The Sixties:Birth of the Modern Athletic NBA

I  grew up during the sixties and was fortunate to be able to watch all the great sixties stars thanks to tv contracts from CBS and ABC. CBS had the first nationally televised games which I saw in the early sixties. Unfortunately, I had just started watching basketball, and didn’t really know the game. I do remember seeing some the great stars from the fifties like Cousy, Arizin, and Pettit in the early sixties on tv.  They were still playing good ball.

But the real story of the NBA in the sixties is the story of one of the teams the Celtics, and the other is the story of the great black players from the sixties and their impact on the game. The Celtics were easily the most dominant team of the sixties continuing their reign from the fifties. It’s also the story of Bill Russell who was the most dominant player on the most dominant team.  But it’s also the story of the most dominant player in league history, Wilt Chamberlain, whose battles with Russell and the Celtics was probably the biggest storyline. And finally, it’s the story of the black athlete finally dominating the league and helping turn the NBA from a slower, mostly white league into an athletic league that was 80% black by the end of the sixties and a much stronger awareness in the nation’s sports consciousness.

Russell came into the league during the ’56-57 seasons and immediately made Boston THE team.  They won the championship his rookie year, and lost it the next only because Russell suffered a severely sprained ankle during the finals. As it was, the champs, the St. Louis Hawks, barely won in seven games. But Russell introduced a previously unknown element into the league: a tremendously athletic, shot-blocking center who dominated opposing teams and turned the Celts into champions. I’ll mention here  that while Russell was only 6’9, he had a tremendous wingspan making him much longer than many players taller than him.  He was also very fast, had about a 40″ vertical leap, got off the ground extra quick and had superb timing, The other Celtics learned to funnel the players they were guarding into Russell who must have easily averaged ten blocks a game although no official records were kept of that until the seventies.

With Russell, the Celts won 11 titles in his 13 years in the league…an incredible record likely never to be broken. But the Celts weren’t just all Russell. In John Havlicek and Sam Jones they had two other great players who with Russell gave the Celts three HOFers who avoided injury at key times. The Celts were a little fortunate during that run. Other than Russell’s ankle injury in the ’58 finals that allowed the Hawks to squeak by with a win, the Celts managed to avoid having their three key players absent from the playoffs and finals throughout their tremendous run.  Other excellent teams who challenged the Celts, like the Sixers and the Lakers,  in the sixties were not quite as fortunate. That doesn’t mean those teams would necessarily have beaten the Celts with all their players healthy, but let’s say, (said Captain Obvious) a great part of winning a championship is having your best players being able to play

But not only did the Celtics have great players, they had the greatest system. The Celtics fast-break offense and relentless pressure on defense wore teams down. Some players like Chamberalin, West, Baylor, and Robertson could perform well against the Celts, but their teams almost always went down to defeat in the semis or the finals. The Celtics were known for Russell and their defense. But their offense was also excellent and their passing game meant the ball was always moving. They also thrived under pressure. Like all great teams they expected to win. Conversely,  a person has to wonder if opposing players expected to lose against the Celtics. The Celtics were the greatest, but they won an absurd amount of final games in the semis and the championship finals. Certainly one of the most written and talked about is the last game of the ’62 finals when with the score tied in regulation, the Lakers’s Frank Selvy missed an open ten footer with one second left on the clock.  He makes it, the Lakers win the title 4-3,  and maybe teams aren’t as  quite afraid of the Celts in the future. But Selvy missed, and the Celts went on to win in overtime. Havlicek’s steal in the ’65 semis, and Don Nelson’s fluke basket in the ’69 finals are also examples of things going right for the Celts, and the other teams wondering if God was against them. But let it be noted, there was nothing fluky about the sixties Celts. They were the best team and had the best system. If they played the decade again with the same players on all the same teams, the Celts still would have won more than half the titles.

Only the Sixers teams of the late sixties  with Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, and company were on a par or better than the Celtics. In fact, many experts rank the ’67 Sixers as the best team of the sixties and one of the best of all time. ( I don’t think best of all time…that goes to the 1987 Lakers… but I do agree the ’67 Sixers were the best team of the sixties if you just count one season.)  But that Sixers team which won the title in ’67 and convincingly trounced the Celtics in the semis and the S.F. Warriors in the finals was beset by injuries to key players the  next season and lost the semis  to Boston in a seven game series after leading 3-1. Then the team was broken up, and the Sixers didn’t challenge for a title again until the late seventies.

Up to the great Sixer team of ’67, the Lakers were the team that challenged (and lost) to the Celts during many sixties finals. The Celts defeated the Lakers in the  ’62, 63, 65, 66, 68, and 69 finals which must have made many Laker fans wish they’d never see the color green ever again. But the Lakers had no one to match Russell until the ’69 season. West and Baylor were great players, but Russell’s defense was too much overcome. And the Celts system was better than the Lakers. They simply played better strategic ball than the Lakers.

The sixties also saw the transformation  of a mostly white (and under the rim) league  to a mostly black (and above the rim)  league. Black superstars like Russell, Chamberlain, Baylor, and Robertson became nationallly known and the NBA grew in popularity with not only basketball fans but casual sports fans who didn’t know the league existed in the fifties. Much of that was due to the exploits of Wilt Chamberlain who set records never to be broken. If Russell was a super athletic player (and he was) who revolutionized the game, Chamberlain actually went beyond Russell in many areas. He was four or five inches taller, stronger, could jump as well, and run as fast. Plus Wilt’s offensive capabilities were much stronger than Russell’s. While Russell was not as bad an offensive player as his reputation has come down, he didn’t approach Chamberlain in the ability to score points. Nobody could handle Wilt  of defense not even Russell.

It should be noted that Wilt’s rookie year his team, the Philadelphia Warriors, faced the Celtics in the semis. While the Celts won the series 4-2, Wilt who averaged over 37 ppg during the regular season, averaged over 30 against Russell. That included games of 50 and 42 points head to head against Russell. But what’s really interesting is that the Celtic’s coach, Red Auerbach, had his players provoke Wilt into a fight in game two in which Wilt almost broke his shooting hand punching another player, Tommy Heinsohn, who had deliberately provoked the usually mild-mannered Wilt into  a fight.  The strategy worked. Wilt hurt his shooting hand so bad he only scored 12 points the next game by barely being able to grip the ball, and the Celts won two games in a row with Wilt unable to score in his usual manner. The Celts still only beat the Warriors by two points in the sixth and final game leaving a person to wonder what might have happened if Wilt had held back and not clocked Heinsohn. So every time some Celtics diehard, anti-Wilt fan goes on about the coaching genius of Red Auerbach and how Russell dominated Wilt, you can relate to him or her this interesting tidbit.

Nevertheless, Chamberlain set scoring and rebounding records that will never be broken. He averaged over 50 ppg one season and 44 the next. His career rebounding average is over 18 rpg. Like Russell he probably averaged over 10 blocks a game in those days, but official records weren’t kept. I’ll write more on Wilt and other great sixties playes in separate columns. But I’ll note that fifty years after Wilt averaged 50  a game and scored 100 in one game, I’ve yet to see the athletic equal of him.

Other great black athletes and players of the sixties were Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson. Baylor in particular was known for his jumping ability  and body control on his drives to the basket. No player before Baylor had done the athletic things he did on those drives. Robertson was not the raw athlete like Baylor, but his combination of size, quickness, strength, and body control together with his bb IQ, skills, and desire made him the most complete player of the sixties. I still pick Robertson as my all-time point guard slightly ahead of Magic Johnson. Robertson averaged a triple double  one season and missed by a hair one other season. There had never been a pg who was as skilled as Robertson and could do as many things so well.

But other great black players arrived in the sixties like Nate Thurmond who was almost Russell’s  and Chamberlain’s equal at blocking shots and defense., Thurmond took his Warriors teams to two finals.  Another great black center was Willis Reed of the Knicks who was one of the first big men who could hit an open 15 footer as well as most shorter players. reed could also score inside, block shots and rebound. Along with Walt Frazier (who was probably the greatest guard of the sixties after Robertson and West) , Reed led the Knicks to two titles,

The often unsung Sam Jones was another great black guard who along with Russell and Havlicek made up the vital three Celtics players from the sixties. Jones was one of the main scorers in the Celtics offense and probably the man they went the most often for a set play.  K.C. Jones was the Celtics best defensive guard and took over the pg role when Cousy retired.

Earl  (the Pearl)  Monroe was maybe the sixties flashiest ballplayer with a multitude of moves including his famous spin move which few had seen before. Gus Johnson was a      small forward who was known for his incredible dunking ability. Before Julius Erving there was Gus Johnson. But  Baylor was an incredible dunker as well. Before the sixties dunking was seen as a showoff move, and dunkers risked being deliberately undercut by the leagues’s various hatchet men. However, Russell and Chamberlain dunked regularly and other players followed. By the mid-sixties dunking was a common event.

One of the plays I remember the most about the sixties is watching the Celtics when they were fastbreaking. It seemed every game I watched them play, at one or two times during the game as the Celtics were fastbreaking,  the lead man on the break would dribble under basket, stop,  and throw the ball over his head behind him. In would come Russell streaking to the basket, take the pass, and resoundlingly slam the ball through the hoop. Russell of course had most likely gotten the rebound, sprinted to halfcourt, and watched as the play developed. If the break had halted, he would come in, take the pass, and finish.

The Celtics overall for the sixties just had too many good players and too good of a system.  They were able to keep their best players healthy at the right times, and the other players knew their roles. They also acquired good players like Bailey Howell who fit well into their system. You just expected the Celtics to win, and they almost always did. I did think the Sixers with Chamberlain and the others would become the new dominant team after they won in ’67. . But they  only won the one title in ’67, would have won it the next year if not for injuries, and then spit up.  The end result is that they weren’t the new Celtics. The Celtics won Russell’s last year in ’69 when they shouldn’t have won, but that’s what great teams and great players do. Russell was the perfect example of a great player who just refused to quit, and made (or willed) his team to titles. I disagree with those who say Russell wouldn’t be great today. He would.
The great sixties black basketball players also made waves in non-basketball areas by championing the civil rights issues of the day. None of them were shrinking violets, especially Russell, when it came to social issues. They spoke their minds. Chamberlain was certainly one of the most talked and written about athletes of the sixties. Everything Wilt did was on a  gigantic scale on court and off court.  Bill Russell became the first black NBA head coach and the first black head coach of any of the major sports.  It took many years before there was a black head coach in the NFL.  Fans became used to seeing virtually all-black teams. The league was actually ahead of colleges in that respect as most southern colleges still refused to recruit black players. Black players added an extra excitement for fans  wanting to see flashier players and more activity above the basket i..e dunking. Black players provided that.  But even the greatest white players from the sixties, West, Barry, Cunningham,  were much better athletes than the white players from the fifties.

So that’s my story of the sixties and the NBA. A time of great social transformation, but also a time of great transformation in sports. As the sixties developed it was obvious there was a great stream of black players waiting their chance. Basketball overtook baseball as black youths most popular sport ensuring a future of great black players and continued dominance. No longer would the game be one of flat-footed set shots and no dunking. Now everyone had a jump shot and dunking was common.  And the era of the black athlete as agent of social change was now evident and very prominent.


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