Through it all, that young reporter's brimming ambition shines through, as does his undeniable talent.
I have been an avid reader of Leigh Montville for more than half a century, dating from his time as a sports columnist for The Boston Globe, then into his years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated, and through his current iteration as an author and chronicler of such larger-than-life characters from the sports world as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Muhammad Ali, and Evel Knievel. In all those years, he has not lost a single inch off his fastball, and his latest book absolutely confirms that.
Its title, "Tall Men, Short Shorts," doesn't really tell much about what awaits you on the pages inside, but the subtitle, "The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, and a Very Young Sports Reporter," gives you an inkling. It is the tale of a rookie reporter, extremely proud of his Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter (for those of you too young to recognize the word, "typewriter," ask your grandfather) because it is the same model that heroes of his, like Red Smith and Frank Deford, use.
He has been given his first major assignment -- covering the Boston Celtics in the '69 playoffs -- and his coming-of-age experience is about to follow. The assignment was not expected to last very long because the Celtics of '69 had seen better days. They were old, reduced to a fourth place regular season finish in the Eastern Division of the NBA with a record of just 48-34. It was a unanimous assumption that it would be over and out for them early in the playoffs. Yet, here they were, about to embark on a best of seven series with the Los Angeles Lakers for all the marbles, the NBA championship.
The book opens with the young reporter about to take off on his first-ever transcontinental airplane trip for the first two games at the Fabulous Forum in LA. In the two weeks to follow, he will have made eight such jaunts. He will have had to navigate the changing moods of the Celtics' mercurial player/coach/living legend, Bill Russell, engaging and warm one minute, colder than ice the next. He will have endured a dressing down from the one man in America who could be as intimidating as Russell himself, retired football great Jim Brown. He'll have witnessed, up close and personal, the love/hate relationship (minus the love part) of Lakers' coach Butch van Breda Kolff and his behemoth center, Wilt Chamberlain. Oh, and by the way, we get to relive, in the young reporter's own words, written at that time they were played, the epic basketball games that ended up with the Celtics, against all odds, winning their 11th title in 13 years.
Through it all, that young reporter's brimming ambition shines through, as does his undeniable talent. He wrote back then for the Evening Globe, as opposed to the morning edition, so he was not as restricted by deadlines as were the morning guys. Still, he constantly worried about keeping his copy fresh and original (he did) and being scooped by the opposition (he wasn't).
It's all told in Montville's wonderfully entertaining style that makes writing look so easy to the casual observer but is in fact the work of a master craftsman. Take, for example, his description of the Celtics' iconic play-by-play man Johnny Most, whose voice sounded like it had been funneled through a cement mixer and who looked much the same: "Most had large ears and a wrinkled face that looked like last night's melted candle." It is imaginative and fanciful, yet -- as anyone who has ever seen so much as a photograph of Most can attest -- deadly accurate.
The Lakers, who had been frustrated for years by the Celtics, were supposedly unbeatable this time. They had added to their dynamic duo of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor none other than Wilt Chamberlain, the holder of just about every record the NBA could invent. What could possibly go wrong? Well, first of all, there was Chamberlain's (choose one) unwillingness/inability to run the floor. He slowed the team down to such an extent that van Breda Kolff (out of earshot, of course) called him "the Load." The Lakers' insurance policy turned out to be, in fact, their glass jaw. Added to that was that Elgin Baylor was getting up in years and had lost half a step. It was left to Jerry West to bear the brunt of the pressure.
That the Celtics were old was obvious, but John Havlicek was not old. He was right in his prime. Russell, though, had arthritic knees and would announce his retirement during the off-season. He could only turn on the old magic for short spurts at a time, but he could still do it when absolutely needed. Sam Jones, as old as Russell at 35, had already announced his retirement but was still, at times, the best clutch shooter on the team, and he was ready when called upon.
It came down to Havlicek versus West, and both came through admirably. When called upon, though, Havlicek's supporting cast played in the perfect harmony of the old days, while the Lakers were dysfunctional, a team of individuals. With five minutes to go in the seventh and deciding game, Chamberlain tweaked his knee and took himself out of the game. When, a few minutes later, he pronounced himself ready to go back in, van Breda Kolff ignored him. Final score of the final game: Celtics 107 Lakers 102.
What a game. What a series. What a story. It was wonderfully told by that wunderkind reporter of more than half a century ago and is delightfully revisited, with the benefit of hindsight and just a tad more experience, by his 77-year-old self all these years later.
I won't recommend that you buy the book because this space does not engage in commercial endeavors, but I do strongly urge you to borrow it from a friend.
If he's anything like me, he'll soon forget to whom he loaned it. Then you'll have it forever.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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