• U.S.

Basketball: Better to Die than Lose

5 minute read

The way the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers play it, Dr. Naismith would never recognize his game. Champions and challengers, East and West, old pros and ambitious upstarts, they are basketball’s Hatnelds and McCoys. In nine games during the regular season, the Celtics won four, the Lakers five, and each time it was a kneeing, elbow-digging blood feud. The Celtics, perennial champions of the National Basketball Association, jeered at Laker talk that Los Angeles was the “basketball capital of the world.” The Lakers called Boston a “bush town.” Last week the two teams met again in the playoffs for the year’s N.B.A. championship. And for six games, they put on the kind of brilliant, hard-nosed show that left basketball fans delirious—and even made fans of nonbelievers.

“Running is our game,” said Laker Coach Fred Schaus, and he told his young team to chase the veteran Celtics (aver age age: 29) off the floor. But if the Celtics were aging, they were graceful about it. Bandy-legged Bob Cousy, 34, the matchless playmaker, whipped sidearm passes the length of the court to launch Boston’s fast break. Towering (6 ft. 10 in.) Bill Russell, 29, swept in rebounds like an angry mother plucking her child from the arms of a too-attentive stranger. Sam Jones poured in points—29 the first night, 27 the next—as the Celtics, playing in Boston, swept the first two games of the best four-out-of-seven series.

The teams split the next two in Los Angeles, and the Celtics headed back to Boston, only one victory away from their fifth straight N.B.A. championship. “All we need,” said Boston Coach Red Auerbach, “is hustle and Russell.” Russell hustled (24 points, 27 rebounds), but the Lakers still clobbered the Celtics 126-119. That made it three games to two, and the Celtics sounded tired. “I can’t take it any more,” said Cousy. “You play in Boston, grab three or four hours sleep, catch a plane, fly all day, hurry to the game and try to play. It’s tough.”

“Cousy’s Hurt!” “We’ve got ’em now,” cheered the Lakers, as 15,521 fans jammed the Los Angeles Sports Arena for Game No. 6—the biggest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in California. But in the first three quarters it was all Boston. Pushing his tired legs to the ultimate limits, Bob Cousy scored 16 points, set up another dozen baskets with his magical passing and led the Celtics to a 12-point lead. Then it happened. “Cousy’s hurt!” gasped the crowd. Down on the floor, Cousy writhed in agony, clutching a sprained left ankle. Teammates carried him off. “Now,” cried the Laker fans—now was the time to move.

Suddenly the Lakers’ great Elgin Baylor and Jerry West found the range, roared down the court, sinking incredible shots and controlling the backboards for the first time in the game. Boston’s defense seemed to dissolve. Its lead was cut to eight points, then six, then four. In the dressing room, Cousy was fit to be tied while trainers bandaged his ballooning ankle: “I tripped over myself,” he gritted. “Isn’t that something? I never sprained an ankle before. I guess old age is creeping up on me—ten minutes too soon.” For Cousy, it was now or never: he knew that his ankle would not hold up if the series went to seven games. Grimacing with pain, he limped back on court—and Boston came alive again.

Twice the Lakers closed to within one point; each time the inspired Celtics held them off. Now there were only 2 min. 20 sec. left. The score was Boston 104, Los Angeles 102. and the Lakers had the ball. At midcourt, Celtic Forward Tommy Heinsohn, 28, waited as West dribbled the ball up the floor. Heinsohn’s weak left knee, encased in a truss, felt ready to give way. “I was so tired,” he said later, “that I didn’t think I could stand, let alone run. I decided to gamble. Even if I fell down and died, that was better than losing.” West arched a soft pass to Pivotman Rudy LaRusso. Heinsohn darted in front of LaRusso and slapped the ball away. He stumbled, somehow regained his balance, lurched down court—and sank an easy layup that put the Celtics ahead 106-102.

“Miss It! Miss It!” That brilliant steal should have taken the heart out of Los Angeles. But no. The teams traded baskets, and then, with 43 sec. left, the Lakers’ Dick Barnett flipped a spectacular reverse-spin shot into the basket and was fouled in the process. Barnett sank the free throw, and Boston’s lead was only a point. The next basket would tell the story. Cousy floated a jump shot toward the basket. The ball banged the rim, caromed crazily into a tangle of flailing arms. A roar went up. Laker Rookie Gene Wiley had the rebound. Then a groan. Again, Tommy Heinsohn stole the ball, went up to shoot and was fouled by Wiley. Los Angeles fans chanted “Miss it! Miss it!” Heinsohn’s hawklike face was expressionless. Swish! One point. Swish! Another. Score: Boston 110, Los Angeles 107. The clock now read 22 sec. The final score was academic: Boston 112, Los Angeles 109.

“Wow!” screamed Heinsohn when he reached the dressing room. “Let’s have a party! Where’s the champagne? Where’s the jazz?” In a corner an exhausted Bob Cousy sprawled on a bench, holding court for reporters. In 13 seasons, the onetime Holy Cross ace had scored 18,973 points, added 7,786 assists, and proved that in a day of human skyscrapers a small (6 ft. i in.), agile and brainy player could become one of the greatest stars the game has ever known. Quitting now, to coach basketball at Boston College, he was going off still champion. “A man couldn’t ask for more.” he murmured. “A man couldn’t ask for anything more.”

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