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If professional basketball has escaped the appellation of bush, the followers of the sport apparently are resolved to keep it to themselves. Last week, in the playoffs in Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis, the fans behaved like hangers-on at a lynching, hurling abuse, obscenities and UFOs at men engaged in magnificent contests of skill and courage. In Philadelphia's Convention Hall, which retains sound and smoke with amazing tenacity (much of the smoke seemed to jet from the ears of the fans), they gathered to rejoice at the slaughter of the Celtics. And the Celtics died a horrible death, 140-116, amid the vocal indecencies and the flying rubbish.
A more fitting conclusion to the years of Boston's supremacy occurred a few moments later, as the public-address announcer was imploring the souvenir hunters to climb down from the baskets. Bill Russell and K. C. Jones moved up the runway to their locker room. Suddenly they caught each other's eyes, and at once clasped each other about the shoulders and marched off together for the last time.
But life, just like these playoffs, goes on (and on), and at this moment on the other side of the stage across the Hall, Wilt Chamberlain briefly kept the Philadelphia 76ers from their champagne to remind them that however great this triumph, the NBA finals were still to be played. The next evening in St. Louis, under a barrage of eggs that surpassed even the shelling in Philadelphia and Boston, the San Francisco Warriors beat the Hawks and won their way into the finals.
So the action resumed in Philly, where, despite all their warnings to each other, the 76ers did experience a letdown, though it was camouflaged by a fast start. Even the fans seemed drained by their emotional binge in the Boston series. Convention Hall was not full, nor were the chairs pyramided about the court for better vantage for watching and egg-throwing, as they usually are. All of the Warriors were actually applauded when they were introduced, though those who had previously played for Philadelphia were also booed. But there was little noise, not even when San Francisco came rushing back from 19 points down to force the game into overtime. This period of surprise quickly passed, and the crowd filed out in smug silence as soon as the 76ers won 141-135. On Sunday the task was easier, the ultimate goal nearer, and the fans were mostly concerned that they might not see the 76ers at home again. The Warriors shot a dreadful 29% from the floor as they worried about Chamberlain's blocking, rushing their offense in an effort to beat Philadelphia down the court. The score was 126-95, and the series was 2-0 and off to San Francisco for two more games.
Such an anticlimactic aura about the finals is not new—the annual futile effort to stop Boston in the East previously commanded the most attention—but it was never more evident than this year when both semifinal series involved bitter rivalry and recrimination. This spring in the NBA, April showers brought forth the mops. In San Francisco only one egg was thrown; in Boston it was eggs and tomatoes; in Philadelphia eggs, potatoes and coins; and in St. Louis eggs, Snickers bars, rocks and one Zippo lighter. So many Grade A's were hurled in Kiel Auditorium that when one arrived with 56 seconds left in the game, an observer noted that it was merely "the first egg of the last two minutes." The Snickers bars were aimed at Rick Barry (see cover), who endorses them. "At least my sponsor will be happy," he said during a time-out. It is significant that in the midst of this off-court chaos the players kept their heads and showed officials deserved respect.
Barry was the object of most of the St. Louis attention. The fans call him "Superbaby." They distinguished themselves by booing him unmercifully in the fourth game when he sprained an ankle and lay on the floor, grimacing in pain. Extremely conscious of his appearance, he probably suffered as much continued distress when his gold pants split with 2:18 left in the deciding game and the score tied at 102. He wrapped a towel about himself, ran to the locker room and returned quickly with a new pair. Relieved, the Warriors went on to win 112-107.
During the game San Francisco Owner Franklin Mieuli carried on a rearguard action against the Hawks' Ben Kerner. Because the St. Louis fans had flicked the ears of the Warriors sitting on the bench and joined the time-out conversations in the fourth game, Mieuli hired two uniformed guards to stand behind the Warriors. An elderly pair, they elicited guffaws from the St. Louis management, which claimed that one of the sentinels "was so old he had Remember the Maine tattooed on his wrist." Kerner also repulsed one cross-court Mieuli guerrilla action by calling him "a cheap fink."
Mieuli was dressed in his lucky battle gear of the last few games—resplendent sky-blue blazer over a smart turtleneck. But then he has his whole team one step ahead of the rest of the athletic world, sartorial division. The Warriors wear their own special raincoats (bought in Philadelphia, by the way). They are black with zip-out linings and on the breast of each is the little Warrior Golden Gate emblem and the player's number. Others in the organization have their initials instead of a number. Coach Bill Sharman has neither, because he did not want to wear BS over his Golden Gate Bridge.
Sharman's Warriors belie their name. They are as genteel a group as ever played for pay, young and skinny, with well-scrubbed baby faces. Five of them are engaged in church or youth work during the summers. Tom Meschery writes poetry. Jim King has a barber's license. Sharman calls them "my Sunday school team." Instead of champagne, the Warriors guzzled 7-Up to celebrate their win in St. Louis. There was a more formal victory party later, but Al Attles said, "A lot of us just went for the good food." Al is the player representative and his gentlemanly demeanor sets the example for his younger teammates. Sharman has not had to fine or discipline one of his players all season.
Ironically, the reward for all this clean living was a series of injuries that made it impossible for a single Warrior to participate in all 81 games. (By contrast, five 76ers did.) The Warriors entered the finals with five major handicaps: Jeff Mullins had a severe charley horse, Thurmond and Meschery had broken bones in their hands, and starting Forward Fred Hetzel had such painful shin splints that he could not return to the lineup in the first Philadelphia game and played only briefly on Sunday. Finally, Barry's ankle injury was much more serious than most people suspected, especially those who dismiss him as a crybaby. The sprained lateral ligaments not only produced considerable swelling and pain but forced blood into the area around the tendons. "Look," said Dr. James Raggio, the team physician, pointing to the Achilles tendon. "It's as stiff as a broomstick. When blood becomes, in a sense, a foreign agent, it can be more irritating than anything. Put a drop in your belly and you'll lie awake screaming. There's blood between Rick's Achilles and the sheath it normally glides against."