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Installation of Robert Neville as dean of Marsh Chapel and University chaplain, Sunday, September 14, 4 p.m., Marsh Chapel

Week of 12 September 2003· Vol. VII, No. 3

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When they were kings
Down but not out: saga of 1968–69 world-champ Celtics hooks CGS prof

In a photo from Dynasty’s End, Bill Russell, “the eagle with the beard,” scores over the Knicks’ Walter Bellamy in the Boston Garden. Photo courtesy of the Sports Museum of New England


In a photo from Dynasty’s End, Bill Russell, “the eagle with the beard,” scores over the Knicks’ Walter Bellamy in the Boston Garden. Photo courtesy of the Sports Museum of New England


By Brian Fitzgerald

When it comes to deciding what team can lay claim to the most definitive domination of a professional sports league ever, fugeddaboudit. No, the Harlem Globetrotters don’t count. And move over, 1949-53 Yankees, winners of a mere five World Series rings in a row. The Boston Celtics of the late 1950s and ’60s win hands down. End of argument.

The Bill Russell–era Celtics managed to accomplish the feat of being champion in their sport eight straight times. We’re talking about a franchise that captured the NBA title 11 times in 13 years. So when Tom Whalen, a CGS professor of social science, wanted to write a book about the team that has impressed him the most, his choice was clear -- the broken-down 1968-69 Celtics, who defied the odds and limped to the NBA championship one last time.

It was the end of a dynasty. Russell (Hon.’02) announced his retirement three months after the season concluded, and the Celtics wouldn’t hoist another championship banner until 1974.

“ This team was special,” says Whalen. “It was totally team-oriented — its philosophy was get the ball to the open man. The Celtics won because they had an absolute commitment to winning.”

Dynasty’s End: Bill Russell and the 1968-69 World Champion Boston Celtics (Northeastern University Press, 2003), about an aging squad that had one more gasp of greatness left, is a tribute to an encore performance in the greatest sports symphony of all time.

It is, however, more than just a sports tale. In a way, it’s also a morality play. Whalen, 38, a lifelong Celtics fan from Beverly, Mass., remembers their last two championship seasons, 1984 and 1986, like they were yesterday. But he was only four years old in 1969 — not old enough to remember that storied season. Still, he decided to write a book about the team because its lessons go beyond athletic accomplishment: the Celtics were in the forefront of efforts to integrate their sport, beginning in 1950, when they were the first team in NBA history to pick a black player in the draft.

This was no small accomplishment in Boston, a city with a history of ethnic enmity. The book begins with a sentence that seems like heresy to today’s fans: “Boston did not love its Celtics.” But the fact was, it didn’t — for a long time. Between 1959 and 1966, the prime years of the Celtics dynasty, they averaged only 6,783 fans per game. “The brutal truth of the matter,” Whalen writes, “is that the city’s majority white inhabitants felt uncomfortable paying money to see athletically gifted African-Americans run up and down the basketball floor, even when they were wearing the Celtic green.”

Then came Bill Russell, who had experienced rampant racism growing up in Monroe, La., along with strained relations between black and white players on his University of San Francisco team. In Boston, he was an early proponent of desegregated schools, and he criticized the NBA for what he considered discriminatory hiring practices. “He wasn’t like other professional athletes of his day,” says Whalen. “He spoke his mind.”

On the court, Russell let his skills do the talking. During the 1956-57 season, the year he joined the Celtics, “he was a lion,” recalls teammate and fellow rookie Tom Heinsohn in the book. In the finals against St. Louis, Russell was a man on a mission, blocking shots, pulling down rebounds, and generally disrupting the Hawks’ game plan. In game seven, “the eagle with the beard” hauled down a game-high 32 rebounds, scored 19 points, and blocked 5 shots. The Celtics won in double overtime, 125-123, earning their first NBA title. Russell was “the greatest competitor I was ever around,” says Heinsohn. “He refused to lose.”

In 1969, “the Celtics finished fourth, barely making the playoffs,” says Whalen. “They weren’t supposed to go far in the postseason. But they beat the second-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, and then the New York Knicks, to win the Eastern Division.” The Los Angeles Lakers, whom the Celtics faced in the finals, were heavily favored to win the title. They had acquired Wilt Chamberlain during the offseason, and having lost the championship to Boston the previous year, had a score to settle. “In fact, the Lakers had lost six NBA finals to the Celtics between 1959 and 1968,” says Whalen. “They were ready to win it.”

Plus, Russell was playing with considerable pain from a serious knee injury incurred in the middle of the year. He would average just 9.9 points for the season. The finals began as expected, with the Lakers winning the first two games, but the Celts managed to stretch it to the seventh and final game. In the fourth quarter, “the Lakers were on the verge of taking control of the game,” says Whalen, “but with 1:17 remaining, the Celtics Don Nelson scooped up a loose ball near the foul line and threw up an awkward shot that hit the back rim, squirted high in the air, and fell straight through the hoop.” The shot seemed to drain the life out of L.A., and Boston hung on to win the game, 108-106 — and their 11th championship.

To many fans, the famed term Celtic Pride is synonymous with selflessness and team basketball. But to Whalen, it also makes a broader statement. “In a racially divided society, Celtic Pride meant individual players could put aside their differences — racial, religious, and political differences — and come together as a team and accomplish great things,” he says. “The Celtics really embodied the liberal values that the ’60s were supposed to be about, the whole notion of equality, integration, and diversity.”

Russell’s relationship with Celtics fans was “tempestuous” at times, Whalen acknowledges, but “I think he made his peace with Boston.” Indeed, the book ends with a scene from a 1999 tribute to Russell at the FleetCenter, when a voice from the crowd shouted, “We love you, Bill.” An emotional Russell could think of only one appropriate response: “I love you, too.”


12 September 2003
Boston University
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