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NBA - The Celtics Dynasty
The Celtics Dynasty (1957-1969 )
The 1956-57 season marked the first championship for the Boston Celtics, who would establish themselves as one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports. The Celtics, who was coached by Red Auerbach, traded for the draft rights of Bill Russell, who would be the engine behind the dynasty, before the start of the season. He would then be added on a Celtic’s roster including Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, and the high-scoring Tom Heinsohn, who was also drafted that year.
Behind the tough defense that Russell consistently supplied, the Celtics (44-28) captured their first division title. The West featured three teams (St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Fort Wayne) finishing with identical first place records (34-38). Interestingly, New York (36-36) had failed to make it into the playoffs because of their last place in the East, had a better record than these teams, demonstrating the overwhelming balance in talent favoring the East. Paul Arizin led the league in scoring with 25.6 ppg, and Bob Cousy, the floor general of the Celtics, was awarded the league’s MVP.
The NBA finals saw the Celtics pitted against St. Louis in what would be a classic series. The final 7th game was one of the most exciting NBA games to date, with the Celtics squeezing out a 125-123 double overtime victory. In that game, Russell posted 19 points, 32 rebounds, while Heinsohn had 37 points, 23 rebounds. This win would set the Celtic’s dynasty in motion.
Preceding the start of the 1957-58 season, the Rochester Royals and Fort Wayne Pistons relocated their franchises to Cincinnati and Detroit respectively. The moves helped develop the NBA as a big-time league, as all franchises (except Syracuse) were now based in big cities with populations of over a million. The NBA also extended its regular season schedule to 72 games.
Detroit fans were treated to the league’s leading scorer as George Yardley became the first player to score 2,000 points in a season at an average of 27.8 ppg. Clearly Boston (49-23) and St. Louis (41-31) were the class of their leagues, as each team won their respective divisions. For his efforts, Bill Russell was awarded the MVP trophy.
The NBA finals were a repeat of last year’s stunning final. After two games, Boston and St. Louis were tied at a game apiece. However, momentum swung in St. Louis’ favor as Bill Russell injured his ankle in Game 3. The Hawks took full advantage of the now vulnerable Celtic’s defense as Bob Petit exploded for 50 points in Game 6 to give St. Louis its only league title.
The 1958-59 season saw the arrival of another special rookie, Minneapolis’ 6-5 forward, Elgin Baylor, who played with a flair and finesse that would be the prototype for future air-walkers, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. The regular season saw powerhouses Boston (52-20) and St. Louis (49-23) winning their respective divisions by a huge margin, forecasting another clash in the finals.
Baylor, who had a remarkable rookie campaign, highlighted by a 55-point game, and being named to the all-NBA first team and Rookie of the Year, turned the Laker franchise from a horrendous 19-53 record, to a respectable 33-39 record, and a playoff birth. It was here that he had the biggest impact. Boston had made it to the finals but St. Louis faulted, with a huge upset series victory by Minneapolis. Boston however made short work of the Lakers, as they went on towards the first NBA finals sweep. St. Louis’ Bob Petit won the league’s scoring title at 29.2 ppg, and was awarded his second MVP.
The following 1959-60 season saw the arrival of a player, whose individual achievements have been unrivaled till this day. At 7-1, 275 pounds, Wilt ”the Stilt” Chamberlain towered over everybody in the league, even miniaturizing the defensively-dominant Bill Russell. In his rookie year with the Philadelphia Warriors, Chamberlain scored 50 or more points 7 times, and led the league in scoring (37.6 ppg) and rebounding (27.0 rpg), on his way to capturing both Rookie of the Year and MVP. He also transformed Philadelphia (46-29) from a losing franchise the year before (32-40) to a legitimate title contender. Along the ways, he was popularizing the game, as arenas would consistently sell out wherever he was playing.
However Philadelphia was bested by Boston (59-16) who easily captured the Eastern division crown. St. Louis (46-29) easily won in the collectively weaker Western division. Boston defeated the Warriors and Chamberlain in six games to advance to the Finals, while St. Louis was pushed to seven games by the Lakers before advancing to once again meet the Celtics. The teams split the first six games, with Boston winning in blowouts and St. Louis just scraping by. The Celtics easily won Game 7 in Boston as Russell starred with 22 points and 35 rebounds.
Before the start of the 1960-61 season, Minneapolis relocated their franchise to the larger market - sunny Los Angeles, and the league had expanded their season schedule to 79 games. Another year, and another special player arrives to the league. In this case, two special players – Cincinnati’s Oscar ”Big-O” Robertson and Los Angeles’ Jerry West, who had both helped lead USA to a basketball gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. The Big O initially had more of an impact, winning Rookie of the Year with a 30.8 ppg and 9.7 assists per game (the league’s best). Wilt Chamberlain continued his individual domination leading the league in scoring (38.4 ppg) and rebounds (27.3 rpg) again.
Boston (57-22) and St. Louis (51-28) once again outclassed the competition winning their divisions. For the second straight season, St. Louis had to fight off the Lakers in a seven-game Western Division Finals to meet the Celtics, who cruised past Syracuse in five games. But once again, the well-balanced attack of the Celtics bested the Hawks in five games. This was the Celtic’s 3rd title in 4 years. Bill Russell was named MVP for his second time.
For the 1961-62 season, the NBA welcomed an expansion franchise, the Chicago Packers. This season saw arguably the most amazing individual feats the NBA had ever known. This season served as evidence of Wilt Chamberlain’s dominance. Wilt had played in all but eight minutes for Philadelphia. During this time he scored his legendary 100 points in a 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks. Over the season he averaged a ludicrous 48.5 minutes a game, 50.4 ppg, and 25.7 rpg – all league bests. However for all his greatness, he could not get past the amazingly well-balanced Boston Celtics (60-20) who went on to easily win the Eastern division without a top-10 scorer in their lineup. The Los Angeles Lakers (54-26) were on their rise to prominence behind Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, stopping St. Louis’ reign of divisional titles.
During the playoffs, the Celtics won a tough 7-game series against Wilt’s Warriors to advance to the final. LA easily beat Detroit in division finals to set up another classic NBA finals showdown. The finals went back and forth until a decisive 7th game in Boston was necessary. In this game, the score was tied until the dying seconds when the Laker’s Frank Selvy had an open 8-ft shot from the baseline. His shot bounced of the rim forcing overtime, where the Celtics triumphed 110-107. Bill Russell was awarded the league’s MVP for his third time.
The 1962-63 season saw the relocation of Philadelphia, and the league’s top attraction – Wilt Chamberlain, to San Francisco. Cincinnati was realigned to the Eastern Division, and Chicago changed their name from the ’Packers’ to ’Zephyrs’. But the more things changed, the more things stay the same - Boston (58-22) and Los Angeles (53-27) went on to repeat their division titles. Wilt Chamberlain continued his impressive feats, leading the league in scoring (44.8 ppg) and rebounding (24.3 rpg). Bill Russell won another MVP, his forth.
The divisional finals during the playoffs were exceptionally exciting as both series were extended to the 7th games, although both favorites pulled out victories – Boston over Cincinnati; LA over St. Louis. In the anticlimactic finals, the favored Celtics went on to capture their 5th straight title and their 6th in 7 years over the Lakers in six games. This also marked the last series played by Bob Cousy, who retired after the season.
As the NBA embarked into its 1963-64 season, more changes were being made. Maurice Podoloff, the only President/Commissioner the league ever had, retired and was replaced by J. Walter Kennedy, who had earlier served as Publicity Director. The shortly-lived Chicago Zephyrs moved to Baltimore and became the second coming of the Baltimore Bullets. Syracuse moved their team to Philadelphia, vacated by the Warriors a season earlier, and became the Philadelphia 76ers.
Boston (59-21), seemingly unhampered by the retirement of Bob Cousy, was still the class of the league, and went on to capture the Eastern Division. Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson showed remarkable versatility averaging almost a triple double for the season (31.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 11apg) for the season. For that, he was awarded the MVP. Chamberlain was still his dominant self, leading the league in scoring with 36.9 ppg and averaging 22.3 rpg. Although he dedicated himself to defense this season under the new coach, Alex Hannum. This paid of as San Francisco (48-32) led the league in defense and paved the way for Wilt’s Warriors to capture its first division title.
This set up a meeting between the two legendary big men (Russell vs. Wilt) in the NBA finals. Although Wilt was dominating, his team could not match the depth of the Celtics. Boston went on to easily capture their 6th straight title in five games. At this time, Boston was officially recognized as one of the greatest sports dynasty rivaling Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees.
With big men like Wilt Chamberlain able to easily dominant the paint, the NBA widened the foul lane from 12 o 16 feet, for the 1964-65 season. As the season progressed, the biggest trade in NBA history was pulled off, with Wilt Chamberlain, still in his prime at 28 years, being dealt to the Philadelphia 76ers while Paul Neumann, Connie Dierking, Lee Shaffer and cash was sent to the San Francisco Warriors. This move brought Wilt back to the Eastern division, which the Boston Celtics (62-18) easily won. The Los Angeles Lakers (49-31) won the West. Wilt remained unhampered by the trade leading the 76ers to the playoffs, and the league in points (34.7 ppg). The NBA established its first All-Rookie team, which featured the game’s best rookies. This season, the best was big man Willis Reed of the New York Knicks, who was awarded the Rookie of the Year.
During the playoffs, a classic East divisional final between Boston and Wilt’s 76ers took place. The series went to deciding 7th game, with the home team winning each of the previous games. The final game in Boston, the Celtics were able to hold on and beat the 76ers, when John Havlicek stole the ball in the dying minutes to preserve a one-point victory. The Celtics advanced to the finals against Los Angeles who had defeated Baltimore in their Western finals. During the finals, the Lakers were without Elgin Baylor who was lost to injury, and were no match against the Celtics, who proceeded to take their 7th straight NBA title in five games. And yet again, Bill Russell claimed his 4th MVP award.
The following season (1965-66) showed much promise for Wilt Chamberalain’s 76ers team. With a well-rounded team equaling that of Boston, the 76ers were confident that maybe this was the year that the Celtic’s string of championship would end. The regular season was living up to the 76ers (55-25) billing as they finally displaced the Celtics (54-26) by winning the Eastern Division. Chamberlain led the league in scoring for what would prove to be the last time, averaging 33.5 ppg and becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, passing Bob Pettit. Wilt was named the MVP of the season. The Los Angeles Lakers (45-35) claimed their second straight Western title. Another development of the year was the entrance of San Francisco’s high-scoring rookie, Rick Barry, who won the Rookie of the Year, and named on the All-NBA team.
During the playoffs, the much-anticipated matchup between Boston and Philadelphia in the Eastern divisional final was on everybody’s watchlist. However, the 76ers appeared too burnt-out from their regular season accomplishments, and they succumbed to the Celtics easily, losing in five games. This set up a NBA finals showdown between Boston and Los Angeles, who sweated out a seven-game Western Finals series against St. Louis. In the finals, the Celtics fought a hard battle against Jerry West’s and Elgin Baylor’s Lakers, but finally took the decisive 7th game in Boston, winning their eighth straight championship. This championship was significant in the respects that Boston’s legendary coach, Red Auerbach, announced his retirement following the conclusion of this season, and he left the game in style, and on top. This would be the Celtics
The 1966-67 season marked an addition of an expansion franchise to the NBA. Chicago received another team and named them the Bulls. The Baltimore Bullets were realigned to the Eastern Division, and now with two five-team divisions, the Playoffs were changed so that the division winners no longer received byes and instead played a first round series against the fourth place team. Player-coach, Bill Russell, who succeeded Red Auerbach coaching duties, now ran the Celtics.
Philadelphia, motivated by last year’s disappointing season, came out playing strong. Wilt Chamberlain, shifted his focus from scoring and rededicated himself to defense. The 76ers got off to an astonishing 45-4 start and never looked back on their way to winning the Eastern Division with a 68-13 record. The Rick Barry-led San Francisico Warriors (44-37) claimed the Western regular season division title. Barry led the league in scoring with a 35.6 ppg average.
In the playoffs, Philadelphia polished off Cincinnati in the first round, then crushed the Bill Russell-coached Celtics in five games in the Eastern Division Finals. After the Game 5 win in Philadelphia, the 76ers fans rushed the court in jubilation, but Chamberlain and the 76ers knew the big prize was still ahead. The 76ers met Barry and San Francisco Warriors in the final, capturing the title in six games. Finally, Wilt Chamberlain had won an NBA title, and in the process, had ended the Celtic’s championship streak at 8 consecutive titles.
The NBA had now developed a loyal fan base, and its popularity was slowly growing. This was evident with the inclusion of two additional expansion franchises, the Seattle Supersonics and San Diego Rockets, who were placed in the Western Division, while Detroit was shifted over to the East. The NBA also adopted an 82-game schedule for the 1967-68, which it still utilizes today. The popularity of the game also gave rise to a rival professional basketball league, The American Basketball Association (ABA), which had attracted 11 teams playing a 78-game schedule. The league gained credibility with the naming of NBA legend George Mikan as its first Commissioner, and NBA star Rick Barry’s decision to sign with the new Oakland franchise, much to the chagrin of the NBA.
During the regular season, the 76ers (62-20) continued their domination, on their way to their second straight Eastern division title. Wilt Chamberlain was named the MVP for his third time. Detroit guard Dave Bing became the first guard to lead the NBA in scoring since 1948. The balanced St. Louis Hawks (56-26) team featuring Lenny Wilkens, would win the Western Division. However, these 2 divisional favorites made early exits in the playoffs. Philadelphia was shocked in the Eastern Final where the Celtics overcame a 3-1 deficit to win and advance to the finals. The Los Angeles Lakers cruised through the playoffs to represent the West in the NBA finals.
But the real story was the return of the Celtics, who came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Eastern Finals over Philadelphia, then defeated the Lakers to take the NBA Championship back after a one-year hiatus. Bill Russell had proven a success as a coach--thanks largely to the presence of Russell the player out on the court. The Celtics outplayed the Lakers in the finals and captured another title in six games. It reestablished Boston as the top team to be reckoned with again, after many critics had commented that their dynasty was dead.
The growth of the NBA continued as they welcomed the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns as expansion franchises – making the NBA a 14-team league for the 1968-69 season. Also, the Lakers made headline news by acquiring Wilt Chamberlain in trade that sent Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff to Philadelphia. The Lakers felt confident about achieving an NBA title with Wilt playing alongside Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
Two impressive rookies made their debut this season. San Diego’s first overall draft pick – athletic forward, Elvin Hayes. Hayes led the NBA in scoring in his rookie campaign with 28.4 ppg, he also averaged 17.1 rpg. Baltimore had the second pick in the draft, and selected bruising F/C Wes Unseld. Unseld led the surprising Bullets (57-25) to an improbable Eastern Division title, and captured both the Rookie of the Year and MVP for his efforts – the first time in league history for a player to capture both awards simultaneously. With Wilt in the lineup, the Los Angeles Lakers (55-27) won the Western Division.
The aging Boston Celtics were not expected to compete for the title, as the Lakers were the overwhelming favorites, who easily cruised to the finals. In the East, Baltimore was stunned in the opening round, after being swept by the confident young New York Knicks team, who had a stunning turnaround in the regular season. The Knicks were however disposed in the East Final against the wily veteran Celtics team. Another NBA final showdown between the Celtics and Lakers was in place. A classic NBA final had the home team winning the first six games leading to an electric final 7th game in Los Angeles. The Celtics stunned the basketball world by pulling out the upset victory by a mere two points. The Lakers were devastated as the Celtics celebrated their 11th championship in 13 seasons. This also marked the end of Bill Russell’s playing career and the Boston Celtics Dynasty, arguably the greatest team achievement in the history of sports.