|Four Hall-of-Famers (The Sixers' Wilt Chamberlain and|
Chet Walker, the Celtics' Bailey Howell and Bill Russell)
fighting for a loose ball in the 1968 NBA Eastern Division
There are two things of which I, as a 56 year old Philadelphian, am sure. The first is that the City of Brotherly Love is snake-bitten with regard to its professional sports franchises. The second is that, though time flies—how can it be that I ever got this old?—the days of one's youth remain alive in one's consciousness in a perpetual present tense. And so I recall a painful episode from my youth that still seems like it happened yesterday: Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Division Championship Series, which was played 45 years ago to this day, on 19 April 1968, at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia, and which I watched at home on our family's black-and-white Zenith TV.
The Boston Celtics of the 1950s-60s remain, along with the New York Yankees of 1949-64, one of the two greatest dynasties in the history of American sports. From the 1956-57 through the 1968-69 seasons, The Celtics won 11 NBA championships in the span of 13 seasons, including an unprecedented (and never equaled) 8 in a row from '58-'59 to '65-'66. Fueling this run was a bevy of Hall-of-Fame talent: Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, and, of course, Bill Russell. In the dynasty's early years, particularly after Wilt Chamberlain entered the league in 1959, Boston was challenged in the Eastern Division by the Philadelphia Warriors, who had won the title back in 1956 on the back of Philadelphia-bred star Paul Arizin. But when the Warriors headed west to San Francisco prior to the 1962-63 season, Philly was left without a franchise until, a year later, they enticed the Syracuse Nationals to move there for the '63-'64 season.
But it was not until 15 January 1965, when the Sixers traded for hometown hero Chamberlain, that one of the sport's greatest rivalries took off. That year, despite finishing the season with a 40-40 record, the Sixers extended the defending champ Celtics to a 7th game in the Eastern finals, losing 110-109 when John Havlicek famously stole Hal Greer's inbound pass with 5 seconds remaining. The following year the Sixers actually beat out the Celtics for the top spot in the East with a 55-27 record behind MVP Chamberlain's league-leading 33.5 PPG and 24.6 RPG. Nevertheless, the Celtics rebounded to whip the Sixers in 5 games in the Eastern finals en route to their 8th consecutive championship.
1966-67, however, was another story. With Chamberlain having his greatest season (24.1 PPG, 24.2 RPG, 7.8 APG, and an otherworldly .683 FG percentage), more than ample support from Hal Greer (22.1 PPG) and rising stars Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, and Wali Jones, the Sixers raced out of the blocks by winning 46 out of their first 50 games, finishing with a then-record 68-13 record. In the Eastern finals, they demolished the Celtics in 5 games. Almost as an afterthought, they defeated Rick Barry's San Francisco Warriors in 6 games to win the championship. To the world it seemed that Chamberlain had finally exorcised his personal demon by vanquishing Russell. Moreover, with stars Russell and Sam Jones nearing the end of their playing days, it appeared that the Celtic dynasty was over.
And so it appeared as the 1967-68 season progressed. Chamberlain, despite his always-abysmal free throw shooting reaching its career nadir (.380 [!]), had another brilliant MVP season (24.3 PPG, 23.8 RPG, 8.6 APG [leading the league in total assists, the only center ever to have accomplished the feat]), as did Greer (24.1), Walker (17.9), and sixth man extraordinaire Cunningham (18.9). The Sixers once again led the league in wins, with 62, leaving the 54-win Celtics in the dust. And so, when the two rivals met once again in the Eastern finals, the Sixers were the heavy favorites, despite losing Cunningham to a broken wrist in their first round series against the New York Knicks, and Luke Jackson playing with a sore hamstring. And after the first four games, the Sixers were in the driver's seat. On 14 April they had defeated the Celtics, 110-105, at the Boston Garden, with four players (Greer, Chamberlain, Walker, and Jackson) scoring more than 20 points. In doing so, they had taken a 3 games to 1 lead in the best of 7 series. And they were heading home to their spanking new arena, the Spectrum, for game 4.
Not surprisingly, for hard-bitten Philly fans, things didn't pan out according to the conventional wisdom. In game 5, led by—no surprise here—37 points from "Mr. Clutch" Sam Jones and 29 from John Havlicek, the Celts blew away the overly confident Sixers in the 4th quarter, turning a tight game into a 122-104 blowout. Back in Boston on Wednesday, Havlicek led a balanced attack with 28 points to overcome Hal Greer's 40 points as the Celts evened the series at 3 games apiece with a 114-106 victory. Ominously, Chamberlain, though he scored 20 points, shot an inexcusable 8-22 from the foul line—not surprising, perhaps, but a key component to a loss that didn't have to be. And that set the stage for the, for Philly fans, devastating game 7 on 19 April at the Spectrum.
|The rudimentary box score of the fateful game|
|The two (literal and figurative)|
giants at the center of it all
The aftermath of the series was devastating to the Sixers franchise. In the offseason, Wilt was shipped off to Los Angeles (where he would once again lose under suspicious circumstances in a 7 game series to the Celtics in Russell's and Jones's last season in the following year's championship series) for the triumvirate of Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark, and Darrall Imhoff, the repercussions of which trade would ultimately lead to the historically bad 1972-73 team, which had a 9-73 record. Only with the acquisitions of George McGinnis and Julius Erving later that decade, and of Moses Malone in 1982, would the team once again reach the pinnacle of the league in 1983 ...
Which gets me thinking. Chamberlain had scored 4 points on two free throws and a "Dipper Dunk" over Russell in the last minute of the 1965 Eastern finals. What might have happened if Greer had succeeded in getting his in-bounds pass to Chet "the Jet" Walker and the Sixers had won that game? What if Cunningham had not gotten injured in '68? If such had happened, Chamberlain surely would never have left Philly, the Sixers well could have become a dynasty, and Wilt almost assuredly would be considered the greatest player ever to lace up sneakers. But the fact remains that Wilt, despite his unparalleled physical gifts (which, BTW, have never been equaled, let alone surpassed, in the ensuing decades), did not have the killer instinct we could have wished he had, and that Russell most assuredly possessed. And it would be Michael Jordan, who matched Chamberlain's physical gifts with Russell's ruthlessness, who would end up being generally regarded as the game's greatest player. I'm fine with that. I loved Chamberlain, Russell, and Jordan. But, as a proud Philadelphian, I can be excused for wondering what might have been.