This excerpt from “Tall Men, Short Shorts,” by former Globe sportswriter Leigh Montville, is reprinted by permission of the publisher. The book, available online now and in book stores, details Montville’s experiences covering the 1969 NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Lakers.
The basketball was in the air.
“I didn’t think it would reach the front of the rim,” said Sam Jones, who had shot the ball from 20 feet away.
Marvin Kratter, the fat man who used to own the Boston Celtics, rubbed a piece of black, polished coral, his lucky stone. Johnny Most, the radio announcer, told the world in an excited, shattered voice what was going on.
Emmette Bryant prayed.
“I saw the ball hit the rim,” said Bryant. “I said, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace . . . ,’ ”
“I was surprised . . . ,” said Jones. The ball spun up — there wasn’t one member of the Boston Celtics close enough to take down a rebound — it hit the back of the rim and came down. Through the middle of the basket.
“Around the rim and in, around the rim and in,” Most cackled five times rapid-fire into the microphone/ Marvin Kratter, stone in hand, leaped and yelled and 15,128 other people at the Boston Garden joined him last night.
Game time. Sam Jones’ shot, going though the hoop with one second left in the game, gave the Boston Celtics an 89-88 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The best-of-seven final in the National Basketball Association playoffs was tied, two games to two games, . . .
— Boston Evening Globe, April 30, 1969
The Celtics had a secret play. Larry Siegfried often talked about how he and John Havlicek and everyone else on the bench helped to coach the Celtics. He would tell the listener to think about the situation: How hard was it for Bill Russell to play 48 minutes against Wilt Chamberlain and coach the game at the same time? How could he slow down his thoughts when his body was just trying to take a break during a timeout?
“He’ll come back to the bench sometimes and he can’t even talk,” Siegfried said. “He’ll be just trying to breathe for the entire timeout. John and I call a lot of the plays. He’s OK with that.”
The secret play was part of the communal effort. In the far-away future, seven seconds left, down by a basket, this would be an analytic moment discussed by a head coach and his Mormon Tabernacle Choir full of sharp-eyed assistants. Computers would spit out tendencies for everyone involved at this particular time, space, phase of the moon. A defender would be attacked because he had .78 inches less in vertical lift, was troubled by an ingrown toenail on his left foot since last Thursday, needed a haircut and had eaten a turkey club sandwich for lunch. Or something like that.
Here the play sounded as if it had been sketched out in the dirt in the second half of a schoolyard touch football game. You go here. You go there. You and you go there and there. Sam, you get the ball behind the triple pick and take your favorite jump shot.
A reluctant Russell had allowed the thing to be installed at that practice session in Melrose. (Down, 2-0, in a best-of-seven series is always a fine time to add a secret play.) Havlicek, the perpetual fussbudget, provided the historical details about how the play had worked twice at Ohio State. The Celtics walked through it, then ran through it, then ran through it again at speed. According to a stopwatch, the pieces were all assembled, the shot taken in seven seconds.
The Celtics had seven seconds now.
Seventeen years later the same play — pretty much the same play — would be run in the classic basketball film “Hoosiers.” Assistant coach Wilbur (Shooter) Flatch, an alcoholic on the mend, played by Dennis Hopper, would call for it in the last seconds of Hickory High School’s big game against Dugger High. The score was tied at 58-58. Head coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) had been ejected, leaving Shooter in charge with his troubled past and his odd-fitting new suit.
“Boys, this is the last shot we got,” Shooter says in the huddle. “We’re gonna run the Picket Fence at ‘em. Merle, you’re the swingman … Jimmy, you’re the solo right. Everett, Jimmy should be open on the other side of that fence! Now, boys, don’t get caught watchin’ the paint dry.”
The Picket Fence is three picks set straight across the foul line. Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis) moves around to the back of the fence. Everett (David Neidorf) hits him with the pass. Jimmy, a troubled lad at the start of the film, squared away now, hits the jumper as the horn sounds. Hickory wins. Everybody hugs everybody else. Shooter has some damn good validation for living on the straight and narrow.
The Celtics’ play, which had no name except maybe “that play from Ohio State we ran at practice,” also featured the triple pick across the foul line. There obviously was no Shooter, no Norman Dale, either, since Gene Hackman did not play Norman as a 6-feet-10 famous black man, basketball legend who also was the starting center. There was a Jimmy Chitwood, though, one of the best last-shot Jimmy characters ever to dribble a basketball. Sam Jones had been Jimmy Chitwood for all of his seasons with the team.
“At one point, we won eight consecutive NBA championships and six times during that run we asked Sam to take the shot that meant the season,” Russell will say more than once in the future. “If he didn’t hit the shot we were finished — we were going home empty-handed. He never missed.”
Jones was a jump-shooting constant. He didn’t have the reputation of Jerry West and some other NBA scorers, his star dulled by the excellence of the Celtics with their team-over-statistics approach, but his teammates knew how good he was. He was always the first choice in these situations. The moment never was too big. He had the resting heart rate of a house plant, the Celtics’ version of Mr. Clutch.
A large number of the Celtics’ basic six plays and accompanying options were designed for the same result, shot by Sam to win the game, but for this one time, this moment, this was the variation. The Lakers had seen those other plays.
Now they would have a new look to consider.
Russell and the players had agreed during an earlier timeout to use the play if the game clicked down to a last-shot situation, so they only had to nod again during this last timeout. Russell made a strategic decision. He took himself out and put Don Nelson into the lineup. The change was in case the Lakers decided to foul someone (one-shot foul under the rules at the time) and take the game into overtime. Nelson was a better foul shooter.
Everything evolved as if salt shakers were being moved against pepper shakers on a red-checked tablecloth at a place where basketball minds gathered. Emmette Bryant threw the ball inbounds to Havlicek, then moved immediately to the right side of the foul line, the right side of the fence. Nelson set up at the middle of the foul line. Bailey Howell set up at the left. Havlicek held the ball and waited. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Sam came around the left side. West, guarding him, was two steps behind as he tried to get around Howell. Havlicek passed the ball to Sam, who was free and clear.
This was when Sam slipped on the parquet floor.
He had no traction and he was sliding and the clock was ticking down and everything was wrong, wrong, wrong, but he had no other place to go, no other thing to do, so off his left foot, the wrong foot, he heaved the ball toward the basket with the idea that if it missed — probably when it missed — Russell might be there to lay in the rebound. (Forgetting that Russell was out of the game.)
Front rim. Back rim. Net.
Celtics 89. Lakers 88.
Nobody got caught watching the paint dry.