Have NBA fever? Read about the NBA’s greatest shooters, defenders and dunkers to ever dribble down a court in Legends: The Best Players, Games, And Teams In Basketball by Howard Bryant.
The book includes Top Ten Lists, a Top 40-style Timeline of Key Moments, and epic write-ups on players like LeBron James, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Steph Curry and many more. Read the excerpt below for a taste of hat’s in the book.
Excerpt | Legends: The Best Players, Games, and Teams In Basketball
A Note from Howard Bryant
When I was a kid, I dreamed of what I would be when I got older. Starting around third grade, I wanted to be a cartoonist. In class, when I was supposed to be paying attention to my teacher, I would draw superheroes instead. I collected comics (Marvel Comics only! Sorry, Batman and Superman.) for the adventure, but also to practice drawing Thor and Loki, Nightcrawler from the X-Men, and of course, Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.
Later on, I wanted to be an astronomer. I loved the solar system and knew every fact about each planet: its size, density, surface, and number of moons. (Back then, Jupiter had sixteen known moons. Now it has sixty-seven!)
The world was open and free. Anything was possible.
And then, starting in seventh grade, like a Category 5 hurricane reaching the mainland, basketball arrived—and wiped out everything that had ever existed before.
Drawing? Adios. All I cared about was making sure I could dribble as well with my left hand as I could with my right, like the all-time great point guard Isiah Thomas could when he first hit the scene as a Detroit Piston. I still read comics, but now Basketball Digest, Basketball Times, and Basketball Weekly arrived in the mail and my new basketball heroes took priority over superheroes.
Astronaut? Forget it. The only star I wanted to see soar was the great Julius Erving, better known as “Dr. J,” who was Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan. The Celtics were my new solar system. Suddenly, my world revolved around the greats like Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Tiny Archibald, and Dennis Johnson. I didn’t fear anything—the flu, bad grades, nuclear war—nearly as much as I feared for the Celtics when they played the dreaded Philadelphia 76ers and soon the even more dreaded Los Angeles Lakers.
The other sports I loved—hockey, baseball, football, and tennis—took a backseat. My love of basketball consumed my waking hours, and I enjoyed playing it just as much as I relished watching the greats in the NBA dazzle fans night after night. People in my neighborhood could hear the basketball I was dribbling before they could see me coming down the street. And I still revere the game today.
This book is about the miracles of the game, of what basketball used to be (no three-point shots, few dunks, and get this—no jump shots!) and what it is today in 2017 (Lob City, LeBron James, and the Splash Brothers, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of the high-octane Golden State Warriors).
Prepare to embark on a journey through the many eras of professional basketball, from the old days, when there were NBA teams in Syracuse, Buffalo, and St. Louis but none in Miami, San Antonio, or Dallas; to a time when there were two competing leagues, one that played with a red, white, and blue ball; to the 1980s resurgence that brought the world the “Showtime” LA Lakers starring Magic Johnson and their rivalry with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics; to the near-mythical ’90s Age of Jordan; to the present, with LeBron and Steph Curry exciting fans today the way Dr. J did for me during my childhood.
Growing up, basketball was the springboard for so many things that would come later: Watching hoops made me want to read more about the history of basketball and all the greats who played before I was born. Reading about basketball made me want to read more about everything else, which created a lifetime love of reading. Reading made me want to write my own sentences and form my own views about what I thought was important on the court and in the world, which produced a love of writing that exists to this day. So even though I never grew another inch past the tenth grade, never became a professional player, and am so bad at drawing now that I can’t even draw a smiley face unless it’s an emoji, you could say it was all worth it because you could say basketball made me want to be a writer, which is where I was supposed to be all along.
The magic of basketball is powerful enough to be applied to everything. Even if I never had a chance to play on an NBA court, loving the game as I did still got me where I wanted to go in life. And to this day, my love of the game remains as strong as it was the very first day I ever dribbled a basketball.
The Story of the 1960s: The Boston Celtics
In 1921, the New York Yankees reached the World Series for the first time. Two years later, they won their first championship. In the forty-four seasons between 1921 and 1964, the Yankees appeared in the World Series twenty-nine times and won twenty championships. They were simply the best team in professional sports. Perhaps the closest were hockey’s Montreal Canadiens, who won their sixth Stanley Cup in 1944 and were really just getting started. After playing in twenty-four Stanley Cups and winning eighteen times over the next thirty-five years, the Canadiens achieved legendary status, emerging as the Yankees of professional hockey (though I’m sure hockey fans consider it the other way around).
In the early days of pro basketball, the NBA had a handful of good teams, like the Syracuse Nationals and St. Louis Hawks, and one great one, the Minneapolis Lakers. The Lakers won five NBA titles between 1949 and 1954, and had the first dominant big man in six-foot-ten George Mikan, a player no defender could guard. But even the Lakers weren’t on the level of a team like the Yankees or Canadiens.
No, the first truly great dynasty in the NBA belonged to the Boston Celtics of the 1960s.
It happened the way so many history-changing events do: with someone believing in a dream, and someone else possessing a little luck and a lot more forethought than the rest, the ability to see a tiny bit of the future, and a willingness to take a risk and trust one’s instincts.
Walter Brown and Arnold “Red” Auerbach were those people. Brown founded the Celtics in 1945, and here was the thing that is really unbelievable today:
At the time, most people believed basketball would never become popular.
Walter Brown was not one of those people.
Brown believed in basketball so much he risked his house. He sold his furniture to own the Celtics. By the late ’50s, Auerbach was already considered a great coach, but up until that point, his teams hadn’t been good enough to beat New York or Minneapolis. He had been the coach of the Celtics since the beginning, and by 1956, Auerbach had a team that was improving yet was still missing that winning ingredient that could catapult them into the realm of champions.
Sure, the Celtics could certainly score. They had a wonderfully creative point guard in Bob Cousy, a wizard who could dribble as if he played for the Harlem Globetrotters. Cousy was a star, a point guard who could score and was well known for his fancy no-look passes as well as his ability to dribble out the clock without letting anyone steal the ball from him. Before Bill Russell, Cousy was the face of the Boston Celtics, a fan favorite who had attended Holy Cross, in nearby Worcester, Massachusetts.
Boston had a high-scoring shooting guard named Bill Sharman, and a star center, “Easy” Ed Macauley. Between 1950 and 1956, the Celtics made the playoffs every year but never reached the final round.
After posting a 39-33 record in the 1955–56 regular season and losing early in the playoffs again, Auerbach knew his team needed a change. They needed to be tougher defensively. They needed to be more active.
They needed Bill Russell.
Bill Russell was the best college player in the country, having led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back college championships. He finished his senior year with a fifty-five-game winning streak. He was six foot nine, could outjump anyone, and was a ferocious competitor.
In those days, the NBA was nothing like today, when LeBron James can dunk from the foul line and Russell Westbrook goes coast-to-coast, rebound-to-dunk, and Steph Curry can shoot and dribble like a genius. Back then, the game was slow. The big guys were tall and strong, but they didn’t have the speed or jumping ability of today’s big men. Most players still shot the “two-handed set shot,” which meant they shot the ball almost like a foul shot, releasing the ball close to chest level rather than above one’s head, or the one-hander, where they took the ball in one hand and pushed it to the basket. Try it! Believe it or not, jump shots didn’t become a significant part of the game until years later.
Bill Russell was the game’s first super-athlete. His vertical leap was 48 inches off the ground. That’s FOUR FEET! He literally could jump four feet off the ground! Centers back then were expected to score, but they didn’t block shots and play defense the way they do today.
While other teams couldn’t sense change, Auerbach thought about a new kind of basketball—a faster, more athletic game. Russell was just the guy he needed to make that dream a reality.
There was a problem, though. The Rochester Royals (who are the Sacramento Kings today) held the first pick. Russell didn’t want to play in Rochester, so he demanded more money than he thought the Royals would pay. He was right; the Royals selected a shooting guard most people today have never heard of, Sihugo Green. The St. Louis Hawks had the second pick, and here Auerbach saw his chance, offering to trade one of his best players, Macauley, plus forward Cliff Hagan, in exchange for Russell.
So what to do if you’re St. Louis? Do you keep Russell, a college and Olympic champion who had never played a minute in the NBA, or trade Russell for Macauley, who had proven he could not only play in the NBA but also be one of its stars?
The decision would be one of the most important in basketball history.
The Hawks chose to trade Russell to Boston.
Auerbach had his man.
With the Celtics’ other picks in the draft, Auerbach selected Tom Heinsohn and K. C. Jones, who was one of Russell’s teammates at USF. Jones was heading to the army but would return.
In the 1956–57 season, the Celtics’ roster included Russell, Sharman, Cousy, Heinsohn, and Frank Ramsey. Incredibly, all five would one day be elected to the pro basketball Hall of Fame.
From the moment they first stepped on the court together, it was clear they were destined for greatness.
But first, the Celtics had to wait a little while for Russell to join the team. Russell had committed to the US Olympic team, and helped America win the gold medal in Melbourne, Australia. Busy with the Olympics, Russell did not join the Celtics until December 22. When he finally put on his shamrock-green-and-white jersey, he was an immediate force, pulling down 16 rebounds in twenty-one minutes. In his fourth game, he snagged 34 rebounds.
The NBA would be forever changed. Russell could score but was not a scorer in the traditional sense. He played defense. He rebounded. He blocked shots. Russell’s defense helped ignite the Celtics’ greatest weapon: the fast break.
And he won. With Russell, the Celtics roared to the Finals for the first time, winning a thrilling seven-game series with St. Louis for the first basketball championship in Boston history. In a little over a year, Russell had won a college championship, an Olympic gold medal, and an NBA championship!
The Celtics raced to the Finals again the next year, in a rematch against St. Louis, but Russell injured his ankle in Game 3, and the Hawks took advantage, winning in six games. In the final game of the series, St. Louis beat Boston 110–109, and the Hawks’ best player, Bob Pettit, scored 50 points (no three-point shot back then, either). The Celtics were defeated, but they came back hungrier than ever the following season.
What occurred next had never been seen in North American professional sports: the Celtics won the next EIGHT championships in a row!
They were like a machine. Auerbach had drafted another future Hall of Famer, the great scorer Sam Jones. K. C. Jones—you guessed it, another Hall of Famer—meanwhile, returned from the army in 1958, the year the Celtics won the first of their eight consecutive championships. They would add another future Hall of Famer, John Havlicek, in 1962.
Simply put, no one could stop the Celtics.
Not even the arrival of Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest individual force in the history of the game, could stop Boston. Chamberlain joined the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. He was seven foot one and weighed 275 pounds! He could score at will. He averaged 37.6 points per game in his rookie season and once scored an all-time high 100 points in a game in 1962! To this day, Chamberlain’s record for most points scored in a game remains one of the most impressive and unsurpassable feats in sports.
Yet one incredible player does not make a great team. The Celtics played as a team. Wilt scored on Russell the way he scored on the rest, but when it counted, the Celtics had a legion of players who could outdefend, outscore, and outrebound their competitors. In 1962, the Celtics beat the Lakers, who had moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, in a classic final against the best scoring duo ever, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Baylor even scored 61 points in one game (again, with no three-point shot!), but the Lakers were still no match for the fearsome Celtics. Boston went on to beat Chamberlain again after the Warriors moved to San Francisco. Then they beat Chamberlain another time when he was traded back to Philadelphia after the Syracuse Nationals moved to Pennsylvania and became the 76ers.
In short, the Celtics owned the 1960s.
Auerbach retired after the 1965–66 season, and the Celtics made history of another kind, naming Russell player-coach, a title that’s practically unheard of in today’s game. Bill Russell became the first African American head coach in the four major team sports.
But even as the Celtics hoisted championship trophy after championship trophy, it was certain that a day would come when the great franchise’s streak would end. Finally, in the 1966–67 season, the 76ers were too good. Chamberlain was on a mission. Philly won sixty-eight games that year, demolished the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference finals, and the 76ers went on, after so much heartache caused by Boston, to finally win the title.
Yet the Celtics weren’t done for good. The next year, the Celtics came back, looking for revenge and eager to reclaim the top spot. In a conference finals rematch with Chamberlain and the defending champion 76ers, Philadelphia went up three games to one. Russell and the Celtics refused to give up, though, and improbably won three straight games, including two on the road, on their way to yet another championship—their ninth in ten years.
As the next season wore on, it became apparent that the Celtics were old and their age was starting to catch up with them. Other teams, like the New York Knicks and Baltimore Bullets (before they eventually became the Washington Wizards), were faster and more athletic. The Celtics came in fourth that regular season yet somehow reached the Finals again. And again, Russell faced Chamberlain, who had been traded to the Lakers.
This time, the Lakers were far better. But the Celtics were the best at doing whatever it took to win championships. They got the job done, winning in seven thrilling games. Russell went out on top, announcing his retirement after the game.
Bill Russell was more than just an NBA legend. He transformed an entire sport. Basketball was now a major game.
The Celtics’ championship victory in 1969 was their ELEVENTH in thirteen years. But the glory of the Celtics ended as the next decade started. After Russell retired, he left behind an irreplaceable void. Boston would return with two championships in three years in the mid-1970s, but wouldn’t fully recover as the signature team of the NBA until the arrival of Larry Bird in 1978.
Walter Brown and Red Auerbach’s risky long-term commitment to basketball had paid off many times over. Finally, a historic basketball franchise had emerged that deserved to be celebrated alongside other great sports dynasties like the Yankees and Canadiens. Basketball-obsessed kids across the nation shot hoops in parks and driveways, pretending they were on the hardwood court alongside Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and the other Celtic greats, similar to how kids today throw up half-court shots, filled with dreams of being the next Steph Curry. The Boston Celtics of the ’60s were a team that dominated a sport like no other before or since.