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The final game of the professional basketball championship playoffs was in its second overtime period in Boston Garden. The score was Boston 125, St. Louis 123, there were two seconds left to play and Alex Hannum of St. Louis had the ball out of bounds under his defensive board. The basket through which he had to score hung 10 feet above the floor, 90-odd feet away.
It is important to know who Alex Hannum is and just how he came to be holding the ball with the world title at stake and two seconds left on the clock.
Alex is a trim 6 feet 7 inches tall, his eyes are blue and his hair is now leaving him rapidly. At 32, he was so worn down by the demands of this physically exacting game that he was released by St. Louis before this season began, picked up by Fort Wayne and again dropped in December. Convinced he was through with basketball, he hadn't even brought his wife and two young daughters east; they were at home in Los Angeles.
Then, midway through the season, with the St. Louis team floundering helplessly in last place, Owner Ben Kerner made a series of desperation trades and personnel shifts, climaxed by the rehiring of Hannum as coach. Kerner had nothing to lose and Hannum quickly showed he had everything to gain. No one (least of all Hannum) had any idea whether or not he had that undefinable combination of qualities which makes a man a good leader and teacher of other men. Alex took his team, composed largely of over-age veterans surrounding high-scoring Bob Pettit, and drove, cajoled, coaxed and inspired them to their league championship. In the first six games of the playoffs with Boston, against the finest collection of basketball talent ever assembled and in the face of unanimous expert opinion that Boston would coast to the title, he had driven his men to unbelievable efforts and won three times. All of St. Louis was behind him in a sudden frenzy of enthusiasm. And now, after 72 regular-season games and six final playoffs, he was two points down with two seconds to go.
The playoffs thus far had produced enough heroes and heroics for an Odyssey of basketball. Boston's Bill Russell had soared over the court like some gigantic bird, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds and generally intimidating St. Louis shooters. (Unable to sleep at all the night before the final game, Russell had spent hours praying for each member of his team.) St. Louis' Slater Martin and Jack McMahon had performed miracles on defense to contain Boston's great Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. In every game, the guarding was so tenacious that a player had to drift back to midcourt for a clear shot. Neither team had ever been able to demonstrate real superiority—in any department.
Two seconds—the Boston Garden one deafening shriek of sound, guards restraining spectators from the edges of the floor, 13,000 sets of nerves on the raw edge. Hannum threw a perfect strike the length of the court in a planned maneuver to hit the backboard for a rebound by a teammate. The ball bounced off—into the arms of Bob Pettit. Just exactly perfect. Pettit misses this kind of a shot about as frequently as destiny touches a comparative unknown like Hannum. Pettit took his shot. It rolled around the rim, and rolled out.
Both Ben Kerner and Boston Owner Walter Brown had waited 11 years for a winning team. It is no play with words to say that they both had just that. Boston won the title; St. Louis won everything else. Moral victory is the way sportswriters usually cover such a situation.