LeBron James and his Miami Heat mates seem poised to advance to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season and challenge for a third consecutive title. If successful, they will become but the fourth franchise in the NBA’s 68-year history to achieve the coveted three-peat.
Exactly 50 years ago, another of the league’s all-time premier performers, along with his peers and Hall of Fame coach, was hunting bigger game.
As the 1950’s yielded the calendar to the ‘60’s, only one NBA team had so much as RE-peated as champion, George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers who had claimed five of the Association’s first eight titles, including a ’52-’54 three-peat.
The standards for dynastic excellence in that day were housed in New York (MLB’s Yankees) and Montreal (the NHL’s Canadiens). The Yanks and Habs had strung together five consecutive championships, a feat matched in 1963 by Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics.
Raising the bar in ’64 would have to be accomplished without the magic of the now-retired Houdini of the Hardwood, Bob Cousy, and with three guys who were playing their final year (original sixth-man Frank Ramsay, enforcer Jim Loscutoff and heady veteran Clyde Lovellette).
From left, Siegfried, Lucas & Hondo
Coach Red Auerbach’s stallions broke from the starting gate in stride and in sync, winning their first seven games and 23 of their first 26. The only black cloud on Boston’s horizon during that two-month run emanated from southern Ohio as all three defeats were administered by the Cincinnati Royals. In the ’63 playoffs, the Royals had extended the champs to seven tough games, even winning two at the “Gahden.” Moreover, they’d added future Hall of Famer and Rookie of the Year-to-be Jerry Lucas to a line-up that included two other stars bound for Springfield, Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman.
A new coach, Jack McMahon, and the month-long loss of Twyman to a broken hand kept Cincy hovering around the .500 mark as the season reached its quarter-pole. But by late February, a 12-game winning streak (14 out of 15 overall) had the Royals sitting at 40-27, a mere half-game in arrears of the division lead.
The Royals returned to earth, losing five of their final 13 games while Boston closed 12-2 to wrap up the division title and a first-round playoff bye. Nonetheless, Robertson snapped Russell’s three-year strangle-hold on the MVP trophy.
Though extended to a full five games by the Hal Greer-led Philadelphia 76ers in the opening round, a confident bunch of Royals invaded Boston on the last day of March. Coach McMahon’s guys had taken seven of the season’s 12 match-ups (including five of the last seven), inducing the young rookie coach to boast, “I only wish we had more games with them.” [http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1075719/index.htm]
The final hurdle to history was the NBA’s original Twin Towers, 7’1” Wilt Chamberlain and 6’11” Nate Thurmond of the San Francisco Warriors, and the only coach, Alex Hannum, who had ever won – or would ever win – a playoff series against a Bill Russell team.
The home team prevailed rather easily in each of the first three games. The series changed midway through the third quarter of Game 4 out west, courtesy of Tommy-Gun Heinsohn. Shackled by Thurmond’s “length” into single-digit scoring in two of the prior three encounters, the future coach and audacious broadcaster exploded for 15 of his team-high 25 points during a 20-8 run that turned a one-point deficit into a non-refundable 71-60 lead.
Two nights later, April 26, 1964, the Green Machine assumed its position atop Mount Dynasty. Warrior point guard Guy Rodgers pretty much summed things up for Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford: “[Russell] never stops showing you something new. Once he blocked Wilt’s shot, and then Thurmond got it and Russell came over to the other side of the basket and blocked Thurmond’s shot, too.” [http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1075895/index.htm]
Less than a year later, Chamberlain returned home to Philadelphia, creating with 76er rookie Luke Jackson a revised Twin Towers. When Hannum signed on as coach 18 months later, Red (now GM), Russ (now player-coach) and the rest finally tasted playoff defeat, forced to settle for an “Eight-peat.”