"Rise of a Dynasty": 12 things I learned about the Boston Celtics

“Rise of a Dynasty" revealed things about the Russell-Cousy-Auerbach Celtics that I didn’t know.

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    The dynasty-era Boston Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years, beginning in 1957.
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If you’ve lived in Boston (OK, the suburbs) for nearly 40 years as I have, you come to believe you’ve read or heard every story about the Boston Celtics' glory years at least a time or two.

A new book, however, tests that conclusion.

Rise of a Dynasty: The ’57 Celtics, the First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America (New American Library) revealed things about the Russell-Cousy-Auerbach Celtics that I didn’t know, despite enjoying a more thorough familiarity on the subject than the average Beantowner.

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My education is as deep as it is because, as a young sportswriter for The Christian Science Monitor in the early 1970s, I trained under Phil Elderkin, a veteran basketball scribe with endless firsthand accounts of the dynasty-era Celtics, who won 11 titles in 13 years, beginning in 1957. (The total is up to 17 now.)

Phil was close enough to the team’s original owner, Walter Brown, that when Brown retired and was clearing out his office, he gave Phil a team championship trophy that was collecting dust in a Boston Garden closet. (The trophy was sold at auction five years ago).

“Rise of a Dynasty” was penned by Bill Reynolds, a Providence (R.I.) Journal sports columnist who has covered the Celtics for many years. I enjoyed his company on press row during a number of games during the Larry Bird era.

Twelve things I learned from “Rise of a Dynasty”:

1. When the Boston Celtics acquired Bill Russell in 1956, he was largely a mystery on the East Coast. There was little in the way of college scouting and the NCAA tournament, which the Russell-led University of San Francisco won back to back, was not televised. No one on the Celtics, besides fellow rookie Tommy Heinsohn, had actually seen Russell play before he arrived in Boston.

2. Ben Kerner, the owner of the old St. Louis Hawks, an early rival of the Celtics, was ahead of his time in offering fans entertainment along with basketball. One year he had famous clown Emmitt Kelly perform after the team’s Sunday afternoon games. On other occasions, the Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo bands were on the postgame program at Kiel Auditorium.

3 . In 1963, the Celtics became the first NBA team to ever start five black players: Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones (no relation to K..C.), Satch Sanders, and Willie Naulls. Heisohn, a white player, normally would have been in the lineup but he was injured.

4. Bill Russell was never one to mince words about Boston’s racial climate. He once said he’d rather be in jail in Sacramento (the capital of his native California) than be the mayor of Boston.

5. Bob Cousy was drafted by the NBA’s Iowa-based Tri-Cities franchise in 1950. That team held no interest for him. So he was traded to the Chicago Stags, but they quickly folded, leading to a distribution of the players on the Stags’ roster. Boston wound up picking third and taking Cousy, who had starred at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. First, however, the New York Knicks and Philadelphia Warriors selected Max Zalofsky and Andy Phillip, respectively. Boston clearly got the best of that deal.

6. Celtic Guard Bill Sharman, a fitness-minded star of the 1950s, personally pioneered the idea of taking shooting practice on the day of games by seeking out high school gyms. Now such morning “shoot arounds” are standard for college and pro teams before night games.

7. The Rochester Royals could have selected Bill Russell with the first overall pick in the 1956 draft, but thought Russell didn’t want to play in Rochester. So they selected Sihugo Green of Duquesne instead. The St. Louis Hawks had the second pick, but the Celtics wrested it away in a trade for Ed Macauley, a popular Celtics player who was from St. Louis, and Cliff Hagen, whose career was interrupted by military service.

8. Bill Russell was so adamant about not signing autographs that he even refused a request from teammate Tommy Heinsohn, whose cousin wanted Russell’s signature.

9. To win their first championship, the Celtics had to beat the St. Louis Hawks in one of the most exciting final games in NBA history. In a seventh-game showdown Boston prevailed 125-123 in double overtime. There were 32 leads changes and Boston’s two rookies turned in spectacular efforts: Heinsohn had 37 points and 23 rebounds; Russell had 19 points and 32 rebounds.

10. In the 1950s, the Celtics toured New England towns in the preseason. Red Auerbach used his own car, but he drove so dangerously fast that Bob Cousy had it in his contract that he could opt out of riding with his coach.

11. Auerbach abided Russell’s resistance to expending his energies in practice because he played so hard in games. While his teammates practiced, Russell would often sit on the sidelines drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.

12. After an outstanding nine-year career as the Celtics’ original “sixth man,” Frank Ramsey was offered the job as an assistant coach to Auerbach, who had never had an assistant. Ramsey turned it down, however, because he wanted to make some “real money.

Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff editor.

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