Years Active: 1960 – 1971
Regular Season Stats: 951 games, 32.2 mpg
18.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 48% FG, 76.2% FT
Postseason Stats: 86 games, 31.7 mpg
16.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 46.5% FG, 73.2% FT
Accolades: Hall of Fame (1997), 2x NBA Champ (1968, ’69), 2nd Team All-NBA (1963), 6x All-Star (1961-’64, 1966-’67)
We knew Howell was a good player. He had an average of better than 20 points for seven seasons in the NBA. And he played in most of the All-Star games since he’s been in the league. Yet, sometimes you don’t realize a player’s true value until he’s on your side for a while… He’s got the good offensive drive. He’s a real holler-guy on the bench, too. Bailey likes team basketball. Joining the Celtics made him a happy player. He doesn’t care how much he scores. He just wants to win.
– Bill Russell on Bailey Howell, via Dynasty’s End (an excellent book that you should buy now!)
For 7 seasons, Bailey Howell plied his way as one of the NBA’s best forwards. He was a man possessed on the boards, particularly the offensive glass. He had an incessant, fearless zeal to attack the basket and rack up points. Five times he was selected an all-star as reward for his routine output of 20 points and 11 rebounds. Along with this individual success usually came team disappointment or outright failure.
Howell’s first 7 years were spent with the Detroit Pistons (5 seasons) and Baltimore Bullets (2). None of these teams ever finished with a record above .500. The best years for Howell’s clubs in this era were in 1962 and 1965. In ’62 the Detroit Pistons (winners of just 37 regular season games), fell into the playoffs and dislodged Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals in the semi-finals in a 3-1 series win. The Lakers of Baylor and West thereafter bounced Detroit in 6 games in the divisional finals. The ’65 “success” story with the Baltimore Bullets largely repeated this sequence of events: 37-win regular season, dislodge semi-final opponent 3-games-to-1, then lose to the Lakers in 6 games in the divisional finals.
For a man of meticulous detail (John Havlicek recalls him drinking his tea with pinky finger extended), preparation and desire to win, these years were frustrating. Despite being Detroit’s best player, Howell was shipped out in 1964 to Baltimore as an effort to clean house. The Bullets didn’t treat the forward with any particular benevolence either, which was not helped by the logjam at forward and center on the club and coach Paul Seymour’s indifference (even hostility) toward Howell.
So what we have here is the story of a player wasting away in his professional career. Something possible, but not truly foreseen when Howell was drafted #2 overall out of Mississippi State in 1959 by the Pistons. As a Bulldog, Howell had averaged 27 points and 17 rebounds and led the university to a spectacular 1959 campaign where they lost just one game. Capturing the SEC title that year, Howell’s Bulldogs were denied any chance at a national title due to the racist university administration objecting to the presence of black players in the NCAA tournament.
Howell himself harbored no such ill-will. The native Tennessean spoke with the thickest of Southern drawls and had a religious devotion rarely seen. However, he used his religion as a buttress against such racist thought:
I had always been taught we’re all the same, and if I believe what the Bible says, then it’s true.
For the religious Howell, being traded from Baltimore to the Boston Celtics in September of 1966 must have been pure deliverance. Red Auerbach (now acting just as Celtics GM) was ecstatic to add the forward who seamlessly fit in with new coach, and still-starting-center, Bill Russell’s game plans. Howell submitted his final all-star season that year but the real thrill must have been being on a Celtics squad that won 60 games that season.
In true Howell fashion though, the Celtics were dismissed from the playoffs for the 1st time in 8 seasons. The frustration would be short-lived, however. The next season, Boston won a “mere” 54 games, but stormed back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Sixers in the Eastern Division Finals and then defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in 6 games to recapture their crown and Howell finally tasted the sweet wine of title glory.
Bailey wasn’t just along for the ride on this title trip, his scoring and rebounding were instrumental in the Celtic success that postseason. In an average of 31 minutes a night, Howell streamed 18 points and 8 rebounds and also jumped at the chance of taking on tough defensive assignments, particularly Elgin Baylor in the Finals. His general contribution during the postseason was capped off by his and John Havlicek’s magnificent Game 6 in the Finals that closed out the Lakers. While Havlicek devastated Los Angeles with 40 points, Howell wasn’t far off with 30 points and 11 rebounds.
A second title would follow in 1969 as the “too old” Celtics surprised most observers by knocking off the rising Knicks and then the star-studded Lakers in the finals. It was the end of the Celtics dynasty which Howell had helped to prolong. His own career would come to end in 1971 as a reserve with the Philadelphia 76ers. Howell certainly enjoyed his playing days. The love for his teammates and the camaraderie they shared is evident:
We were a group of guys from different backgrounds, different races or whatever played together, worked together and developed a love and respect for each other. Like I say, its’ the epitome of what humans can accomplish when you get rid of all those petty things, the vices that you have, the prejudices that you have…. Everybody pulled together . It was a great situation to be in.
As a player, he was cursed by opponents, not so much for dirty play, but for rough and tumble play. A wild force on the court he was always proclaimed to be docile and serene off of it. At the end of road trips he would catch the first flight (team or otherwise) back home to be with his family. The proof of his humility, sincerity and also humor is his Hall of Fame induction ceremony 15 years ago. I encourage you to watch the whole thing. It’s a revelatory and wonderful experience to see a man who knew he was a fine player but also knew he was fortunate to achieve what success he did courtesy of his teammates. As he says in the speech, “when times got critical… Hey! give them the ball.”