Tall Men, Short Shorts: The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, and a Very Young Sports Reporter by Leigh Montville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Just a terrific book by Montville. I admit to coming into the book enthusiastically, being a Celtics fan and a Lakers hater but I think Montville gives us substantially more than a look at the 1969 finals between the Lakers and Celtics. He brings us back to that point in time, giving us a reminder not only of the series but of the times, and the characters, including himself, that were of that time. Montville was a young sportswriter, just getting started, thrust into covering what turned out to be the last hurrah of the Bill Russell led Boston Celtics.
Montville does as good of a job as you can do unpacking all of the undercurrents involved in the 1969 NBA finals between the Lakers and the Celtics. He gives us a look, as mentioned, at some of the Boston sports beat writers, and that is not always a pretty view. Montville mentions the over the top racism of some of those writers, calling one in particular out by name. I found some of the press stuff to be fascinating and to me that is part of the worth of the book. It is more than basketball, but does not lose its focus on the main event. Montville, in my view, weaves the story together beautifully.
The Celtics-Lakers showdown in 1969 had so much storyline. Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West trying to break the string of losses to the Celtics in so many NBA finals, the decline of the Celtics dynasty, and the berth of a new super-team in the Los Angeles Lakers, with three bona fide superstars. Montville gets to all of them in a way that is understandable even if you are not all that acquainted with basketball in this era.
In this, Bill Russell’s last season, the Boston Celtics were indeed an aging team that struggled through the NBA regular season, finishing in fourth place in the East, the last eligible playoff slot. They were a better team than that, but age and injury slowed them over the long NBA season. As the playoffs started not many gave them a chance to advance far in the playoffs. They defeated the second place Philadelphia team that had traded Chamberlain to the Lakers. That team, with Chamberlain, was and is considered to be one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Without Chamberlain the Celtics rolled over them in the playoffs. They then faced off against a New York Knicks team with Clyde Frazier, Willis Reed, and (mid season pickup) Dave DeBusschere. This was the Knick team that would rise to greatness in the years to come, especially 1970. The Celtics disposed of them in six games. I mention the run up to the NBA Finals because the folklore was always that Russell won because he had better teams. It was not true in 1969, even before the Finals. It was not true before 1969, but that is a story for another book.
Even before we get to the series the Chamberlain-Russell rivalry is examined in the context of Chamberlain’s long history of losing to Russell led teams. Montville gives us some quotes from Wilt on the role of luck in some Celtic victories of prior years. We Celtic fans called that Wilt whining. We get to look at the regular season match-up between these two teams, although the regular season, especially for Boston, was not very important. (Lakers won 4 of the 6 regular season games)
As a Celtic fan I always took some unkind pleasure in the misery Boston imposed on Jerry West throughout his career. As much as Wilt was tormented by the losses to Russell West was severely traumatized by the many losses to Boston in the NBA finals. The trauma, I am sure, was exacerbated by Boston’s perceived arrogance. His psyche was not helped by Red Auerbach blowing cigar smoke in their faces after Boston wins. With the addition of Chamberlain the Lakers finally had a center that could match up with Russell, and West made it clear that 1969 would be the year that the Celtics got a well deserved comeuppance.
As mentioned Montville talks not only about the series but also the media coverage. I was also very young, but I remember listening to games one and two from Los Angeles on radio (no TV coverage) with Johnny Most doing the play by play. Those first two games, both won by the Lakers, exhibited the already established greatness of West, and the real beginnings of the greatness of John Havlicek. West had 53 in game one, and 41 in game 2. Havlicek was immense, pouring in 37 in game 1, and 43 in game 2. The series was played in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, with the first two in LA. On the return to Boston the Celtics won game 3, and that brought us to one of the pivotal moments of the series in game 4. Those two Boston games were blacked out in the Boston tv market, forcing fans on to the radio dial with Johnny Most. But, indignity of all indignities the Celtics were bumped to the FM dial in game four, which in 1969 was not in many homes. My dad had a stereo console that had an FM receiver, and so I was able to listen to one exciting game. The Lakers had the game won, with a one point lead and the ball with seconds left, but a late Celtics steal led to a timeout. In that timeout the Celtics called a play that they had not used before (came to be known as the Ohio play) that had a triple pick being set at the top of the key for Sam Jones, who managed to get the shot off while jumping off the wrong foot after slipping. The ball hit the front rim, the back rim, and dropped through the net for the Celtics win. Maybe Wilt had a point about good luck!
After trading home court wins it all came down to game 7 in Los Angeles. Each team had won every home game, and the Lakers were sure of victory. Of course Montville had to talk about the victory balloons that Jack Kent Cooke had in the rafters at the Fabulous Forum for the sure victory that was to come over the hated Celtics. That game was televised in Boston, starting at a very late hour in Boston, and it truly was reflective of the series. The Celtics raced to an early lead, Chamberlain got hurt in the second half, but the Lakers came storming back with Chamberlain on the bench, and nearly overtook Boston. As in game 4 the Celtics benefitted from a play that led to a Don Nelson shot from the foul line that hit the back of the rim, went straight up, and came back down right through the net. That shot broke the back of the Laker comeback, and Russell had done it again, winning his 11th championship in 13 years. What about Chamberlain? Although injured he shook it off and requested to come back in to the game. Laker Coach Bill van Breda Kolff, happy with the Laker rally, declined to put Wilt back in the game. That decision would be hotly debated for years to come. West, in losing again, had 42 points in game 7, and was declared the Series MVP, the first and only time a member of the losing team had won that honor. West averaged 37.8 points per game in the final, and he was truly an unstoppable force.
After the series Russell eventually announced his retirement. What more could he achieve? His last win may have been his greatest, but there were so many to choose from. His supporting cast was a bit on the older side, but they had talent. Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Bailey Howell, Emmett Bryant, Don Nelson, and Larry Siegfried all were outstanding. Sam went out with Russell, retiring with ten rings.
If you are a Celtics fan this book will bring some team history back, but it also brings back the media history, some of Montville’s personal history, and the feel of a time that has passed. I thought I would enjoy the book, but it was better than I expected. Pick this one up and enjoy a trip back in time.
Jerry West leaves the court after the crushing game 7 loss to the Celtics.
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