Hey there, Jarrett Stidham. Want to know what it’s like to take over the starting job in place of the greatest winner in the history of your sport . . . in front of Boston fans accustomed to championships every year? Give Hank Finkel a call. I can get you his number if you want.
Hank is 77 years old, lives north of Boston, and is uniquely equipped to tell you what lies ahead. Nicknamed "High Henry'' by Johnny Most, the 7-foot Finkel replaced Bill Russell as the Celtics center for the 1969-70 season after Russell won his 11th championship in 13 seasons.
Russell didn’t play out his contract and leave New England for Tampa. He flat-out retired. And it was pretty obvious that things were not going to be the same once he left.
With no Russell, no Sam Jones (who also retired), a rookie coach in Tommy Heinsohn, and newcomer Finkel starting at center, the defending champion Celtics went 34-48 and missed the playoffs for the first time in 20 seasons. Boston fans were not happy, and Finkel got far too much of the blame.
"When you win in New England, the fans love you,'' Finkel said via telephone this week. "But when you lose in New England, they want to run you out of town.''
A strongman from Union City, N.J., who starred at Dayton, Finkel had played three seasons with the Lakers and (San Diego) Rockets when Red Auerbach picked him up and gave him to Heinsohn in 1969. The Celtics were in complete rebuild mode. They’d finished fourth in 1968-69, but amazingly won another NBA crown with player-coach Russell and Hall of Fame guard Jones (10 championship rings) overwhelming a Lakers team that featured Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor.
Without Russell and Jones — and with a rookie guard in Jo Jo White, a new center, and a rookie coach — the Celtics had to start over in 1969-70. Nobody talked about tanking. And it was not a total disaster. But it was a shock to Celtic Nation to see a team finish 26 games behind the Knicks and out of the playoffs.
Finkel averaged 9.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in 23 minutes per game for the rebuilding Celtics and took a lot of the blame simply because he was not Bill Russell.
"Nobody was going to take over for a legend like Russell,'' Finkel recalled. "But this was unmerciful. It was awful for me and my family. The fans were booing and hissing and calling me names.
"Any time you play at home and the fans boo you, it’s rough on you personally, and I’m a very sensitive guy. I took it very badly. I didn’t listen to talk shows, but I heard they were criticizing me and saying, ‘Get rid of him.’ ’’
“Poor Henry,” said Heinsohn Tuesday. "I thought the fans would be more understanding.
"Henry was not a great athlete, but he had certain skills and we worked those skills into what we did. He was an excellent outside shooter. Defensively, he was more than adequate. He played a lot, but it took us a while to integrate him.
"As coach, I would go to these Monday luncheons the Celtics used to have and listen to these people complaining about Finkel. It was rough.
"The fans were used to excellence and winning championshps. I don’t think Finkel was built to make that happen. He would say, ‘They’re all expecting me to play like Bill Russell, but they’re not paying me like Bill Russell.’ ’’
"I wanted to retire after the terrible first year in Boston,'' recalled Finkel. "But when I went in to Red to talk about it, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to get some help.’ The ’help’ was Dave Cowens. I was just the fill-in until they found another legend.
"I’m not crying about it. Eventually, it worked out well. If it didn’t, I would have had a short career and left town.’’
It "worked out” because Auerbach drafted Cowens with the No. 4 overall pick in 1970 and once again changed the course of Celtic history. Running with star swingman John Havlicek and emerging star White, Cowens led the Celtics into a new era of success, winning championships in 1974 and 1976.
Finkel stuck around as Cowens’s backup and won a ring with the 1973-74 Green Team before retiring after the 1974-75 season. And he never left town. Finkel ran his own office furniture/capital equipment business for more than 30 years before retiring five years ago.
High Henry describes himself as a big Tom Brady fan.
"When you're an ex-athlete, you notice a guy like Brady and how he conducts himself,'' said Finkel. "Tom Brady was always a class act here. He never said a negative word. He was always positive and I thought that was great.''
Any advice for Stidham, the young man who will likely follow Brady?
"Good luck,'' Finkel said with the laugh. "But Bill Belichick is a lot like Red Auerbach. He will know which players the new guy can play with and which ones he can’t. I’m not going to say they’ll win the Super Bowl, but they will have a respectable team and win a lot of games.
"Belichick is like Red in that he will put the kid in position to succeed. That's what Red did with me. I was fairly strong and Red knew I'd be a good workout for Cowens in practice.
"They said on my best jump you could barely slip the Sunday newspaper under my feet, but I could box out and keep Willis Reed off the boards. Red knew that.
''I was just there to fill the void. You don’t replace a legend until you find another legend. Folks are going to have to be patient with this new young quarterback. I hope they are. But he’s still going to have to win some games, too.''