Bill Russell: Winner In A League Of One

Sunday, February 9, 1969, a cold, threatening nor’easter brewing in gray winter skies.

I was 15, a Frontier Regional School sophomore, no driver’s license, hoping the storm would not derail a much-anticipated road trip to Boston Garden. The plan was to attend ABC’s 1 p.m., nationally-televised, NBA game-of-the-week matinee between the defending-champion Boston Celtics and their rival Philadelphia 76ers – play-by-play man Chris Schenkel and color analyst Jack Twyman at the mics.

Henry Boron was driving. He owned a small downtown market in South Deerfield and had established some impressive Celtics connections. Son Rickey, Frontier’s first 1,000-career-point basketball scorer, attended and eventually rose to counselor at a pair of summer camps owned and operated by Celtics teammates. Sharpshooting Hall of Fame guard Sam Jones owned one; backup backcourt mate Larry Siegfried the other.

Henry, no shrinking violet, had built relationships with many Celtics at the camps, including Hall of Fame coach/general manager Red Auerbach. Leave it to Henry, a first-class schmoozer and well-known Hinsdale railbird. The rugged, outgoing, square-jawed grocer had no fear, was not taciturn by any stretch. He had social skills, was good with kids, and loved a good laugh or small-town prank.

What a great time the late Sixties were for Connecticut Valley basketball fans. Two hours east, future Hall of Fame player-coach Bill Russell’s incredible run of 11 NBA championships in 13 years was nearing the end simultaneously with the Amherst emergence of Julius Erving – a skinny UMass sophomore forward from Roosevelt, New York. The kid could jump through the roof, and Erving fever was selling out Curry Hicks Cage. The valley had never owned a talent like Erving, who, after blossoming under late UMass coach Jack Leaman, went on to a glorious Hall of Fame NBA career.

Word of Erving’s Yankee Conference high-wire act traveled like wildfire through the valley. You had to get there early to attend his 1968-69 freshman games, in the days before freshmen were eligible for NCAA varsity basketball. Even though dunking was then forbidden in the college game, Erving’s preliminary 6 p.m. freshman games were sold out, standing-room only once word got around. No lie, the lines for game-day ticket sales and free student admission started forming at 4:30. I saw it with my own eyes, and got there early with my dad.

But let us not digress. Back to that memorable 1969 Celtics-Sixers showdown.

Though I wasn’t privy to the household “negotiations” leading to Henry Boron’s decision to brave the looming storm, I’m sure his son’s pleading was the deciding factor. A gambler at heart, Henry must have figured he’d roll the dice and live with the outcome. Forecasters predicted a midday start for the storm. He may have hoped we could get there and back before all hell broke loose.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Honestly, I have no recollection of the ride to Boston, and can’t even recall who else was with us, if anyone. Though I believe someone else was there, both Borons are dead and so could be the other passenger for all I know. I asked around and could not come up with a fourth or fifth party.

What I know for sure is that I was there, and we witnessed a classic Celtics win before surviving a harrowing journey home through a blizzard in one piece. Treacherous Route 2 was clogged with stranded vehicles in the breakdown lane and jack-knifed tractor-trailers flipped on their sides in the median strip. Henry would plow past the stranded vehicles, snow flying over the roof of his Chevy three-seater station wagon, tooting the horn with taunting laughter to unfortunate marooned motorists.

“If you let your foot of the gas in conditions like this, Boys, you’re all done,” he’d say, appearing to enjoy the challenge.

As it turned out, we were in good hands. By the grace of God and Henry’s driving skills, we miraculously made it all the way home, likely a rare feat that day for folks in our predicament. Few would have attempted the 200-mile round trip to begin with.

After we got home, schools were canceled for two days while Franklin County dug itself out from a storm that, according to the February 10, 1969 Greenfield Recorder, dropped up to 22 inches in some places. Even the mail was halted when trucks could not get to western Mass.


What got me thinking back to the memorable storm and Celtics win 52 long years ago was former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s record seventh Super Bowl win on February 7. Accomplished at the unprecedented age of 43 over the favored, defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady’s latest Super Bowl title secured his status as the greatest quarterback, maybe even the greatest football player, of all time, not to mention one of the classic winners in any of North America’s four major professional sports.

I have no qualms with any of that, and have in recent years been in Brady’s corner regarding the debate over who was more important to the Patriots dynasty, Belichick or Brady. But when Boston talk-jocks Felger & Mazz anoint him as our No. 1 all-time, all-sport winner, it is clear to me that they’re wet behind the ears and never saw Russell play. He isn’t even Boston’s greatest winner.

Although I am not questioning Brady’s greatness, for my money, Russell is our greatest winner. The numbers speak for themselves. No one can match his career’s 11 titles in 13 years. The man didn’t have enough fingers for his championship rings.

During the years of Celtics glory with Russell, the 6-foot-10 center lost only two career best-of-seven playoff series. The first was a 4-2 1957-‘58 finals loss to the St. Louis Hawks in which he barely played due to a foot injury. The second was a legitimate 4-1 defeat to Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1966-‘67 Eastern Conference finals.

Russell responded to that first loss with eight straight NBA titles, then avenged the loss to Wilt’s Sixers with two consecutive championships before retirement. The proud Celtics warrior must have been insulted when experts had the audacity to crown the 1966-‘67 Sixers as the greatest NBA team of all time after halting the Celtics’ unparalleled streak of eight straight titles.

To display their indignant mettle, Russell’s Celtics dethroned those Sixers the following year by climbing out of a 3-1 hole to beat Philly in their best-of-seven 1967-‘68 Eastern Conference finals before beating the Los Angeles Lakers in six games for the title.

Then, after a lackluster fourth-place Eastern Conference finish in 1968-‘69, 35-year-old player/coach Russell took down the powerful Knicks and Sixers before outlasting the favored Lakers and new wunderkind Wilt Chamberlain with a Game 7 road win in Russell’s final NBA game.

Russell is American sports’ greatest winner, better than Brady, better than Maurice “Rocket” Richard – whose 11 Montreal Canadiens’ championships matched Russell’s total with the benefit of five additional years – and better than any New York Yankee. Brady has won seven Super Bowls in 20 seasons or, to be fair, seven wins and 10 appearances in 18 full seasons.

The remarkably durable Brady did not play as a rookie, and lost another season to a serious knee injury sustained in the season opener. Other than that, he answered the bell.

I feel fortunate to have witnessed Brady and Russell, and bristle at the uninformed opinion that Russell’s accomplishments are irrelevant because they occurred so long ago. Felger would have you believe Russell went back to the days of the two-hand set shot. It’s not true. In my opinion, Russell would have been dominant in today’s game, as would Hall of Fame teammates John Havlicek and Sam Jones, and opponents like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, Willis Reed and Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

Remember, in Russell’s day there were far fewer teams and also fewer “cupcakes” on an 82 schedule. Plus, because teams played each other so often, the rivalries were more intense than today.

I got to see Russell’s greatness up close and personal that day of the 1969 storm. Having injured a knee against the New York Knicks a week earlier, he was questionable for the game. So, we were relieved upon learning by inside information that he was expected to play.

Our source was none other than Auerbach himself. How? Well, Henry Boron had tickets waiting for him in Auerbach’s desk, and his office was our first stop once inside rickety, smelly, old Boston Garden. Henry walked right into the office like he owned the place and left us seated in a narrow waiting room facing two or three pretty, long-haired teenage girls as he boldly rapped on Auerbach’s door.

“Come in,” we heard muffled from behind the closed door, and in went Henry, disrupting a meeting between Auerbach and then NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy, whose daughters were seated across from us in the lobby. Henry soon emerged with a fistful of tickets for midcourt, courtside seats right behind the ABC announcers, compliments of the Celtics.

How could a teenage boy forget a day like that? It was surreal.

Anyway, the game itself turned out to be an overtime thriller, won by the Celtics, 122-117. Down 110-108 with three seconds remaining, the Celtics called timeout to set up a last-second play attempting to tie it. Remember, there were no 3-pointers then.

Coming out of the break, Havlicek was stationed near the ABC broadcasters for the inbounds pass, which he lofted high toward Russell, jockeying for position in the paint with Sixers center Darrall Imhoff. Russell, who had already blocked two shots in the final minute, timed his jump perfectly, gracefully soaring over Imhoff for a two-hand slam to tie it 110-110 at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.

It was classic Russell – 35 years old in his final season, no less. Favoring the sore knee, he came off the bench with his team trailing by 10 in the first quarter to lead the comeback win. He finished with nine points, three assists, and 23 rebounds, not to mention the late-game heroics, all on a tender knee.

The online box score shows Sixers’ small forward Billy Cunningham (later Erving’s Sixers coach) leading all scorers with 37 points and the Sixers with 19 rebounds. Chet Walker added 26 points, Hal Greer 16.

Boston was led by tireless Havlicek’s 31 points to go with 12 rebounds and seven assists. Sam Jones and Don Nelson added 24 and 21 points, respectively.

As was the norm in Russell’s day, the Garden was about half full, with an announced paid attendance of 6,095. Who knows if our party was included? Maybe so.

Upon exiting the building for our car, the blizzard was roaring, the parking lot and vehicles buried under several inches of snow. First, we had to clean off the car and get out of Boston. Then we had to make it all the way home to South Deerfield. There were no guarantees, but we made it.

Three months later, on May 5, the Celtics and aging Russell bounced back from a 3-2 best-of-seven deficit to beat the host Lakers, 108-106, in Game 7 at LA’s Fabulous Forum. It was the game of Don Nelson’s famous 15-foot jump shot that bounced around the rim and took forever to drop through the net; better still, the game when overconfident Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke, buoyed by his new 7-foot-1 toy named Wilt, was unable to release thousands of celebratory balloons suspended high in the rafters for a postgame party.

Colored blue and gold with the words “World Champion Lakers” printed in bold, black letters, the balloons clung in nets to the ceiling as the jubilant Celtics celebrated their second straight title, both over LA, and their eleventh in 13 years. It was a fitting tribute to North America’s greatest all-time sports winner – William Felton Russell – whose feats may be forgotten but will likely never be duplicated.

Russell didn’t come to play. He came to win, and the man won like no other, including Brady, great in his own right but no Russell, no matter what blabbering talk-jocks Felgie & Mazz would have you believe. They’ve only seen the goateed No. 6 on YouTube and have no clue what they missed.

Such a dismissive attitude toward Russell’s greatness is understandable. He never got a fair shake in Boston.

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