Grampa Celtics Weighs in on the Boston-Philly Rivalry

April 2002

Charlotte? A nice, solid team coached by an old buddy of ours. Physical backcourt. Lots of experience. Would have been an OK series.

Orlando? A week of Tracy McGrady highlights and Doc Rivers quotes would have been fun.

But let's get serious. How could anyone around here with even a sliver of a hoop soul not be happy with what we've got? There's going to be a buzz in the building around 12:30 today. Good God, the Celtics are playing Philadelphia. Even better, the 76ers come equipped with a must-be-stopped force in Allen Iverson, who, despite being a foot shorter and more than a hundred pounds lighter, triggers the same fan fears as Wilt Chamberlain did in times past.

Boston-Philly. We've been down this playoff road 13 times before. From 1958 through 1985, these two slugged it out - sometimes literally - 78 times at the Boston Garden, Convention Hall, Palestra, and Spectrum. Modern players are notoriously indifferent students of history, as we all know, so someone might as well tell the Walkers, Pierces, Iversons, and Colemans up front that they've got a lot to live up to if they want to create their own legend in this scenario. Let's just say that a few interesting things have happened when these teams have found themselves paired up in the playoffs.

For example . . .

Are any of you big guys up to a 144-rebound series? I'll repeat: 144. That's how many Bill Russell picked up when the Celtics took out the Philadelphia Warriors in five when these cities hooked up for their first NBA playoff series back in 1958. Perhaps that's why losing coach George Senesky lamented, "The biggest problem was Russell." He would not be the last Philly coach to make that statement.

Two years later the Warriors found a way to level the playing field a bit. They returned with a guy named Chamberlain. Wilt checked in with 42 points and 29 rebounds in Game 1, but when it was over, and the Celtics had won, all anyone was talking about was an almost incomprehensible where-did-he-come-from? block by Russell on Guy Rodgers with the game on the line. The series was an apt table-setter for the entire Russell-Chamberlain '60s playoff rivalry, with Wilt going for 50 and 35 in Game 5 (as the Celtics moaned about his camping in the lane) and the Celtics having the last laugh when Tom Heinsohn tipped in a Bill Sharman shot at the buzzer to give them a clinching 119-117 victory in Game 6. "One of my greatest thrills," said Red Auerbach. There would be many more to come.


No gag, that. People thought that way after a season in which Chamberlain had averaged 50.4 points a game, so when he was able to scrape up only 33 and 31 in Game 1 of the '62 Eastern Division Finals, it was major news. The highlight of this series was Game 5, when Chamberlain and Sam Jones got into it during the fourth quarter of a Boston rout and Jones picked up a photographer's stool to defend himself. Before the fracas was over, Rodgers had twice armed himself with another photog's stool, Carl Braun had been punched in the mouth, and Jim Loscutoff had declared war on the entire state of Pennsylvania. Russell's take: "The man is a foot taller. Sam had to think fast." Jones would become the hero of Game 7, sinking a fallaway with one second left to make the Celtics very shaky 109-107 victors.

Three years later, John Havlicek made a steal you may have heard about. The Celtics were leading Game 7, 110-109, when Russell threw an inbounds pass with five seconds left that hit the guy wire supporting the basket, thus turning the ball over to the 76ers. But Havlicek bailed him out by deflecting Hal Greer's inbounds pass away from Chet Walker and over to Jones. Chamberlain had a routine 32 and 30, but Russell still outplayed him. Guess you had to be there to understand how this could happen, not just once, but many, many times.

It was pretty much the usual story as Boston took out Philly in five in 1966, but 1967 offered a far different scenario. The 1966-67 season belonged to the 76ers (a then-record 68-13) and to Chamberlain, who averaged 24 points, 24 rebounds, and 8 assists a game. In the clinching Game 5 against Boston (140-116), he submitted the Mother of All Triple-Doubles: 29-36-13.

The wait for revenge was short, for a year later the Celtics became the first NBA team to win a series after being down, 3-1, and doing so by winning Games 5 and 7 in Philadelphia. Chamberlain took but two shots in the second half of Game 7 while his rim-clanging teammates were constructing an entire housing project with their no-hope jumpers. "It's just like dropping an ice cream cone," said 76ers coach Alex Hannum. "There it is. But what can you do? You can't pick it up and eat it. It's gone."

Chamberlain was a Laker when Boston and Philadelphia met in 1969. Boston won in a rather easy five, with the most interesting footnote being the Game 1 ejection of both Jones and publicist Howie McHugh by referee Jack Madden.

Only Havlicek of all the '60s combatants was still around when the 76ers defeated the Celtics eight years later in what was not the most artistic of series. But the rivalry was reignited with passion in 1980, when the 76ers, who had finished second to Boston in the regular season, manhandled them in five when the Second Season began. That prompted Auerbach and Bill Fitch to rearrange the furniture, making a deal with Golden State that would bring Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

Does 1981 and the second Boston comeback from 1-3 ring a bell? Recall the Celtics winning Games 5, 6, and 7 by 2, 2 and 1 point, respectively? Remember the comeback in Game 7, when the Celtics, down by 9 with 5:24 left, utilized the laissez-faire officiating of Darell Garretson and Jake O'Donnell to limit the Sixers to 1 point in their final 10 possessions? Can you see Larry Bird ripping the rebound of a Darryl Dawkins miss (hard to score with three men hanging on you), advancing the ball upcourt and banking in a 15-footer to break the last tie? Can you still hear the 747-level noise reverberating in the Garden? I thought so.

But silence can be deafening, too, and there is no sweeter sound for a visitor than a hushed home crowd watching its heroes being destroyed. Was there ever a sweeter Philadelphia victory over anybody than the 1982 Game 7 triumph in the Garden? No one on earth gave them a chance but themselves. Andrew Toney, already known as "The Boston Strangler," dropped in 34 nerveless points, and the estimable Dr. J wasn't bad himself, adding a tasteful and understated 29. And who could forget the classy Boston fans sending the hated Sixers off to the Finals by chanting "Beat LA!" in the waning seconds?

They would meet one more time, in 1985, and this time the hero was - care to guess? - Larry Bird, who settled fifth-game matters by stripping Toney of the ball right in front of the Philly bench to preserve a 102-100 victory in Game 5. "I just saw Larry reach for the ball and all I could think of was, `Free at last, free at last,' " said K.C. Jones.

OK, Mr. Pierce, Mr. Walker, and Mr. Iverson. Even you, Mr. Coleman. Your ancestors in this rivalry were giants of the industry. Impress us. Let's see what you've got to offer


FLCeltsFan said...

Even though the Boston/Philly rivalry isn't what it once was, history makes it still interesting. It's been heating up though. Holding Wilt to 33 is just fun.

Regardless, we will never see a matchup of giants like Russell and Chamberlain ever again.

Lex said...

Those games must have been something to watch. Heck, I would have settled for cowens v. chamberlain.

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