Friday, April 19, 2013

In Retrospect: Sixers versus Celtics, 1968 Playoffs Edition


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
Finals (image@sports.terra.com)

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
(image@basketball-reference.com)
Game 7 was low scoring and tight the whole way, with Boston hanging to a small lead most of the way. Sam Jones led a balanced attack with 22 points and scored the final, clinching points of a 100-96 Celtic victory that propelled the Green to yet another championship series, which they, of course, won over the Los Angeles Lakers in 6 games. The thing that struck me at the time was the curious fact that Wilt took only one shot in the entire second half with the series on the line. He ended up with only 14 points, once again failing miserably at the line by shooting 6-15 (Russell, for his part, wasn't any better, shooting 4-10 at the line and scoring 12 points; the game was largely won on the backs of the shooting prowess of Jones, Havlicek, and Larry Siegfried). But one shot? Chamberlain's explanation was infuriating at the time: Coach Hannum hadn't told him to shoot! (Hannum's response: "I never had to tell him to shoot before" [!]). Considering the fact that the Sixers were without Cunningham, and that Greer, Walker, and Wali Jones were ice cold the whole game, one could be excused for thinking his curious logic to border on inexcusable dereliction of duty as the league's reigning MVP. It is true that the Celtics tried to hamper him by having guards Jones and Siegfried collapse on him when he got the ball in the low post. But that is no excuse. In the history of the game, only Shaquille O'Neal has approached the physical dominance the Dipper had back in the '60s. There is no way two guards shorter than 6'5" could have stopped him in his physical prime at the age of 32. The truth, as I see it now, has to do with Wilt's infamously fragile psyche. The late giant had been haunted for years by unflattering comparisons to Russell who, great as he was, paled by comparison with Chamberlain's natural ability on the offensive end of the game. Chamberlain, it appears, was determined to win the way Russell always had, by deferring offensively to his teammates. Later, in 1971-72, he did just that with the Lakers, when he had Jerry West and Gail Goodrich to pick up the offensive slack. But, in 1968, his strategy failed miserably.
The two (literal and figurative)
giants at the center of it all
(image@mrbasketball.com)


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.



2 comments:

  1. Say Hey James

    Nice post ... I started going to Celtic games in 1964 and remember well the 1968 Eastern Division Finals, the Celtics going on to become the first pro team to come back from a 3-1 deficit (Detroit Tigers, later that year, would do it in the World Series) ...

    What I remember most, being that Philly "dethroned" the Celtics the year before, was the Philly fans chanting whenever that played in '68' "Boston is dead!" ...And how they came back to haunt them, in the waning minutes of Game 6, Celtics crusing to victory at the Boston Garden to tie the series "Philly is dead!" ...

    And sad for fans today, the Russell-Chamberlain rivalry was electric and epic, and there really hasn't been another like it since (Bird-Magic, maybe, and sad for Michael Jordan that he didn't really have an arch rival to go against)

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