Though past their prime, the 1969 Boston Celtics taught the Los Angeles Lakers – and their brash owner – a painful Finals lesson in successfully defending their NBA crown

When the Boston Celtics walked into the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on May 5, 1969, to take on the Los Angles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, they gazed upward and stared in disbelief.

Thousands of balloons were suspended in netting just below the ceiling, several hundred feet above the playing floor. It was the idea of the late Jack Kent Cooke, the Lakers’ owner, to have the balloons released as part of the hoopla when the Lakers clinched their first championship since the franchise moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis a decade earlier.

Cooke also had arranged for the University of Southern California marching band to be on hand for the anticipated celebration. Needless to say, the Celtics were not amused. Red Auerbach, the major-domo of the Celtics, took one look at the balloons and his blood began to boil.

“Those things are going to stay up there a hell of a long time,” he seethed.

This is the 37th anniversary of a lesson Cooke learned, although the rest of the NBA had discovered it over the previous 13 seasons when Boston was fashioning what is arguably the greatest dynasty in professional sports history: Don’t give Auerbach and the Celtics any extra incentive to beat you. This was a team that won eight championships in a row and 11 in 13 years, a record unmatched in any major pro sport, but one that is sometimes overlooked amidst the global media hype that surrounds today’s champions. John Havlicek, who played on six of those title-winning teams and later earned two more championship rings, tells a story that puts Boston’s accomplishments in perspective.

“I was at a golf tournament and someone came up to Bill Russell and asked him what he thought about the Chicago Bulls three-peating,” said Havlicek. “He said, ‘Not much.’ And it wasn’t any disrespect. But the Celtics won eight in a row, nine out of 10, 11 out of 13. When you try to measure up to those numbers, you look at other accomplishments a little differently.”

Auerbach and Russell were the constants of the Celtics’ dynasty, two larger-than-life figures who were there from start to finish. Auerbach, the mastermind who always seemed a step or two ahead of the opposition, came to Boston in 1950 at the age of 33 and coached the team to its first championship in 1957. After a loss to the St. Louis Hawks in the Finals the next season, he guided Boston in its eight-year reign from 1959-66 before becoming the team’s general manager. Russell, the 6-10 center whose defense and shotblocking revolutionized the game, played on nine title-winning teams before he was named player-coach when Auerbach left he bench. After Philadelphia unseated Boston in 1967, he led the Celtics to championships in 1968 and 1969.

Auerbach and Russell are forever linked. It was, after all, Auerbach’s ability to maneuver the Celtics into position to land Russell in 1956 that laid the foundation for the dynasty. Boston was slated to pick sixth, with no shot at the All-America center from San Francisco, but Auerbach wouldn’t sit idly and watch someone else select the player he figured might be the cornerstone of a championship team.

Auerbach recognized that Minneapolis, scheduled to draft third, needed a center to replace George Mikan and knew he had to move Boston up to the first or second slot. Rochester, picking first, had an outstanding young center in Maurice Stokes and figured to have little interest in Russell. So, Auerbach turned his attention to St. Louis and offered Ed Macauley, a two-time All-America center at St. Louis University who was eager to return to his hometown, and the rights to Kentucky All-American Cliff Hagan, if the Hawks would draft Russell for Boston. The deal was done, and while St. Louis would reach the NBA Finals four times in the next five years and win the title in 1958, Auerbach had the foundation of his dynasty.

With Russell as the hub, grabbing rebounds, blocking shots and intimidating opponents, Auerbach kept replenishing the roster around him. When Bob Cousy retired in 1963, K.C. Jones was well groomed to succeed him. Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders and Frank Ramsey, key figures in the early part of the dynasty, gave way to Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Don Nelson and Bailey Howell.

By 1969, however, Boston’s age was showing. The Celtics had finished fourth in the NBA’s Eastern Division with a 48-34 record. Russell was 35 and playing on knees that hurt so much he was unable to practice with the team. He could play only in games. Sam Jones was also 35 and had announced it was his last season. The leading scorer was Havlicek at 21.6 points, and while he was just coming into his prime, several of the Boston players seemed to be wearing down late in the season.

When the playoffs started few expected Boston to successfully defend its title. Cooke certainly didn’t. Not even after Boston had advanced to the Finals with a 4-1 series victory over a Philadelphia team that had won 55 games despite trading center Wilt Chamberlain to Los Angeles before the season, and a six-game victory over New York, which had swept division champ Baltimore in the opening round.

That set up a Finals matchup against Cooke’s Lakers (55-27), champions of the Western Division, and a team that featured three of the all-time greats. If the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., had an elite wing, a place where only the best of the best were granted entry, Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor would be in there.

And all three had enjoyed big seasons. Chamberlain had led the league in rebounding (21.1) and field-goal percentage (.583) and had averaged 20.5 points to provide an inside scoring threat to complement Baylor’s 24.8 points and West’s 25.9 points. In the final week of the regular season, the Lakers had thrown down the gauntlet by pounding Boston 108-73 in a game that was nationally televised.

“Most of the years we played, they were better than we were,” West reflected many years later. “But in ’69 they were no better. Period. We were better. Period.”

The Lakers showed it at the start of that series. West poured in 53 points and also handed out 10 assists as Los Angeles took the opener 120-118, then came back with 41 points as the Lakers captured Game 2 118-112 with Baylor scoring his team’s final dozen points.

The Lakers were rolling, but the next two games were to be played on the pock-marked parquet of Boston Garden – an arena that held more than its share of demons for all visitors, but especially for the Lakers, who had been victimized by the Celtics in six of the previous 10 championship rounds. Strange things seemed to happen to the Lakers in Boston. Was it a leprechaun who deflected the eight-footer that Frank Selvy missed at the end of regulation in Game 7 back in 1962, a shot that would have given the Lakers the game and the title? It was a shot Selvy, who once scored 100 points in a college game, would normally hit nine times out of 10 – but not that time. Not in Boston Garden.

This time, however, it was the Celtics whose luck seemed to run out when the Lakers’ Keith Erickson accidentally poked Havlicek in the eye during the third quarter of Game 3. Boston had led through the first half, but Los Angeles came back to tie the score in the third quarter and seemed o the verge of taking a 3-0 series lead after Havlicek was helped to the bench by player-coach Russell. But somehow the Celtics regrouped, urged on by the crowed at Boston Garden, and Havlicek came back to lead a fourth-quarter rally that carried Boston to a 111-105 win. Hondo scored 34 points, including several clutch free throws in the final period when his left eye was closed shut because of the injury.

If the Lakers had missed a good opportunity in Game 3, they squandered a golden one in Game 4 two days later. Neither team played well in a game marked by 50 turnovers, but with 15 seconds left to play, the Lakers held an 88-87 lead and had the ball out of bounds, needing only to get it in and run out the clock for a 3-1 series lead. But Boston’s Emmette Bryant stole the inbounds toss after a timeout. He inbounded the ball to Havlicek, who found Jones behind a Howell screen. Jones lofted an off-balance 18-footer with three seconds left that rattled the rim, first hitting the front part of the iron and then the back before nestling through the net. Boston had escaped with an 89-88 win and the series was tied.

Each team held serve in the next two games. West’s 39 points and Chamberlain’s 31 rebounds led Los Angeles to a relatively easy 117-104 win at the Forum in Game 5, then the Celtics bounced back to post a 99-90 decision at the Garden and even the series once again. For the third time in eight years, a Boston-Los Angeles Finals was headed to Game 7, but this time, the Lakers would have the home-court advantage. There would be no leprechauns to help the Celtics, or would there?

Perhaps inspired by the sight of the balloons and seeking to silence the USC band, the Celtics raced from the gate to a 24-12 lead, hitting eight of their first 10 field-goal attempts. The Lakers closed the gap to three points at halftime, but Chamberlain, who never fouled out of a game in his NBA career, drew his fifth personal in the third quarter and the Celtics stretched out to 91-76 lead going into the final period.

Then it was Boston’s turn to run into foul trouble. Jones fouled out and Russell and Havlicek picked up their fifth fouls as the Lakers cut the lead back down to single digits. With 5:45 to play, Chamberlain went up for a rebound, came down complaining of pain in his knee and asked coach Bill van Breda Kolff to take him out. Still the Lakers’ comeback continued as West, who would finish with 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists, hit a basket and four free throws to make it 102-100. And with three minutes to play, Chamberlain’s replacement, former Celtic Mel Counts, nailed a jumper to pull his team within one.

At this point, Chamberlain indicated he was ready to go back in, but van Breda Kolff demurred. The coach said later that he did not want to disrupt the Lakers’ comeback, though many wondered if perhaps he was angry that Chamberlain had taken himself out with an injury. But, in any case, he elected to keep one of the game’s true scoring machines on the bench with the championship on the line.

The Lakers never caught up. The key basket came when Nelson scooped up a loose ball at the foul line and tossed up a shot that hit the back iron, bounced high up in the air and then plummeted straight through the net, as if guided by a leprechaun perched on the backboard. Moments later, the Celtics had a 108-106 victory and their 11th championship.

West, who was named the Finals MVP, the only time the honor has gone to the member of a losing team, was crushed by the defeat. So was Baylor, who called playing the Celtics “the ultimate challenge. They were the best.”

Cooke, meanwhile, was left with a dilemma: What do you do with thousands of inflated balloons? Auerbach was right, they did stay up in the ceiling a long time.