8.29.2009

1957 NBA Finals: Best Series Ever?

The losing team won three games by two points.

One of the greatest players in the history of basketball shot a 14-foot free throw in the clutch.

A brash rookie waltzed in and took over the series.

An even brasher coach slugged the owner of the other team prior to one game.

A seven-game series came down to the final second of the second overtime when one of the most inventive and daring plays ever conceived failed because the best player on the team missed a shot he had made, and would subsequently make, umpty-ump zillion times in his career.

Welcome to the 1957 NBA finals, better known in Boston as World Championship No. 1.

There never would be another Celtics' final series like it, and not only because there can only be one First Time. The seven-game confrontation with the St. Louis Hawks was a truly spectacular battle, and because it was so wonderfully competitive, the victors cherish the memory even more. For the principals, the first championship was the besttime of their athletic lives.

No one in Boston was used to the idea of basketball championships in those days. The Celtics had a long reputation as a good sparring partner, but that's all. They had never been to the finals, and had been eliminated the year before in the first round by Syracuse. The advent of Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn and Frank Ramsey had made the Celtics into Eastern Division champions in that 1956-57 regular season, but winning the championship meant advancing their thinking to another level, and neither the players nor the fans were comfortable with the thought.

To veterans such as Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Jack Nichols, the chance to play for the championship was energizing. "To that point," recalls Cousy, "reaching the Eastern Division finals was a big thing. We weren't thinking about the championship. All of a sudden, there we were. It was more important to the guys who had been around than it was to Tommy Heinsohn and Bill Russell."

Agrees Heinsohn, "As a rookie, I just didn't feel any great pressure."

The St. Louis team opposing them had finished in a three-way tie with Minneapolis and Fort Wayne for first in the West with an uninspiring 34-48 record. But the team was in the process of construction. Coach Red Holzman had been relieved of duty after 23 games. Veteran guard Slater Martin replaced him for eight games before Alex Hannum, a roughhouse forward, took over. With Hannum came stability.

The key players on those Hawks were the great Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit ("the prototype of the modern power forward" -- Heinsohn), rookie forward Cliff Hagan and Martin, the former sparkplug of the great Minneapolis teams of the early '50s. Other dependable players were forward Jack Coleman and guard Jack McMahon, the same Jack McMahon who would later coach the Cincinnati Royals and San Diego Rockets and who is now an assistant coach with the 76ers. The center was Charles (Chuck) Share, a plodding 6-foot-11-inch banger who had originally been drafted by the Celtics.

St. Louis came into the finals playing its best ball of the season, taking out Fort Wayne in two straight and Minneapolis in three straight. Though the Celtics had a 7-2 series edge, two of the victories had been by two points, and everyone in the Celtic camp realized that the Hawks were much better than at any point in the regular season.

The big issue prior to the start of the series was the condition of Pettit's left wrist. The brilliant 6-9 forward/center had broken it late in the season, and played with a cast against Minneapolis. St. Louis owner Ben Kerner went so far as to suggest that since he was superstitious, he might feel better if Pettit, who had been outstanding against the Lakers, kept the cast on. But off it came.

GAME 1, MARCH 30
HAWKS, 125, CELTICS 123 (OT)


Trouble right away . . . Martin, a 5-9 roadrunner, follows Cousy everywhere but to men's room as St. Louis shocks the Celtics in the Garden . . . "CELT STAR BOOHED BY SAD HUB FANS," reads one headline. "I don't think they can do much without him," says Martin. "I'm with him wherever he goes." . . . Pettit goes for 37, while Heinsohn leads Boston with 26 . . . Winning basket scored by Coleman with a running hook . . . Russell semi-invisible, fouling out with 7 points. "I played a real lousy game," he says. "I don't know what the matter was. I was just lousy; that's all." . . . Cozy crowd of 5,976 in attendance.

ST. LOUIS (125) BOSTON (123)

             FG  FT  Pts.               FG  FT Pts.

Macauley, F 6 11 23 Heinsohn, F 10 6 26

Pettit, F 11 15 27 Loscutoff, F 4 1 9

Coleman, F 4 0 8 Risen, C 3 1 7

Share, C 2 1 5 Ramsey, F 2 2 6

Hagan, F 7 2 16 Nichols, F 0 0 0

Martin, G 9 5 23 Russell, C 3 1 7

McMahon, G 5 2 12 Cousy, G 8 10 26

Park, G 0 1 1 Sharman, G 12 10 34

Phillip, G 4 0 8


St. Louis 31 18 22 31 11 12 -- 125

Boston 21 26 27 28 11 10 -- 123


GAME 2, MARCH 31
CELTICS 119, HAWKS 99


Frank Ramsey, who could come up with 2-2--6 during the anthem, leads Celts to easy victory. He then flew back to Ft. Knox (Army Reserve duty) while awaiting Game 3 a week hence. Globe writer Clif Keane worries aloud that the plane fare will eat up the Celtics' playoff profits . . . Pettit shoots 3 for 16 in second half . . . Coach Hannum moans about Celtic roughness, and Red Auerbach unloads. "Who is he to talk?" inquires the Redhead. "I could have had Hannum from Rochester a couple of years ago almost for the asking, but I didn't want him then and still feel now that he is a hatchet man . . . and always was." This from the man who employed Bob Harris, Bob Brannum and Jim Loscutoff . . . The first-game loss must have scared Bostonians. Game 2 crowd is 13,909.

BOSTON (119) ST. LOUIS (99)

             FG  FT  Pts.             FG  FT  Pts.

Heinsohn, F 7 0 14 Martin, G 1 6 8

Loscutoff, F 5 1 11 Bemoras, G 3 3 9

Hemric, F 1 0 2 McMahon, G 5 4 14

Russell, C 5 1 11 Park, G 3 1 7

Risen, C 5 4 14 Share, C 5 3 13

Cousy, G 9 4 22 Pettit, F 3 5 11

Phillip, G 0 3 3 Coleman, F 4 2 10

Sharman, G 2 5 9 Macauley, F 7 5 19

Ramsey, G 8 6 22 Hagan, F 4 0 8

Nichols, F 5 1 11


Boston 31 31 32 25 -- 119

St. Louis 21 22 27 29 -- 99


GAME 3, APRIL 6
HAWKS 100, CELTICS 98


Fun starts before game even begins. Auerbach has maintenance people measure basket height. Hawks owner Kerner comes out screaming at him, saying Red's only doing this to show him up and that he's a "bush blankety-blank." Auerbach pops him with a left, drawing blood.

Heinsohn says it was Sharman who instigated it. "He said, 'Red, the basket's an inch low.' He was the kind of guy you could believe would know."

Cousy says he was responsible. "We went through the layup line once and I knew immediately the basket was not 10 feet high," says Cousy. "I called it to Arnold's attention. He called for the measuring pole, and when Kerner saw this, he came running out and Arnold cold-cocked him."

Auerbach says both Sharman and Cousy were responsible. "Cousy and Sharman came over and said, 'We can touch the rim. We never can touch the rim, and we're not that hopped up.' "

At any rate, it was a festive touch to the occasion, but the Hawks win the game by two as Sharman (28) fouls out with 2:09 left. Celtics have last shot, but can't connect on four tries. Doesn't matter, anyway, because when game is over, all anybody can talk about is Auerbach nailing Kerner.

ST. LOUIS (100) BOSTON (98)

            FG FT Pts.             FG FT  Pts.

Martin, G 6 4 16 Heinsohn, F 6 9 21

Bemoras, G 0 0 0 Loscutoff, F 4 1 9

McMahon, G 2 1 5 Nichols, F 0 0 0

Park, G 1 0 2 Russell, C 4 0 8

Share, C 3 6 12 Risen, C 1 1 3

Pettit, F 9 8 26 Cousy, G 4 8 16

Coleman, F 6 2 14 Phillip, G 0 0 0

Macauley, F 6 4 16 Sharman, G 9 10 28

Hagan, F 3 3 9 Ramsey, G 1 11 13

Boston 19 25 28 26 -- 98

St. Louis 19 21 29 31 -- 100


GAME 4, APRIL 7
CELTICS 123, HAWKS 118


Cousy (31) and Russell (20 rebounds) enable Celtics to tie the series . . . Russell says he has found the secret to playing against the Hawks . . . Andy Phillip comes off the bench and spells Cousy when needed . . . Pettit throws in 33 for St. Louis.

BOSTON (123) ST. LOUIS (118)

            FG  FT   Pts.             FG  FT   Pts.

Heinsohn, F 6 7 19 Macauley, F 6 10 22

Nichols, F 1 0 2 Hagan, F 7 11 25

Loscutoff, F 3 3 9 Pettit, F 12 9 33

Russell, C 7 3 17 Coleman, F 5 1 11

Risen, C 2 1 5 Share, C 1 1 3

Cousy, G 11 9 31 McMahon, G 2 0 4

Sharman, G 9 6 24 Park, G 1 1 3

Ramsey, G 4 5 9 Martin, G 4 7 15

Phillip, G 1 1 3 Bemoras, G 0 0 0


Boston 31 35 30 27 -- 123

St. Louis 36 17 37 28 -- 118


GAME 5, APRIL 9
CELTICS 124, HAWKS 109


Game belongs to Cousy (21 points, record-breaking 19 assists) and Sharman (32). "They are the finest backcourt I have ever seen -- or hope to see," lauds Martin. Pettit (33) and Heinsohn (23) continue their great battle in the corner . . . Russell hauls in 23 rebounds.

BOSTON (124) ST. LOUIS (109)

             FG  FT  Pts.            FG  FT   Pts.

Heinsohn, F 9 5 23 Martin, G 5 2 12

Loscutoff, F 5 1 11 McMahon, G 7 2 16

Nichols, F 2 0 4 Park, G 2 6 10

Russell, C 5 4 14 Share, C 1 4 6

Risen, C 5 3 13 Pettit, F 12 9 33

Cousy, G 8 5 21 Coleman, G 2 0 4

Philip, G 1 1 3 Macauley, F 4 3 11

Sharman, G 12 8 32 Hagan, F 4 9 17

Ramsey, G 1 1 3


St. Louis 30 30 25 34 -- 109

Boston 21 38 35 30 -- 124


GAME 6, APRIL 11
HAWKS 96, CELTICS 94


Hagan eludes block-out of Heinsohn for tap-in with two seconds left to win it and keep Hawks alive . . . Tough game, as six points biggest margin either way. Writes Globe's venerable Jack Barry, "This game was the most spectacular and hardest-fought of the greatest NBA final playoff series ever held." . . . Russell comes up with 23 more rebounds . . . Heinsohn collects 28 points, 11 rebounds . . . It is the fifth consecutive two-point win over Boston for the Hawks . . . Celtics complain about referee Sid Borgia, asking, "Where's Mendy Rudolph?"

ST. LOUIS (96) BOSTON (94)

             FG FT  Pts.               FG  FT  Pts.

Pettit, F 8 16 32 Heinsohn, F 12 4 28

Coleman, F 5 6 16 Russell, C 5 7 17

Macauley, F 2 0 4 Risen, C 2 1 5

Share, C 2 0 4 Loscutoff, F 1 0 2

Hagan, F 7 2 16 Nichols, F 1 0 2

Martin, F 2 2 6 Cousy, G 6 5 17

McMahon, G 7 3 17 Phillip, G 0 0 0

Park, G 0 1 1 Sharman, G 5 5 15

Ramsey, G 3 2 8


Boston 23 28 27 16 -- 94

St. Louis 22 27 28 19 -- 96


GAME 7, APRIL 13
CELTICS 125, HAWKS 123 (2 OTS)


Professional basketball comes of age in epic Garden event . . . On day when the "greatest backcourt ever" combines to shoot an abominable 5 for 40 (Sharman 3 for 20, Cousy 2 for 20), the Celtics hang in behind Russell (19 points, 32 rebounds), veteran Arnie Risen (16 points, 10 rebounds in 20 minutes) and, most of all, Heinsohn (37 points, 23 rebounds to close out a fabulous final series) to win in two overtimes . . . Ramsey makes key jumper and Loscutoff sinks important foul shot, but the Celtics must sweat out a length-of-the-court heave by Hannum to Pettit, who misses a 12-footer at the buzzer after taking a pass off the backboard.

Many, many meorable plays in this game, but here are three:

1. Russell blocks Jack Coleman shot with Celtics leading by one with 39 seconds left in regulation.

Heinsohn: "This was the greatest play I ever saw in basketball. Russell had been ahead of the pack trying to take a Cousy pass. He couldn't get full control and his dunk attempt went off the back rim as his momentum carried him off the court into the basket support. The rebound came out to the foul line, and with one pass, Coleman was way ahead of everybody for what would have been the go-ahead basket. I was at the other foul line with no chance to catch him, when all of a sudden Russell blew by me like I was standing still. He caught up to Coleman and blocked the shot. That saved the championship."

2. Cousy throws air ball from the foul line.

Cousy: "It was the first time I remember choking in a game. To that point, I had never felt pressure. I swished the first one, and then Hannum called time. I got back to the huddle and everybody was saying, 'One more, Cooz, and we've got it!' I immediately went to the line and threw a Walton air ball." To this day, I get letters from people asking me what the strategy was in throwing the air ball."

3. Hannum's amazing pass.

Heinsohn: "We were leading by two points with three seconds to go in the second overtime. Hannum just took the ball and threw it the length of the court off the glass, and it went right to Pettit. It was a designed play. It came off so hard that Pettit picked it up almost at the foul line. It was a great pass."

Cousy: "The ball hit right smack in the middle of the backboard and came off to Pettit right in front of the hoop. He choked even worse than I did. When he missed, I think his rebound came out halfway to midcourt."

BOSTON (125) ST. LOUIS (123)

             FG   FT   Pts.              FG  FT   Pts.

Heinsohn, F 17 3 37 Coleman, F 4 2 10

Loscutoff, F 0 3 3 Hagan, F 7 10 24

Ramsey, F 6 4 16 Share, C 0 5 5

Risen, F 6 4 16 Macauley, F 2 5 9

Nichols, F 4 0 8 Hannum, F 0 0 0

Russell, C 7 5 19 Pettit, C 14 11 39

Sharman, G 3 3 9 McMahon, G 3 0 6

Cousy, G 2 8 12 Martin, G 6 11 23

Phillip, G 2 1 5 Park, G 3 1 7


Boston 26 25 32 20 10 12 -- 125

St. Louis 28 25 24 26 10 10 -- 123


The Celtics were NBA champions, earning approximately $1,200 apiece. The money was nice, but the feeling was what mattered.

"My biggest thrill as a player," contends Heinsohn. "Another big thing was that Walter Brown was a guy you just loved to win for. The older guys, Cousy and Sharman, had played their tails off for years without really coming close. They were thrilled."

Agrees Cousy, "Absolutely, the first one is the best. And it was even more important because we knew what it would mean to Walter. He wanted a championship for the Celtics that would establish the Celtics' identity."

They'll surely get no argument from The Boss. "That first one was special," says Auerbach. "All of a sudden, you could walk down the street and say, 'Gee, I am affiliated with -- I'm coaching -- the best basketball team in the world.' "

It's a 29-year feeling Auerbach has never outgrown, and never intends to.

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