A Forgotten Finals: Bill Russell, and the 1966 NBA Finals

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach After winning 1966 NBA FINALS, picture taken by Fred Keenan on 26 April 1966 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In any sport, there are rivalries where you cannot have one without the other, and one of the greatest rivalries in sports history is the Celtics vs the Lakers, especially in the 1960s. The two teams had met in The Finals four times in the five years from 1961 to 1966. They were regarded as heavy favorites in their respective divisions. A good recent comparison would be the Warriors and the Cavaliers from 2015 to 2018. They had powerhouse players on both sides, the most prominent of whom were Bill Russell from the Celtics and Jerry West from the Lakers. Even though Bill Russell was a guaranteed Hall of Famer, people had doubts about his team even making The Finals in 1966, let alone win it. People were starting to notice that the Celtics were aging.1

It was the year 1966. The NBA was a different landscape then than it is now, only having ten teams. This allowed teams to play as much as ten times in the course of one season. One team that the Celtics faced was the Philadelphia 76ers with their superstar and future Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain leading the charge. The public thought that this would be the year that Bill Russell’s Celtics would be dethroned, and for a moment they seemed correct. The 76ers had a great year, finishing 55-25 and winning the Eastern Division. This was the first time in nine years that the Celtics would have to play the first round of the playoffs.2

Boston Celtics won their 3rd NBA Title, 1960 | Courtesy of Wikimedia commons

This was an unfamiliar territory for Bill Russell and the Celtics. For years they were the dominant force in the NBA. Suddenly, they had to win a first-round playoff series against the Royals. The Royals were not much trouble for the Celtics; they won in five games.3 Then came the battle with the Philadelphia 76er’s. The Celtics, despite having Bill Russell, was a heavy underdog. Being the underdog did not settle well with Russell; he had his eye set on destroying the 76ers and establishing his dominance. When Game 1 arrived, the Celtics wanted to set the tone for the series and have the 76ers play on their back foot for the rest of the series. And that is exactly what they did. They ended up winning Game 1 with a score of 115-96. With the momentum on their side, they went into game two confident, and it showed. The Celtics won Game 2 114-93. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bill Russell played “superlative ball.”4 At this point, everyone discovered that the Celtics’ age was an advantage, since they had so much more experience and skill than a younger team like the 76ers had. Nevertheless, the 76ers regrouped and won Game 3, but it proved to be too late since the Celtics ended up winning the next two games. Wilt Chamberlain went for 46 points and 34 rebounds, but it was not enough to beat Bill Russell and the Celtics. The Philadelphia Inquirer stated that the difference was Bill provided leadership to the Celtics, which is something the 76ers needed.5

Yet again, the Celtics found themselves in the finals. Bill Russell had a chance to add to his illustrious career. People would think that Russell, given the fact that he has been to the finals for most of his career, would be unphased by it; but the truth is the opposite. Russell, before a big game, would throw up, but for an odd reason, it was welcomed by everyone. Coach Auerbach saw it as a good luck charm, since they would always win the championship when this occurred. He would even at some point not let the players go out until Russell had thrown up. John Havelicek stated that it was a welcomed sight, since it meant “were going to be alright tonight,” showing how superstitious the team was.6

Bill Russell sitting on the bench next to head coach Red Auerbuch, taken by Jack O’Connell on 26 December 1956 | Courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Russell and the Celtics were facing a familiar foe; the Lakers. This time the Celtics were the ones expected to win, because of their dominating performance against the 76ers. Nevertheless, Russell knew that it was not going to be easy, since the Lakers had Jerry West, who was the logo of the NBA. He was an incredible offensive powerhouse; he would not dunk over you, but he would make insane shots. As Game 1 of the Finals approached, Russell had all the pressure on his shoulders. This series was supposed to go to five games at the most, and anything above that would lead to heavy criticism on Russell.7

Finally, the highly anticipated Game 1 of the 1966 NBA Finals got underway. It was a spectacle. There was so much scoring in the game, that you could tell that the Lakers wanted this win in order to set the tone and prove the public wrong. It was a battle to the end, with both teams giving their all. But to everyone’s surprise, the Lakers took Game 1. The score was Lakers on top 133-129. The Celtics were in shambles, especially Russell. The head coach, acknowledging this, decided to pull out a trump card to reinvigorate the Celtics. At the start of the season, Coach Auerbach announced that this season would be his last. This challenged the Celtics to send him off with another championship; but after Game 1, that fire was gone. So he decided to announce after Game 1 that Russell would replace him as the first black head coach in professional sports.8 This was a huge shock for Russell. He had been the leader on the court for years, but he never imagined he would be the head coach. This new responsibility made Russell feel as if he needed to lead his team to the championship to prove that he was fit to be the head coach.

Game 2 arrived, and the revamped Celtics were there to make a statement. From the start, Russell wanted to dominant and his energy inspired his teammates to do the same. This game was never close. The Celtics dominated the whole game. The final score was Celtics on top 129-109. It was over before it even started. Russell led the team in rebounding with 24 rebounds. With this dominating performance, Russell proved that he can lead his team, and with the newfound momentum he led the team to win Game 3 and Game 4. Despite the incredible effort by Jerry West with his 41 points in Game 4, the Lakers found themselves in a 3-1 deficit. At this point, no team has ever forced a Game 7 from a 3-1 deficit, let alone force and win Game 7.9

Russell and the Celtics were so close, just a game away, from lifting the trophy. Russell knew better than to rule the Lakers out, since with a player like West you are never out of a series. When Game 5 arrived, the Lakers played their hearts out, but the Celtics were not going to make it easy. It was a close affair, but in the end, the Lakers got the win with a score of 121-117. Russell was not happy. He knew that the Lakers had regained the momentum, and even though Russell scored 28 points and retrieved 32 rebounds, he still felt like he could have done more.10 When Game 6 arrived in Los Angeles, Russell only had the trophy on his mind and he wouldn’t stop until he got it. But first, he would have to defeat a constantly evolving Lakers team led by Jerry West. As soon as the whistle blew, Russell was on the ball and ready to win the game. But the Lakers were fighting for their playoff-lives as well. Through a contested first half, the Lakers were leading by 68-58. Much like the previous game, the Celtics felt that they were losing control, and after halftime, with Coach Auerbach yelling at the top of his lungs, the Celtics came out on fire. They outscored the Lakers by 11 points in the third quarter, which gave them a 1 point lead. The Lakers felt that their playoffs was coming to an end, so they gave everything they had in the fourth quarter. Led by Jerry West, the Lakers outscored the Celtics by 9 points, which ended the game with the Lakers on top 123 to 115.

Bill Russel Dribbling during his first few years with the franchise, circa 1960 | Courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The Lakers were the first team to force a Game 7, being down 3-1, and nobody suspected it, especially Russell. Even though he had another great performance, picking up 22 points and 23 rebounds, it proved to be not enough for the Celtics to beat the Lakers. He was simply in disbelief.11 Throughout Russell’s career, he never experienced anything remotely similar to this. A series that was supposed to end in five games had now turned into seven. He also had the looming thought of being the new head coach the next year. Overall, the Finals were taking a toll on him and with Game 7 fast approaching, he had no time to sit and regroup.

Finally, Game 7 had arrived. The stage was set in Boston, and all eyes were on Bill Russell to see if he could lead his team when they need him most. The whistle blew and the game for the world title began. This time the Celtics had a rage in them that fueled them to play aggressive, and it showed. The Celtics were on their home turf, and they were not going to get embarrassed like they had in the past. When the first half ended, the Celtics were dominating with a lead of 53 to 38. The Lakers did not know what hit them, but everyone knew that they had one more half remaining, and all they had to do was hold the Lakers off. When the 3rd quarter started, the Lakers were locked in, but so were the Celtics. That quarter ended with the Celtics leading 76 to 60. With a lead that big, it would take a miracle for the Lakers to come back, and that miracle was in having Jerry West. The 4th quarter was dominated by West, as he led the Lakers closer and closer to the Celtics. But Russell was not having it. With 40 seconds left, Bill Russell made a slam dunk to increase their lead to 10 points. The Lakers were not giving up, especially Jerry West, who stormed up the court to hit a quick 2. And a few seconds later, when the Celtics were passing it in, he stole the ball and made another shot, which cut the lead to 6 with 25 seconds left. The Lakers were far from done. When the Celtics passed it into Casey Jones, he ended up committing a foul that gave the Lakers the ball back again, which led to another 2 points. Then the lead was cut down to 4 points, with around 15 seconds to go. The pass in led to another turnover, which gave the Lakers a ball that allowed them to scored another 2 points. The once loud arena was in shock as they watched the next throw-in anxiously. This time the Celtics played it smart and ran away from the Lakers defenders effectively draining the clock to 0 seconds.12

The crowd which was silenced by the amazing effort by the Lakers exploded out into cheers, and some ran onto the court to celebrate with the Players. For Russell, this was a huge moment because he proved to himself that he could lead his team and be a great head coach. Unfortunately, the finals MVP trophy was not established at that time, but it is widely recognized that if it had been, the trophy would have gone to Russell.

  1. Murry R. Nelson, Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 78.
  2. Murry R. Nelson, Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 77.
  3. Murry R. Nelson, Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 77.
  4. Murry R. Nelson,Bill Russell: A Biography  (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 77.
  5. Murry R. Nelson, Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 78.
  6. Murry R. Nelson, Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 78.
  7. Murry R. Nelson, Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 78.
  8. Bill Simmons, The Book of Basketball (Ballantine/ESPN Books, 2010), 100.
  9. Murry R. Nelson, Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 78.
  10. Murry R. Nelson, Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 78.
  11. Murry R. Nelson,Bill Russell: A Biography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), 78.
  12. “1966 NBA Finals G7 final 30 seconds,” video file, 1:51, Youtube, posted by, Wilt Chamberlain Archive, March 19, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV7vHBT2qAQ.

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27 Responses

  1. I have never really watched sports broadcasters but I really felt like someone was narrating this as it was written so good! The article gave great visualization with the descriptive words. It was cool to learn about the persistence that drove both teams to try to win. I cannot imagine the pressure Russell must have felt going into any of those games really but the superstition the team had was all too familiar. I used to get so nervous before big events that I would throw up too. It was interesting that the team almost found it charming because of his talent. Awesome read!

  2. This article was amazing! Through the story narrative of events and relating it to modern basketball teams and players to scale the teams. Such as the starting of the NBA teams to recognize a smaller team line up in games, as well as the knowledge of players’ weaknesses and strengths on the court as playing with opponents more games than today NBA (30 teams).

  3. This article was so good! I do not know much about any sports history, so it was very interesting to learn about this story. I also never know much about Bill Russell, but I can know see why he was such an inspiration to everyone around him. He is a very important part of NBA history and this story shows why he is considered one of the greatest players!

  4. This story really highlights the basketball essence that occurred way before any of us were born and thanks to the author, the legacy truly lives on of this moment and the players! What I truly love is how the story of the Celtic greatness goes even more back into the past, as explained by the author. While also highlighting that they also present that finals situation in such an awe-inspiring way! From mentioning the beginning of the series to the final 30 seconds of game 7, the aura of being a win or go home is present.

  5. It was really interesting to learn about the historic start to what is Bill Russell’s career. Being one of the greatest players of all time in basketball it has to start somewhere. And it was interesting to see the journey in one of the more harder finals that he competed in, especially against the logo of the NBA Jerry West.

  6. I always knew the Celctics and Lakers have always had one of the biggest rivalries in sports history but I have never read or seen any of the previous games beyond this recent decade. Looking at Bill Russells impact on the court and how he was able to rally his teamates to win the championship is really incredible and it defines why he is considered one of the greatest to ever play the game. I also found it funny how even though the celtics and lakers have always been the biggest of rivals the celtics crowd still recognized the great effort that the lakers showed in game 7.

  7. I never knew much about basketball until now. Rivalries always exist. It was best for both teams to settle things through a game. Sure the rules were different back then, but they had to settle things somehow just for the game. Everyone was confident. They were determined to win the game. The Lakers were really determined because of the way they were scoring to win.

  8. Wow. Very well written about a topic I would otherwise probably not look into. Bill Russell is evidently very important to the history of the NBA. I think it’s interesting that they would make him throw up before every final game. That is taking superstitions to another level. The Celtics and Lakers rivalry is pretty intense and I had never before heard of it. It is crazy how far people take their passion for a team.

  9. This article does a really good job at following the story line of the Celtics. I don’t know much history about sports, especially basketball, but I’m glad I read this article because it was insightful on the background history of the team. I find it interesting how there was a good luck charm- in this case Russel throwing up- because it was the superstition that the team and coach carried. I was excited while reading this article about how victorious they were, I can only imagine how the team felt.

  10. Bill Russell’s resilience was inspirational. He didn’t settle for anything short of winning. He was hell bent on winning. He found new motivation in the prospect of his new job which was incredible. He has always been an icon in my eyes as he presents the NBA Finals MVP year in and year out. The fact that he won 11 championships is mind-boggling today considering the difficulty of even winning one championship

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