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Celtics’ golden jubilee


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By Patriot’s Day the plug will have been pulled and it will be lights out at whatever they now call that new winter sports mausoleum on Causeway Street.

The Bruins are already toast and rightfully enduring widespread scorn for the meek and lame way they pussyfooted through an entire season, dishonoring their colors.

 The Celtics, of course, were even worse. But the power of myth somehow extends beyond the grave, sparing them the contempt they so richly deserve and for which -- in my book -- they have even fewer excuses than the Bruins.

The contemporary and entirely teflon Celtics are an amazing phenomenon. Never has a team done so little for so long while enduring less grief. Is there no statute of limitations on the sway of legendry?

The present pack of journeymen and wannabes who wear the green and the pretenders who own and manage them ought to get down on their knees every night and thank their lucky stars that once upon a time a man named Arnold Auerbach was very much in charge as, perhaps, no other man was ever in charge of any other team in any game at any time. In the dictionary, next to that fine Latin term, ‘‘sui generis,’’ there ought to be a picture of the saucy Red at the height of his eminence with a sarcastic grin stretching ear to ear and a fat, pricey, stogie jutting from his mouth. Truly, this was one of a kind nor will there ever be another. 

And so now in a whim of the calendar full of delicious irony, the end of another pathetic Celtic season coincides with the 50th anniversary of Red’s first championship. It wasn’t his finest moment, although how do you choose from so many? But it certainly qualifies as an epiphany for New Englanders and a truly seminal event in the history of American sport.

The date was April 13, 1957, a Saturday afternoon. A quite literal slugfest of a finals had brought the Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks to the old Garden for the denouement tied at three games apiece. There would be a national television audience, not a first but still a rarity for the still, coming-of-age, NBA.

The ’56-’57 season had been one long tribute to Auerbach’s brilliant insights fortified by his utter genius for scheming, daring, and sheer luck. He had outwitted the entire league to land the services of the immortal Bill Russell, playing off Ben Kerner’s fears of racial hassles in St. Louis and Les Harrison’s fears of financial hassles in Rochester. Luck, as usual, was on Red’s side but the bottom line was he alone grasped Russell’s potential greatness and had the guts to trade two prized and highly popular Caucasian stars -- Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan -- for the aloof and brooding black man who many basketball savants at the time considered ‘‘unproven’’ and even ‘‘mysterious.’’

With Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman it was all about luck. Red wanted nothing to do with Cousy, spurning him three times before finally getting “stuck” with him when the Chicago Stags folded. Accidentally or otherwise, Red feasted on the NBA’s instability. He got Sharman only because the Washington Capitals also collapsed.

Ever the chess master, Red was three steps ahead of everybody drafting the Kentucky trio of Ramsey, Hagan and Tsioropoulos a full three years before they would be eligible to play in the league. He seized upon the NBA’s novel territorial rights in the ’56 draft to snare Tommy Heinsohn of Holy Cross. No other team in the league that year had the wits to make a territorial pick. Auerbach alone recognized the promise of Jim Loscutoff in the ’55 draft. Others considered him a muscle-bound oaf. Displaying what would become yet another of his specialties he filled out his roster by obtaining three cagey, role-playing, veterans -- Arnie Risen, Jack Nichols and Andy Philips -- for virtual chump change.

Russell missed the first two months of the regular season triumphing in Melbourne with the Olympic team. But once he arrived on Christmas Eve and Frank Ramsey checked in from the Army three days into the New Year, Red’s masterpiece was in place. They breezed to a division title --their first ever -- then swept their longtime tormentors from Syracuse, Dolph Schayes’ Nationals, in three straight.

The Hawks were structured around the gorgeous skills of the lanky, jump-shooting demon Bob Pettit, with Macauley, Hagan, old-timer Jack Coleman, and the brainy Slater Martin rounding out their nucleus. The Celtics had much the edge in talent. But Martin and Alex Hannum, their raspy first year-coach, brought a lot of attitude to St. Louis. And then they got some help from of all people, Auerbach himself.

At 39 Red was at the height of his feistiness and he could be a nasty buckaroo when provoked. During the Game Three pre-game warm-ups in St. Louis, Red and Hawks’ owner Ben Kerner got into a screaming match. Keep in mind, they were old friends. Red had once worked for Ben and it was with Ben that he negotiated the historic deal for the rights to Russell.  Moreover, the argument was over some childish nonsense. It ended with Red charging Kerner and slugging him in the mouth, swelling his lip.

“What he called me isn’t printable,” Auerbach moaned to the press.

“All I called him was ‘a busher,’” Kerner countered. “He’s a big sorehead.”

Back in those days, Red could hand it out but he had trouble taking it. The League sided with Kerner, fining Red $300 for his indiscretion which, presumably, was a lot of dough in the NBA in 1957. More to the point, Red’s antics had the effect of fueling the underdog Hawks still more, turning what should have been a Boston cakewalk into a barnburner with four of the seven games being decided by two points.

The wild finale remains my most enduring and prized Celtic memory. The main reason tells you much about the way we were and how much things have changed.

We were kids, of course, and on that Saturday morning one of my fellow workers at Curtis Farms in Weymouth called me up and said something like, “It’s the last game for the Celtics and we gotta go.” It’s been a long time, but I think it was Harry Dellamano who called and soon we had rounded up Kevin Powers and Georgie Player in time to catch the bus out of Columbian Square and connect with the subway at Ashmont arriving at the Garden with plenty of time to purchase seats about 20 rows behind the press table. The stubs are long gone but I think the price was about $2.50 and while the official box score claims the attendance was 13,909, I dimly recall there being more than a few empty seats. Red and Walter Brown always padded the house being too proud to admit their wonderful team rarely sold out.

The game was a classic; searing, improbable, and -- in the end -- majestic. Cousy and Sharman were cold throughout (5 for 40) and Russ, burdened by fouls, was obliged to back off. It was ancient Arnie Risen who saved them; off the bench to score 16. Frank Ramsey also got 16, most of them late and huge. But the man of the hour was Heinsohn. Brazen and utterly fearless, Tommy-Gun fired away for 37 points while grabbing 23 rebounds. It was madness to the last. With a second to go in the second overtime, Hannum brilliantly set up Pettit for a desperation heave that rang off the rim as the clock ran out. Whereupon, bedlam ensued. The final score was Boston Celtics 125, St. Louis Hawks 123 in double overtime.

It was 50 years ago. The very beginning of one of the greatest epochs in the history of games.

Red is finally gone, after a matchless run, though the other heroes of that rarified moment remain with us, happily. I still hear from Harry now and again but Kevin is lost in time and George -- a splendid fellow and a great baseball pitcher in his day -- has departed, too young.

Nothing else is as it was.

Yet the echoes of that hour linger, when the Celtics were young and grand and very much the glory of their times.

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