Maintained Excellence: The center (remember that position?) of controversy

At the old Boston Garden (the one that had two balconies), on Palm Sunday of 1970, in front of 8,641 staunch supporters and a national TV audience, the NBA’s defending champions notched the 34th and final victory of the season at the expense of the league’s soon-to-be reigning champions.

The Commish
While Celtic legend John Havlicek and promising backcourtman Jo Jo White paced the team with 22 points apiece, first-year head (and only) coach Tom Heinsohn surely was pleased with the effort – not to mention 25 combined points – he received from his pivotmen. [From the perspective of nowadays, one might wonder if Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy considered reprimanding the Knicks for starting center Willis Reed’s “DNP – Rest” while the struggling league was enjoying some much-needed and still-hard-to-come-by network exposure?]

The then-novice, now HOF coach inherited nine players – alas none named Russell or Jones – from the 1969 titlists, including both of the back-up centers. The problem with the returning postmen was that both were under-sized – and thus combined had seen a measly two minutes of playing time during Boston’s 18-game playoff run to Banner No. 11. Player-coach Bill Russell played 46.1 minutes per game during the 1969 playoffs – after averaging 42.7 per in 77 regular-season outings. And Havlicek never left the floor (47.2 per in the post-season).

All the minutes and years caught up with the 35-year-old Russell. He shocked the sports world and set Red Auerbach a-scramblin’ by announcing his retirement in a lengthy and personally-penned piece in the August 4, 1969 issue of Sports Illustrated.

R. Johnson is No. 26, J. Barnes is to his left
Heinsohn and Auerbach were the (very entertaining) voices of the C’s occasional local TV broadcasts at the time. Tommy had turned down the team’s coaching duties three years prior, openly uneasy about being Bill Russell’s boss. This time, the “Celtics Lifer” stepped up to the challenge.

His squad didn’t lack for seasoned veterans: Havlicek, Satch Sanders, Don Nelson, Larry Siegfried, Bailey Howell and Emmette Bryant – nor for promising young guys like Don Chaney and rookies White and Steve Kuberski.

Unfortunately, none of these nine guys are centers. Those ’69 champions must have played some “small ball” for short stretches in the playoffs, maybe with the 6’7” Howell in the pivot.

The last time Auerbach had needed an up-grade at the center position, he’d looked West and found a mustachioed southpaw with a pronounced flaw in his game – he couldn’t shoot.

Maybe Red decided he’d try that ploy one mo’ again. He found (actually, purchased from San Diego) a guy who had been playing on the Left Coast for three seasons, another mustachioed southpaw with a pronounced flaw in his game – he couldn’t jump.

Perhaps Abacus hyperbolizes slightly?
Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find as many as ten less athletic guys, in the whole history of pro basketball, than Henry Finkel – and I mean that most respectfully.

Finkel had a fairly reliable shooting touch and a solid understanding of the game, but his physical limitations too often simply rendered him ineffective – even when his 84 inches were properly positioned. Incidentally, High Henry was one of only six players officially listed (per as seven-footers on the NBA’s 14 team rosters during No. 6’s final season of play.

Curiously, Finkel was the only Celtic not to score during the season-ending victory over the champion-to-be New York Knicks … even more curiously, he’d be the only one of this team’s three centers on the roster when 1971 arrived.

So who, then, hung those 25 points on Red Holzman’s boys that March Sunday – and what became of them?

“The Human Worm”

An even dozen of those points were provided by a dude dubbed “The Human Worm” (way before Rodman) by some second-balcony leather-lung one early-season Friday evening.

You see, back in those times, every quarter of play was initiated by a jump-ball at mid-court. Hank Finkel’s quarter-inch vertical leap didn’t win many of them. Before long, Coach Heinsohn was using a skinny second-year jumping-jack out of Grambling State named Rich Johnson to start each quarter.

Initially, Finkel would always check into the game at the first stoppage of play. Slowly but surely, though, Johnson seemed to earn Heinie’s confidence and some actual playing time (12 minutes or so a game for the season).

The under-sized Johnson – he claimed 6’9”, but was closer to 6’6” – played just one game for the 1970-71 Celtics. He bounced around the ABA and Eastern League for a couple of years, but seems to have played no more. Sadly. Rich Johnson passed away in 1994 at the young age of 47.

“Bad News”

The as-yet-unaccounted-for 13 points in that long-ago season-ender – the first season in the Red Auerbach Era that the Boston Celtics failed to qualify for the playoffs – came courtesy of the man who had been selected first overall (ironically by the Knicks) in the 1964 NBA Draft.

Jim averaged 29 and 19 as a senior.
Though a cat named Marvin would soon hi-jack the moniker, Basketball’s original “Bad News” Barnes was named Jim and played his college ball in West Texas for a gentleman named Don Haskins. And Coach Haskins would be the first to tell you that his “Glory Road” was paved by young men like Jim Barnes and Nolan Richardson.

Red and Russ had scooped up Barnes for the ’68-69 season to help replace the retiring Wayne Embry. But Barnes, a 6’8” center who’d been battling bigger guys his whole career, was beginning to show the wear and tear of all that grinding. Jim didn’t doff his warm-ups for a single minute of post-season action.

The following season, Jim – whose given name was Velvet; talk about Bad News, huh? – provided spot duty at the 4 and 5 in 49 appearances, after which his contract was sold to Baltimore for a final season. He retired to the DC area, where he worked with disadvantaged youth until he died of a stroke at age 61 in 2002.


That not-so-happy ending to the 1969-70 season was the final game in Celtic green for Barnes, Siegfried, Howell and Bryant.

It hadn’t taken Auerbach and his new coach too long to realize that Finkel, while potentially of use as a back-up, was no Russell – nor even an Ed Macauley. So, Red had still been on the look-out for an up-grade to his front line.

Indeed, even as he occupied his regular perch in the Gahden’s Loge 1 on that March Sunday afternoon, Auerbach believed he’d found the right man to maintain his standard of excellence.

On the very day after Richie Johnson and Jim Barnes had scorched Nate Bowman and Bill Hosket for that 25 – Monday, March 23, 1970 – with the fourth pick in the NBA draft, Red got himself a new (alas, not mustachioed) lefty with a pronounced flaw in his game – he was too short to play center.

Or so “they” said!