Oh, I’m sure everyone’s familiar with mythical aura of Wilt vs. Russell, but let’s take a crash course lesson on the Boston Celtics vs. the Philadelphia Warriors, which was one of the great rivalries of the early NBA.
Philadelphia in 1956 had captured the NBA title behind the Hall of Fame trio of Neil Johnston, Paul Arizin, and Tom Gola. Johnston in 1953 had succeeded George Mikan as the pre-eminent NBA center. For 5 straight seasons (1953-1957) Johnston led the NBA in win shares and had a PER above 25.0 while also capturing 3 scoring titles, 3 FG% crowns and led the league in rebounding once.
Then along came Bill Russell in 1957.
The Celtics captured the NBA title in Russell’s rookie season. Then in 1958, the Warriors met the Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals (EDF) in a showdown of the last two NBA champs. Paul Arizin played valiantly while Gola did his typical all-around game, but Johnston was stifled by Russell and the Celtics took the series in 5 games. Johnston would blow out his knee in the 1958-59 preseason and Philly was left to struggle without a pivot man. The Celtics meanwhile appeared to be on easy street, minus the loss of their big man Bill Russell during the 1958 Finals, which allowed the St. Louis Hawks, behind an unbelievable 50-point performance by Bob Pettit in the deciding Game 6, to capture the title. Boston returned to form and captured the 1959 title.
Then along came Wilt Chamberlain in 1960.
The Warriors returned to respectability and the playoffs. The Celtics chugged along as usual and the two teams collided in the 1960 EDF. This affair was much more furious than the 1958 dance. Slugging back and forth, the Celtics were finally able to stamp out the Warriors in Game 6 by a final score of 119-117. The Warriors, now coached by Neil Johnston, disappointed the next season getting swept in the first round by Syracuse while Boston won yet another title.
Then along came Frank McGuire in 1962.
McGuire replaced Johnston as coach and established a friendly rapport with Chamberlain based on mutual respect instead of the decided animosity between Johnston and Chamberlain. The Warriors finished 49-31. It was their best record in franchise history, but the Celtics had won 60 games that year, the best in NBA history up to that point. But the Warriors were not afraid or impressed. After a testy 3-2 series win over Syracuse where Wilt scored a then-playoff record 56 points to close out the series, the Warriors headed to Boston Garden for Game 1 of the EDF on Saturday, March 24, 1962.
Philadelphia featured Wilt at center with Tom Gola and Paul Arizin still hanging around at the forward spots. In the backcourt rookie Tom Meschery and dazzling point man Guy Rodgers presided. These five could produce a nearly unstoppable offensive juggernaut. The Celtics meanwhile had Russell in the pivot with Tom Heinsohn, who had a devastating hook shot, and defensive ace Tom “Satch” Sanders at forward. In their backcourt was Sam Jones and the hardwood Houdini, Bob Cousy. Slightly less effective on offense, these players could still put together a lot of points. The difference between the teams, which had a total of 10 Hall of Famers, was the bench. The Celtics could bring in 3 highly effective players from their bench with K.C. Jones, Jim Loscutoff, and Frank Ramsey while the Warriors could count on just Al Attles for any routine punch off the bench.
Nonetheless, Red Auerbach was concerned and was drilling his team hard in practice during their long layoff waiting for the Syracuse-Philly series to end:
“We’re going to count on our speed and running tomorrow. Often a team loses its sharpness and timing in a first game waiting while another club is playing regularly. If we should lose the first game it would wipe out the home court advantage we worked all year to get.”
For one game at least, Red’s fears were unfounded. The Celtics blew the Warriors out in Game 1, 117 to 89. It was classic Celtics basketball as 8 players finished between 8 and 20 points. The embarrassing loss in Boston would be quickly avenged by Philadelphia, though.
Game 2 on the Warriors’ home court (they alternated sites every game) was a demonstration of just how terrifying the Philly offense could become. Chamberlain finished with 42 points while Arizin had 27 and Rodgers 22 as the Warriors charged back from an 11-point 4th quarter deficit to win 113-106. Rookie York Larese provided a surprising injection of outside shooting in the 4th with 8 points to aid the victory.
There was no rest as the very next game was played the very next day in Boston. The lack of down time didn’t harm Bill Russell who quickly put Game 3 out of reach. The big man had 21 points and 14 rebounds in the 1st half as Boston took a 76 – 55 lead into halftime. The final score was 129 to 114.
Again shifting to Philadelphia for Game 4, the home team again won. The Warriors outlasted Boston 110-106 in a see saw contest. Wilt Chamberlain was unstoppable in this game forcing Russell into 4 first half fouls while also getting Satch Sanders and Jim Loscutoff to foul out guarding him. The Dipper finished with an absurd 41 points and 34 rebounds.
Before the series, Boston’s Frank Ramsey predicted that the matchup would go the full 7-game distance and he looked increasingly prophetic. With neither team able to penetrate the other and gain a decided advantage, tensions finally boiled over in Game 5 at the Boston Garden.
Boston was embarrassing Philly with a 25-point lead in the fourth quarter of the contest when , after colliding with Sam Jones, the typically non-confrontational Wilt Chamberlain exchanged words with Jones. Evidently not liking what was said back to him, the incensed Big Dipper pursued Sam. The Celtic guard grabbed a courtside stool and waived it to fend off the towering Goliath.
While this scene was unfurling, some 200 fans and players from both sides rushed the court. Celtic reserve Carl Braun was punched in the mouth by Rodgers who then somehow got his hands on the same stool Jones had used to curtail Chamberlain. It was a smart move as “Jungle” Jim Loscutoff tried to avenge the punch on his teammate and pursued Rodgers all over the court. After more punching, shoving and chasing, the police were finally able to round up the rowdy fans sending them back into the stands. Peacemakers from both clubs were finally able to simmer down their hot-headed teammates.
After the game, Commissioner Maurice Podoloff fined Sam Jones, Loscutoff, Heinsohn, Rodgers and Ted Luckenbill a whopping $50 each. As for the game result, Bill Russell’s 29 points, 26 rebounds and 7 assists capped the Celtics victory, 119-104, and they took a 3-2 series lead.
Game 6, unsurprisingly, was won by Philadelphia as the home teams continued to hold serve. Veteran Paul Arizin scored a personal series high 28 points and rookie Tom Meschery dropped in 27 as the Warriors handled Boston 109 to 99.
Tied 3-3, Bob Cousy was optimistic but knew how dangerous it was to have your season come down to a single game:
“I think I would be lying if I said I was really apprehensive. On the other hand, when it gets down to one game you’re concerned. The odds will be in our favor. If we play near our potential and hustle on defense they have to get a fantastic effort from everybody. We aren’t a team that has two bad games back-to-back – even during the season when it doesn’t count. All the odds are with us – on paper, bench strength, in every other way. We should win.”
Back for this seventh game was Tom Gola, who’d been bothered all year by a bad back and had been out of action since Game 2 with a sprained ankle. The rest did him well as he had one of his best games of the postseason scoring 16 points.
Tom Meschery had his best game of the postseason , and maybe of his entire career, as well with 32 points to lead Philly as all five of their starters settled between 16 and 32 points. Boston, uncharacteristically, had only 4 players in double figures. Sam Jones led the way with 28.
The game was seemingly controlled by Boston who built a comfortable double-digit lead. But the Warriors plugged their way back into the contest. This went into a wash-rinse-repeat cycle as Boston would build a big lead only to have Philly charge back. In the fourth quarter, super sub Frank Ramsey came in for the Celtics and gave a quick four points pushing Boston’s lead back up to 10 and finally it seemed the Celtics could rest easy.
But again the Warriors climbed back. With 50 seconds left, Boston had the lead at 107 to 102. Wilt Chamberlain, held largely in check (22 points) by Russell this night, connected on two foul shots and then finished a three-point play to tie the game. The notorious free throw shooter had hit 3 in the final minute and finished the game 8-9 from the line.
Just 16 seconds left. Score tied at 107. Boston, winners of 4 of the last 5 titles, was on the ropes. After getting the ball downcourt, guard K.C. Jones rose for a game-winning shot, but at the final moment decided against it and dished the ball to Sam Jones. With the hot potato in his hands, with little time left on the clock, with an open look and with everyone yelling at him to shoot, Sam Jones rose for a jumper.
The ball snapped through the net and put Boston up 109-107 with just a second left.
Or should it be three seconds?
Warriors coach Frank McGuire furiously pleaded with the ref to put two more seconds back on the clock. McGuire claimed the Boston scorekeeper had taken his sweet time stopping the clock after Jones had made his shot. McGuire’s pleas went unheeded and Philadelphia was left with just that one second to respond. An entry pass to Wilt was deflected by Russell into the hands of, who else, Sam Jones. The game and the series was over and Boston had won.
Years later, Auerbach would slyly admit the clock had “malfunctioned.”
THAT’S A WRAP
“You remember at the beginning of the season, when you said we could beat Boston and I said we couldn’t? Well, you were right, and I was wrong. We can beat them – and next year, we will!”
– Wilt Chamberlain after Game 7 to Coach McGuire, via The Rivalry
The Big Dipper was right. They could beat Boston, but in his career that only happened once (1967), which is still more than anyone during the 1960s can say.
But for the Philadelphia Warriors there would be no next year. This was the end of the line. The last game they would ever play. Team owner Ed Gottlieb was in rumored negotiations to sell the franchise and it proved true shortly after the season wrapped up. The Warriors were headed across the country to San Francisco to become the NBA’s 2nd West Coast franchise. Chamberlain, Attles, Rodgers and Meschery followed, but Paul Arizin elected to leave the NBA for IBM and play for the Eastern Basketball League’s Camden (NJ) franchise. Tom Gola stuck it out for half a season before demanding a trade back to the East Coast. The Philly native would spend the rest of this career with the New York Knicks.
The rivalry between the cities of Philadelphia and Boston would be put on hold for a couple of years until the Syracuse Nationals moved south and became the 76ers. Soon after they traded for Wilt and it was like old times again as Philadelphia and Boston pummeled each other in the postseason. But that lay in the future.
On the immediate horizon for the Celtics lay a strange new foe, as yet unseen and unknown in the postseason. This would be Boston’s 1st encounter with that curious, lonesome NBA outpost on the West Coast: the Los Angeles Lakers.