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Bill Russell's Swan Song



By the fall of 1968, Bill Russell had already won 10 world championships but hungered for more. He hadn't told anyone yet, but the 1968-1969 season would be his last as a player. He was getting older and the years of crashing his tall, lanky body against other big bodies were starting to catch up to him. What followed was a year unlike any other that he had experienced before. This is Bill Russell's Swan song.


The Offseason


The Boston Celtics entered the 1968-1969 season knowing that they had the talent to challenge for another championship. The roster was loaded with talent either in or past their prime. Ranging from ancient relics such as Sam Jones to players ready to take the reigns such as Don Nelson.


Standing on the sidelines stood the heartbeat of the Celtics organization, Bill Russell. Having taken over coaching responsibilities from Red Auerbach in 1966, the five-time league MVP was riding high after winning his tenth world championship the previous year. Since he had yet to retire as a player, Russell was pulling double duty, an increasingly rare job description in those days.


Seeing the talent the Celtics still had, Russell and Auerbach elected to draft just one player in the draft. Don Chaney, a guard from the University of Houston, would go on to win two championships with the Celtics and serve as a longtime coach in the NBA before retiring in 2004. With the team set for the season, Bill Russell looked to the season ahead, feeling fairly certain that this would be his Swan song.




The 1968-1969 Regular Season


The Boston Celtics began the fall of 1968 willing their creaky knees to victory in their first four games, winning each game by no less than seven points. They split the next four games and that's how their season went. While the Celtics would continue to win numerous games and go on long winning streaks, towards the end of the regular season, they hardly resembled the fabled legends that they had begun to encompass.


From March 4th through March 16th, a critical time for padding wins in hopes of a higher seed in the playoffs, the Celtics lost six out of eight games. The future looked bleak, but the team directly behind them in the standings, the one competing for the final spot in the playoffs, the Cincinnati Royals, had been going through similar losing binges at the same time. As a result, it ultimately didn't matter that the Celtics won four straight to close out the regular season. Still, they entered the playoffs as the lowest seed, a position that they were not used to.


The First Round: 76ers



There was a time when the Philadelphia 76ers were a powerhouse. Led by the indomitable Wilt Chamberlain, they had a fierce rivalry with the Celtics throughout the decade. But by 1968, Wilt Chamberlain decided to chase the money and move to Los Angeles.


While the absence of the big man hurt, the 76ers still had a number of men who formed a formidable nucleus. Players such as Billy Cunningham, Darrall Imhoff and Chet Walker gave Philadelphia a powerful lineup. But did they have a prayer against the mighty Celtics?


Despite their advanced age and nagging injuries, the Celtics faired very well against their rivals. In seven regular-season games, the Celtics only lost twice, including a 127-102 blowout on February 2nd.


Much was uncertain as the Boston Celtics entered the 1969 playoffs, but the reawakening of an old rivalry sparked something within them necessary to win. John Havlicek's 35 points were just what the Celtics needed to counter Darrall Imhoff's 19 rebounds in Game One as the Celtics won handily 114-100. The series went to Boston for Game Two and the Celtics blew out the 76ers by 31 points. Clearly, the Celtics had more life in them than anyone knew.


The series went back to Philadelphia for Game Three where the Celtics won handily again, this time by seven points. But the aura of April Fool's Day may have played a factor two days later in the Boston Garden. Despite Bill Russell's astounding 29 rebounds, the Celtics were upset at home 119 to 116. They waited three days to enact revenge, beating the 76ers 93 to 90.


The Eastern Division Finals: Knicks



After years of futility, the New York Knicks had found a way to build a contender by 1969, having acquired legends such as Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed. the Knicks drove the Celtics crazy all season long as Boston could not figure out how to defeat this growing problem. In seven regular-season meetings, the Knicks won six. Entering the playoffs, there was reason to believe New York had Boston's number and would reach the NBA Finals for the first time in years.


Seeing a daunting challenge from a much younger team would cause many organizations to quake in their sneakers. But the Celtics were not like most organizations. They remained undaunted by the task at hand and set out to prove the naysayers wrong, once again.


No matter how they looked in the regular season, by the time the playoffs came around, the Boston Celtics always found a way to win. It was like they flipped a switch and their greatness magically came out of the shadows and under the bright lights of the postseason. They lived for the big moments and used the rowdiness (or lack thereof) of the crowd as a never-ending supply of fuel.


Despite their recent struggles with the Knicks, the Celtics found a way to beat them in the first two games of the Eastern Division finals, even while both Walt Frazier and Willis Reed led everyone on the court in points scored. Bill Russell was sensational in Game Two in the Boston Garden, scoring 14 points and vacuuming up 29 rebounds, recalling to mind many of his great games as a young professional more than a decade earlier.


Game Three was a different story. Despite Russell's 16 points and 20 rebounds, the Celtics couldn't overcome a poor scoring output from their squad. No Celtics player scored more than 16 points while the Knicks' Bill Bradley, Dick Barnett and Walt Frazier combined for 64 points. The Knicks pulled away with a critical 101-91 victory in Madison Square Garden.



Game Four felt like a title fight, the dynasty of one decade versus the dynasty of the following decade. the Knicks battled their hearts out, with every basket adding more and more weight to the outcome. In the end, the Celtics squeaked out a one-point victory in the Boston Garden.


Sensing impending doom if they lost the series in Madison Square Garden, the Knicks fought like a wounded animal in Game Five, ultimately beating the Celtics by eight. Back in Boston for Game Six, both teams were riding on the moment, knowing what one slip-up could mean. Back and forth the game went with neither team giving any quarter. The stars came to play that day as Reed led both teams with 32 points and the Celtics' John Havlicek (28 pts) and Sam Jones (29 pts) contributed mightily to Boston's cause.


Once again, it was Bill Russell who made the biggest impact on defense as he gave his team 23 chances to score, collecting rebounds left and right while chiseling away at the Knicks' will for victory. the Celtics prevailed 106-105, sending them back to the NBA Finals for the 11th time in the past dozen years. Standing in their way for another banner? The Los Angeles Lakers.


The 1969 NBA Finals



Since Bill Russell first became a professional basketball player, there had been a heated rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers. In six previous meetings on the sport's biggest stage, the Celtics won every time, frustrating the Lakers more and more after each lost opportunity. Led by Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, the Lakers were always formidable but seemed to always be a player or two short of winning it all.


Finally, after years of being pushed around in the NBA Finals, they signed Bill Russell's greatest adversary, Wilt Chamberlain. This could be considered the sport's first super team and much like the Golden State Warriors when they signed free agent Kevin Durant in 2016, the Lakers were immediately pegged as the champions before the season had even begun.


For the most part, the Lakers beat the Celtics in the regular season, winning four out of six matches. But as previously stated, the Celtics were a different team when the playoffs began. Despite the Celtics returning to their winning ways in the first two rounds, they were overmatched in the first two games of the Finals as the Lakers won by two and six points, respectively.



But the Lakers could never figure out how to win in the Boston Garden, losing every time they stepped on the parquet floor in the 1969 Finals. Facing elimination in Game Six, Bill Russell drank from the Fountain of Youth once more. In the end, Russell and his Celtics teammates won 99-90 as he out-rebounded Chamberlain 19 to 18. It was his final game in Boston.


Game Seven would forever be infamous for how the Lakers' owner acted. Before the game began, Jack Kent Cooke had a brochure placed on each seat of the press instructing the media what was to happen AFTER the Lakers won the game. He even had a plan as to the order of interviews. He even took it a step further by placing hundreds of balloons in the ceiling, waiting for the moment when Los Angeles would celebrate its first NBA championship.


Not surprisingly, the Celtics got ahold of the piece of paper and seethed, all the while their leader smiled. Bill Russell loved this and used it to inspire his team one last time. He told them that it would be especially sweet if they watched the Lakers take down the balloons one by one. The Celtics took charge for most of the game while Russell mostly watched from the court, only scoring six points for the evening. However, he was still a force on defense, collecting 21 rebounds.


By the fourth quarter, Wilt Chamberlain's balky hamstring began to act up and he took himself out of the contest. The rest was supposed to be just for a few minutes but his coach Butch van Breda Kolff insisted that the team didn't need him. In a way, he was right as the Lakers began to make a valiant comeback attempt after Chamberlain came out. But in the end, the Celtics' greatness was too much to overcome and Bill Russell won his 11th championship, defeating the Lakers 108-106.


After the game, Bill Russell was asked if it was his final game. All he could do was rub his massive hand over his head, overcome with emotion in the midst of a jubilant locker room. He didn't confirm it at the time, but it was and Bill Russell retired as one of the sport's greatest winners.


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