Re-Claiming Excellence: No. 15 Returns … No. 29 Arrives

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Friday October 17, 1969

In the annals of Boston Celtic lore, that evening’s festivities at the Old Boston Garden seem a lot like a New Year’s Eve, with its “midnight” striking just prior to the Opening Night’s Tip-off.

It was indeed exactly half a century ago before a Garden gathering of 13,755 that Red Auerbach and company were raising their 11th championship banner and kicking off their 24th season of play.

Lewiston (ME) Daily Sun, 10/18/69
No less than nine members of the 1969 NBA champions suited up for the home team that night. All nine players – three of whose numbers would reach the building’s rafters – would contribute at least 57 games and 13 minutes per game in 1969-70.

So why did Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford project Boston but sixth best in the NBA’s Eastern Division – behind the Bucks, Bullets, Knicks, Royals and 76ers?

That’s where the “Out with the Old” part of NYE comes up – the unexpected retirement of Bill Russell, added to the more traditionally conducted exit of steady Sam Jones.

And as for the “In with the New”? Well, here’s the assessment from SI’s season preview (10/27/69):

Russell's replacement is Henry Finkel, obtained from San Diego. Though he is slow and his lack of agility often leads to excessive fouling, Finkel is a good shot from a distance, where he will also fit in well setting picks for the motion-conscious Boston offense. If he learns to block out rather than trying to outjump opponents, he could also become a more formidable rebounder, but the dexterity required to whip the ball out for a break may be beyond his capacity.

The “New” would be augmented in a few weeks with the arrival of No. 1 draft pick Jo Jo White (off fulfilling a military commitment). He’d join fellow rook Steve Kuberski, both of whom would earn two rings in Green.

The “Infancy” of a Hall of Fame Coach

That third Friday in October marked the birth of Tom Heinsohn’s days as a hoop coach. Innovative from the start, the rookie coach opted to return perennial All-Star John Havlicek to his famous sixth-man role to kick off the season.

Tree-trunk legs on Cousy, huh?
Coach Tom’s foe that evening was a fellow newbie to the NBA’s coaching fraternity – as well as a former teammate and close friend. Bob Cousy had assumed the duty of leading Oscar Robertson and the Cincinnati Royals. (The Lakers, Pistons and Supersonics likewise opened play with a new bench leader while San Diego and San Francisco would each make a mid-season move – that’s half the league.)

In the faster-paced play of that day, the Celts and Royals combined to attempt 185 field goals and 73 free throws. Nine players posted double-figure scoring, five cracking the 20-plateau topped by the Big O’s 25 points.

A back-and-forth game seemed to have turned the Celtics’ way when an 8 – 2 run to open Q4 gave them an 89 – 77 advantage … but a 33 -19 closing spurt allowed the Cooz Crew to eke out a 110 – 108 victory.

As for the new coach’s new starting center?

"High" Henry
Hank Finkel began his Celtic tenure with a 21 and 17 double-double to which he tacked on four assists before fouling out after 43 minutes of work – he found his way to the foul line for 18 attempts.

But the absence of athleticism referenced by SI was evidenced by the 17 points and 10 rebounds on the stat line of Royal rookie journeyman-to-be Luther Rackley.

High Henry’s limitations did indeed create a regular hardship to the team – he NEVER won a jump-ball, and a center jump initiated play at the start of every Quarter. So with proper clock management, opponents could get up-to-four extra opportunities to score every game.

Eventually, resourceful Coach Heinsohn adopted the habit of inserting sophomore jumping-jack Richie Johnson for all opening taps, then immediately subbing in Finkel at the first whistle.

Dave Cowens would assume the center position the following season, and Henry Finkel would provide his last pro coach with five seasons of steady back-up service … even earn the right to help “pull the strings” at the Celtics’ next banner raising.

Check out the Hank Finkel entry in TB’s excellent What the Hell Happened To… series.