When all was said and done, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Jerry West — the Hall of Fame basketball player whose silhouette still appears on the NBA logo — was named the Most Valuable Player of the league’s 1969 Finals. His prize? A brand new Dodge Charger.
The car was green.
This is the sort of weird detail that has always delighted Leigh Montville, the longtime Globe sportswriter who has written a full roster of best-selling nonfiction books in recent years, on Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Evel Knievel, and other sports-world legends. “Tall Men, Short Shorts,” Montville’s latest book, revisits those 1969 Finals, the last hurrah of the absurdly successful Boston Celtics of the 1960s — who won nine of 10 championships, preceded by two more in 1957 and ’59 — and a first taste of glory for the fresh-faced young reporter, who was 25 at the time.
“The rush of it all,” he writes, “the colors, the emotions, the deadlines, the locker rooms, the quotes, the typing, the worry, worry, worry.
“My heart sometimes seemed as if it was going to explode.”
Despite West’s gallant effort, the Celtics won the series in seven games. Knowing the outcome doesn’t slow the forward propulsion of Montville’s account one bit.
The story lines he had to work with — Celtics vs. Lakers, all-time champion Bill Russell vs. one-of-a-kind Wilt Chamberlain, Red Auerbach’s sneaky savvy vs. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke’s open checkbook, the Athens of America vs. Hollywood — will still enthrall fans of the game, more than a half-century later.
Russell became the first Black coach in NBA history in 1966, succeeding Auerbach and assuming the role of player-coach. Chamberlain was a titan of the game, an unstoppable force whose only Kryptonite was Russell.
“The best measurement of his talents,” Montville writes, “is that no one, from Wilt’s NBA debut until the present day, has been called ‘the next Wilt Chamberlain.’”
The Lakers also had West and Elgin Baylor, a transcendent athlete who is often cited as the best NBA player never to win a championship. But the Celtics had the spring-loaded John Havlicek, big-time shot maker Sam Jones (in his final season), and the team’s usual complement of scrappers and overachievers (Don Nelson, Emmette Bryant, Larry Siegfried).
Montville follows multiple threads. He describes his own arrival as a sportswriter, contrasting the old school of gameday reporters, “[p]erfunctory and dull,” against the “new journalism” of his generation.
“Fact or flair?” he recalls the Patriots’ new coach asking him in the summer of 1968.
Flair, he admitted. Facts were still paramount, of course, but Montville preferred his stories to “read like the pages from a good novel instead of the minutes from the meeting of the local town planning commission.”
As he chugs through the details of the seven-game series — Chamberlain’s beef with Lakers coach Butch van Breda Kolff, West’s uncooperative hamstring, several of the key players’ quarrels with Father Time — Montville takes time out to explore plenty of sidebar material. There was Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most, the three-packs-a-day man who was invariably described as “gravel-voiced,” versus Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn, who was credited with inventing many of the sport’s most enduring turns of phrase: The slam dunk. The air ball. No harm, no foul.
The casual racism of the era rears its ugly head more than once. Some of the older writers referred to the game they were covering as “African handball.” Today’s Montville makes clear that he wishes he’d done more to call out those writers.
Improbably, the aging and overmatched Celtics won games six and seven, the latter in L.A., to steal the series. Of all their championships during that historic run, this one was the toughest, and the best, the young Montville wrote. The balloons lodged in the rafters of L.A.’s “Fabulous Forum” would stay suspended there. The USC marching band would remain sidelined — no need to play “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The champagne corks would remain unpopped. (The Celtics never kept champagne on ice during closeout games, Montville notes.)
In the end, the story wasn’t so much about the Celtics’ triumph but the Lakers’ failure. Every great sportswriter, Montville claims, “from Grantland Rice to Paul Gallico to Red Smith to whoever was featured in the local Daily Bugle, knew this axiom.” The story could be found in the losers’ locker room, and the Lakers’ would be “the losingest losing locker room imaginable.”
“People say the only way we win is luck,” he quoted Bailey Howell, another future Hall of Famer, saying as the Celtics prepared for the first parade they would ever receive in Boston.
“If it’s luck, then that’s all right... I’ll take all the luck you can give me.”
The team with a leprechaun logo still had more good fortune in reserve. Havlicek, who seemed like he could go forever, would win two more championships, in 1974 and ’76, with former teammate Tommy Heinsohn coaching. Russell returned to Boston in 2013 for the unveiling of a life-size statue outside City Hall; he was elected this year for the second time to the Basketball Hall of Fame, this time as a coach.
Don Nelson, now in his 80s, as Montville reports, lives on the island of Maui, growing his own weed and playing poker with Willie Nelson.
But it’s Montville who feels luckiest of them all.
“Wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he writes.
James Sullivan is the author of five books covering sports, culture, and the performing arts. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
“Tall Men, Short Shorts: The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, and a Very Young Sports Reporter”
By Leigh Montville
Doubleday, 336 pages, $29