., named Tom Heinsohn, on the bench to take over Russell's responsibilities there.
Preposterous as all this might sound to a man just back from outer space, members of the Russell-is-indeed-gone cult have assembled facts to support their belief. They point to page one of the NBA statistics, which shows that Wilt Chamberlain is shooting more and with confidence again. Sensitive listening devices prove conclusively that Boston's opponents are hearing 96% fewer footsteps this year. And—alas—the Celtics now get beaten every time they play basketball.
"Even a train must stop," says Red Auerbach, admitting all and going on to suggest that trains that refuel with good draft choices proceed again. But it will never be the same again in Boston. The real question is not how good the Celtics still are, but whether the Celtic mystique will survive beyond the demise of the dynasty. With Russell gone, and Sam Jones too, Auerbach remains as the only direct link to all the glorious past. Heinsohn is there, but he was gone for a long time; Satch Sanders is the patriarch now, but he arrived years after the championship run had been well established.
The players who made the tradition are not only gone but secure in new identities. Bob Cousy is Cincinnati. Bill Sharman is the ABA. Frank Ramsey is Kentucky rich. A bunch of the others have college jobs. And Auerbach and his players were all that the tradition ever comprised anyway. The Celtics differed from other athletic dynasties in that they never held the fancy of their community nor represented a single proud ownership. The Celtic organization was once the corporate presence of one honored man, Walter Brown, but any semblance of management continuity disappeared with his death in 1963, and since then the world champions have been nothing more than strumpets of high finance, passed on from one balance sheet to another. Presently they are an acquisition of something called Trans National Communications, Inc., another property just like Wireline Radio, East West Films and Sam Senter Farms. Moreover, the Celtics have always been treated with indifference in Boston. Unlike the Canadiens, the Packers, the Colts or even the Yankees, the Celtics have had to find their only real community on the court. They have been the Basketball Celtics.
That the team has always been so unified on the floor is somewhat contradictory, too, since by nature most of the stars have been proudly independent. There have been few cliques. Candor was valued so highly that Russell was often violently reproached by his players when he appeared to be sluggish last year. Physical expression has never been inhibited, either. There have been some dandy scrimmages over the years, and last season such an unlikely twosome as old Sam Jones and Don Nelson slugged it out one day. By the same token, there still is a keen awareness of the order of things. When Emmette Bryant stopped Bad News Barnes—who is hot-tempered and then gets distracted from the business at hand by thoughts of revenge—from fighting a Detroit Piston last week, Bryant's concern was the team. "Hey, man, if you fight, you can't get us no place," he scolded.
Wayne Embry, who played with and against the Celtics and who is now director of recreation for the city of Boston, is a well-qualified observer. "The base was always mutual respect," he says. "When you joined the Celtics, they already knew what you could do and what you could not. They showed respect for what you were capable of, and didn't concern themselves with what you weren't capable of."
With this background and despite the unfortunate start the team has had, Heinsohn may have an easier job as coach than Auerbach will have as steward of the tradition. After four straight losses by last weekend, the team was down, losing confidence and beginning to press. But in a way there is more enthusiasm than last year.
"These guys know that everybody is really out now to rub it into us," Heinsohn says, "and we lost a couple tough ones right away. Any other team might have become completely demoralized, but they haven't. But why do you think I took this job? I could spend a lifetime coaching and never develop the kind of spirit I walked into right away."
Heinsohn can speak with considerable authority on the subject of spirit, because when he played, Auerbach often made him the recipient of criticism that should have been directed at other more sensitive players. Red would chew Heinsohn out for every conceivable sin, and then conclude amiably, "And that goes for the rest of you guys, too."
The only thing about Heinsohn that truly irked Auerbach was his conditioning, or his lack of it. He once called Heinsohn "the oldest 27-year-old body in the history of sports." Heinsohn smoked a pack a day the whole time he was playing. On the rare occasions that he tried to give cigarettes up he would gain so much weight that Auerbach would beg him to start again. In his retirement Heinsohn has solved this problem by smoking and gaining weight at the same time.