Grampa Celtic Revisits the '57 Championship

It began with a 125-123 double-OT lollapalooza extravaganza that was surely The Bomb. It ended with a 125-123 double-OT lollapalooza extravaganza that was absolutely, positively The Atomic Bomb.

The names make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Bob Pettit, Slater Martin, Cliff Hagan. The Celtics had six future Hall of Famers. The Hawks had two. The two coaches would win every available NBA championship from 1957 to 1967.

Fifty years ago today, the Boston Celtics won their first of 16 NBA championships by defeating the St. Louis Hawks, 125-123, in two overtimes. Many with the right to an opinion on the matter, people who could pay full homage to Havlicek, Cowens, and the Big Three, say it was the most exhilarating of all the championships and that Game 7 was the Old Garden's Best Game Ever. Heinsohn says that a Russell game-saving block on Jack Coleman with a minute or so remaining in regulation was the single greatest play he's ever seen in his 51 years of NBA participation.

It was the Celtics' 11th year of existence and it was their first serious opportunity to win a title. Anchored by the brilliant backcourt of Cousy and Sharman, they had been textbook bridesmaids, an exciting, high-scoring team lacking the inside might to compete with the NBA's elite. Coach-general manager Red Auerbach began to rectify that situation by drafting a rugged forward from Oregon in 1955 who happily went by the name of "Jungle" Jim Loscutoff, and then Auerbach really hit the jackpot a year later when he took as a so-called "Territorial" draft choice a clever 6-foot-7-inch forward from Holy Cross named Tom Heinsohn, while cleverly maneuvering to draft Russell, the 6-9 center who had led the University of San Francisco to a pair of NCAA titles and the United States to the 1956 gold medal.

As a final piece of the puzzle, the versatile Ramsey, a draft choice who had been drafted into the Army, was allowed back to civilian life.

Russell should need no introduction. However, let the record show that when he joined the team shortly before Christmas (the Olympics had been in Melbourne), the club was already in first place with a 16-8 record. Russell was a revelation with his shot-blocking and rebounding, yes, but Heinsohn had been brilliant from the start and Heinsohn would be selected as Rookie of the Year.

The Celtics won the Eastern Division of the eight-team NBA with a 44-28 record and then swept Syracuse in the first round. St. Louis, one of three teams tied for first in the West at 34-38, defeated Minneapolis in three also and thus the championship series was set with Boston having the home-court advantage in the 2-2-1-1-1 format, which, as any sensible person knows, is the only appropriate way to hold a seven-game basketball or hockey series.

The Hawks' record meant little. They matched up well with the Celtics, and they had a truly great all-time player in the 6-9 Pettit, still one of the top 10 forwards who has ever lived. And when the Hawks opened the series on a Saturday afternoon with a 125-123 double-OT victory (Pettit scoring 37) in Boston Garden (before 5,976), it prompted Sharman to say, "We should win, but we've got a hard series in front of us."

Cousy's day did not begin well, as his car developed a flat tire as he drove to the Garden from his home in Worcester. Things didn't get much better when play began, as the 5-10 Martin, his old nemesis, did a nice job on him. Cooz scored 26 points, but Martin scored 23, and the crowd didn't like it. One headline the day after read: CELTICS' STAR BOOHED BY SAD HUB FANS.

As for Russell, who had a quiet afternoon, No. 6 was blunt. "I had a lousy game," he said. "Horrible. I don't know what the matter was. I was just lousy; that's all."

The Celtics evened things the next day, beating the Hawks, 119-99, before a that's-more-like-it sellout crowd of 13,909. Cousy had 22, Martin had 8, and the peppery Hawks guard observed, "Cousy must have been reading the papers."

The fun really started prior to Game 3 in St. Louis's Kiel Auditorium. Prompted by some comments by his players, Auerbach demanded the custodial staff measure the baskets to see if they were indeed 10 feet tall. Hawks owner Ben Kerner and Auerbach had long carried on a love-hate affair. Kerner was the only NBA owner to fire him, thus setting in motion the events leading Auerbach to Boston, and this time he thought Red had gone too far. An argument ensued, and Red punched Kerner, for which he would be fined $300 by commissioner Maurice Podoloff for "unbecoming conduct." The Game? Hawks, 100-98.

Boston evened the series (123-118) as Cousy scored 31 points in Game 4. The Cooz remained at the top of his game, handing out 19 assists as the Celtics took a 3-2 series lead with a 124-109 victory in Game 5. Hagan, a 6-4 marvel who played far bigger than his size, led the Hawks into Game 7 with 16 points and 20 rebounds in Game 6, a 96-94 St. Louis triumph. "The game," wrote the Globe's venerable Jack Barry, "was the most spectacular and hard-fought of the greatest N.B.A. playoff series ever held."

Deep in the notes, Barry pointed out that just before the half, the Celtics had almost scored on a full-court pass from Ramsey to Heinsohn that sailed through Hagan's hands. Hold that thought.

I saw the Phoenix triple OT. I saw all those Bird goodies. I saw the Celtics come from 20 back against the Nets in '02. I've been blessed. But I sure wish I could have seen Game 7 in 1957.

Consider the setting. This was not a case of the Celtics going for another championship to affirm their supremacy. The Celtics had not yet won anything. Professional basketball had never before held center stage in Boston. Hagan and St. Louis center Ed Macauley (whose No. 22 resides in the Garden rafters) had been traded for the draft rights to Russell. The NBA at large already hated Auerbach. The Celtics fans loathed St. Louis player-coach Alex Hannum. Auerbach had punched Kerner. Pettit was one of many unhateable, noble opponents (Jerry West, Michael Jordan, etc.) who would torment the Celtics through the years. And Johnny Most was announcing his first Finals.

Then came Game 7 and the two drop-dead first-ballot Hall of Fame guards were mutually stinking up the joint. Cousy would shoot a ghastly 2 for 20. Sharman, one of the great middle-distance shooters to lace up a sneaker, was marginally better: 3 for 20. So how did the Celtics win?

They won championship No. 1 because 22-year-old Tom Heinsohn and 23-year-old Bill Russell were beyond magnificent. Russell produced 19 points, 32 rebounds, and 5 blocks, one of which, well, that's the one Heinsohn has always maintained is the greatest single NBA play he's ever witnessed. St. Louis was up by a point in the final minute of regulation. Coleman, a good athlete type, was sprung for a sneakaway layup that would have put St. Louis up by 3. Starting, Heinsohn swears, from the other basket, Russell spotted Coleman half a court and wound up blocking the shot.

What Russell couldn't supply, Heinsohn did. Tommy Gun went off for 37 points, to go with 23 rebounds. Yes, Celtics kiddies, that's the same guy who now gives you "Tommy Points." Sharman would later say, "I never saw such a game played by a man under pressure." Gives you kids something to shoot for, eh?

Deep in the second OT, the Garden a cauldron of continuous noise, Ramsey hit a jumper to make it 124-121. A Loscutoff free throw would create the final score, but the ending was harrowing. With one second left, Hannum threw the ball the length of the court. The ball actually hit the backboard and bounded out to Pettit, whose desperate putback hung on the rim before falling off. The Celtics were champions, 125-123.

It was a series with seven tremendous games, four decided by 2 points, with the teams splitting bookend double-OT victories. And how did the Celtics celebrate? According to the Globe, they attended a breakup dinner at the Garden Club that very evening, "after which many of the players start heading for Des Moines, the first stop on a 17-game exhibition jaunt."

The winners' share had been $1,850.

What can I say? It was a different world.


FLCeltsFan said...

Good stuff. Bob Ryan is one of the greats. And I love reading about the history of the Celtics, especially those early days.

Lex said...

Nothing quite like Grampa C

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