Today my book, Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete and the Birth of the Modern NBA, is available in stores. What an exciting time!
To celebrate, I've included below the first chapter of the book, setting the stage for the crazy 1970s in the NBA!
PREGAME: THE 1969 FINALS
In January 1970, Americans flocked to theaters to watch the dark comedy M*A*S*H, starring Donald Sutherland as Cpt. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce; they swayed in time to B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head;” cheered for the Kansas City Chiefs (or the Minnesota Vikings, poor saps) in Super Bowl IV; and some even watched professional basketball. In the first NBA game played in the 1970s, Chet “The Jet” Walker and the visiting Chicago Bulls outscored the Seattle SuperSonics by eight points in the final minute to escape with a 114-111 win.
Most Americans celebrated the beginning of the new decade on the first of January. But by the time of the Bulls’ comeback win in Seattle, basketball fans were already in mid-season form. In fact August 4, 1969 (just two weeks after Neil Armstrong took his famously giant leap for mankind) was the real start of the seventies in the NBA. That day, a new issue of Sports Illustrated hit newsstands carrying a surprising headline: Bill Russell was retiring as the player-coach of the Boston Celtics. “Since 1943, when I first saw a basketball,” Russell explained in the exclusive interview, “I’ve played approximately 3,000 games, organized and otherwise. I think that’s enough.” Russell’s announcement shocked the basketball world. Celtics’ President Red Auerbach tried to convince him to reconsider, but the eleven-time champ had made up his mind. He was done. [i]
For thirteen years, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics were synonymous with professional basketball. When Russell entered the league in 1956, most teams played a below-the-rim, slow-paced game relying on patterned ball movement and plodding centers like Minneapolis Lakers star George Mikan. Russell’s incredible athleticism allowed the Celtics to employ a fast-breaking style revolutionizing the game. Auerbach, the stogie-smoking architect of those Celtics teams, surrounded Russell with exceptionally-skilled role players. Bob Cousy (and later K.C. Jones) handled the ball and ran the offense while Bill Sharman (and then Sam Jones) served as designated shooters. At the forward slots – called “cornermen” in the ‘60s and ‘70s – the Celtics trotted out Tom “Satch” Sanders as the defensive stopper and Tom “Tommy Gun” Heinsohn as another scoring threat. The Celtics also benefitted from tremendous depth as, for most of Russell’s career, the team employed their second-best forward as a “sixth man” with future Hall of Famers Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek thriving as substitutes.
Surrounded by these talented teammates, Russell led Boston to an unprecedented eleven NBA titles. But the last was perhaps the most dramatic and unlikely. In the 1969 Finals, Russell’s 48-34 Celtics squared off against the heavily favored 55-27 Los Angeles Lakers, led by the high-scoring trio of Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West. This marked the sixth time in eight seasons Boston and Los Angeles had met for the league title and the Celtics were 5-0. But despite his team’s poor track record against Boston, West was confident in a Los Angeles victory. “Most of the years we played they were better than we were,” West later admitted. “But in ’69 they were not better. Period. I don’t care how many times we played it, they weren’t better. We were better.” [ii]
In the first game of their best-of-seven series, West scored fifty-three points and handed out ten assists to lead Los Angeles to a 120-118 victory in what Bill Russell called “the greatest clutch performance ever against the Celtics.” For an encore, West added forty-one in Game Two and Los Angeles pulled to a commanding 2-0 series lead. In the third game, a nearly blinded Havlicek, who had taken an inadvertent finger to the eye, hit a pair of key free throws to help the Celtics hold on to a 111-105 victory. The following contest also came down to the wire; a miraculous off-balance eighteen-footer from the notoriously clutch Sam Jones with just three seconds left on the clock provided the margin of victory: Celtics 89, Lakers 88.[iii]
The teams split games five and six to set up the deciding seventh game in the Lakers’ palatial Forum in Inglewood. Inexplicably, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke ordered hundreds of balloons secured in the rafters to be dropped after his team beat the Celtics. As if Boston needed any more motivation. Heading into the fourth quarter, Boston led by fifteen and seemed to be pulling away. But the Lakers began to slowly cut into the Celtics’ lead, inching to within nine points halfway through the fourth quarter. Then the unthinkable occurred – Chamberlain suffered a knee injury after leaping for a rebound. As the Lakers trainer sprayed Freon on Chamberlain’s injured leg, hoping to numb it enough to allow the big man to continue, the crowd at The Fabulous Forum deflated. But even without Chamberlain, L.A. cut the lead to a single point in the final minutes. With the Lakers edging closer, Chamberlain pled with Coach Butch Van Breda Kolff to put him back into the game. “I told him,” Van Breda Kolff said later, “that we’re doing well enough without you” and he left the future Hall of Famer seething on the bench. As the clock ticked under a minute, West poked the ball away from Havlicek and the Celtics’ title hopes hung in the balance. But the loose ball bounced right into the waiting hands of pot-bellied Celtics forward Don Nelson. Nelson’s rushed jump shot hit the rim, bounced several feet in the air, and dropped right through the net. Final score: Celtics 108, Laker 106. Chamberlain was livid, certain that Van Breda Kolff’s decision to keep him on the bench had, “not only humiliated me,” but “had deprived me and my teammates and the Laker fans of an NBA championship.” At least one of his teammates was just as angry as Chamberlain. Sportswriters named West the first-ever Finals MVP (the only time a player on the losing team won the award). His prize? A car painted a lovely shade of Celtics green. Not surprisingly, West said he “felt like putting a stick of dynamite in it and blowing it up right there.” [iv]
Two months later, with the greatest winner in NBA history hanging up his sneakers, the league suddenly had a vacancy at the top. Even before Jack Kent Cooke could send the balloons from the rafters of the Forum to a local children’s hospital, fans and media members debated potential successors to the Celtics dynasty. Could the Lakers’ Big Three of Baylor, Chamberlain, and West make one more run at the title? What about Walt Frazier and Willis Reed? Could they bring championship basketball back to the Big Apple for the New York Knicks? Might “The Kangaroo Kid” Billy Cunningham jumpstart the Philadelphia 76ers? Or would a dark horse emerge? Maybe Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and the Baltimore Bullets or “Sweet” Lou Hudson’s Atlanta Hawks?
Regardless of who succeeded the Celtics as the team of the decade, the NBA was on the cusp of a great transformation. In the ten years following Russell’s retirement, eight different franchises took home championship rings, salaries skyrocketed as players gained the right to free agency, the NBA merged with the rival ABA, and a culture of violence and drugs pervaded pro basketball locker rooms. In the 1970s, fans witnessed the rise of “Doctor J” Julius Erving, the brilliance of “Pistol” Pete Maravich, and the birth of the modern NBA.
Adam Criblez is the author of the NEW book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA.
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[i] William F. Russell, “I’m Not Involved Anymore,” Sports Illustrated, 4 August, 1969.
[ii] Quoted in Roland Lazenby, The NBA Final: A Fifty Year Celebration (Master’s Press, 1996), 134.
[iii] Ibid., 136.
[iv] Mal Florence, “Even Champ Celts Salute Loser West,” The Sporting News, 17 May, 1969, 47;
[iv] Wilt Chamberlain, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1973), 218;
[iv] Jerry West and Jonathan Coleman, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011), 86.