NBA championships are usually won behind superstars who led their teams to the title. All-time greats George Mikan, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, among others, are among the league's Finals heroes who carried their clubs to multiple championships.
But as often happens with teams overly focused on containing the opposition's stars, many times complementary or reserve players have risen up to play major roles in hanging up banners.
The Celtics have benefited from many such Finals performances, and below are five stories about some of the very best non-star exploits.
Greg Kite: Game 3, 1987 Finals
Kite flies over LA
It isn't often that a player can shoot zero for three from the field in an NBA championship series game and still arguably become the MVP of that contest. But former Celtic backup center Greg Kite accomplished just that improbable feat.
One might say that Kite defied the odds simply by playing in the NBA for 12 seasons with seven teams despite possessing extremely limited offensive ability.
Greg was a third-string center on a defending champion team, a career 49 percent foul shooter who never averaged more than 4.8 points a game in an NBA season. He averaged 6.4 points a game in his college career at Brigham Young, yet was the key combatant in a Finals battle that featured seven of the NBA's "50 Greatest Players" and eight Hall of Famers.
Yet in his first four NBA seasons, the Boston Celtics made it to the championship series each and every time, winning the crown twice. Coincidence? Probably. But consider that in 1988 after Boston waived Kite, the Celtics failed to make the Finals for the first time since 1983, and never returned until 2008.
Going into the third game of the 1987 NBA Finals, Los Angeles led 2-0 after a pair of lopsided home wins that had Laker fans expecting a sweep of their weary, hated east coast nemesis. About the only thing injury-plagued Boston had going for it was a trip home to the Garden with two days of rest after arguably suffering the most grueling playoff run any team has ever faced.
The Celtics were beaten down and beaten up. On top of consecutive seven-game basketball wars with Milwaukee and then Detroit played out over a brutal 26-day span throughout a heated May, Gang Green was severely hobbled by injury.
Sixth man Bill Walton and seventh man Scott Wedman combined to miss 168 of a possible 184 regular season games that season due to injuries. Walton, hobbled again by foot issues, barely played in the post-season, and Wedman did not at all. Third guard Jerry Sichting was plagued by a msyterious stomach ailment.
And second overall draft pick Len Bias, a sure-fire All-Star, had died a day after being selected by the Celtics.
Kevin McHale, who made first team All-NBA in his finest year, was playing valiantly with a broken navicular bone in his foot and a sprained ankle on his other foot. He missed two playoff games and came off the bench in two others.
"Boy, it's fun talking foot injuries with Bill (Walton)," he joked to relieve the pain. But during the Finals he used a pool lawn chair from the team hotel as a walker.
Robert Parish, at 33, was playing with multiple sprains of each ankle which forced him to miss game six of the Buck series. Danny Ainge sprained a knee midway through the seventh game vs. Milwaukee, missed the first three games of the Detroit series and never regained his form.
Larry Bird lost 17 pounds down the stretch of that season on a popcorn and 7-Up diet. Too proud to ask out of a game, he battled his way though a record 1,015 playoff minutes over 23 grueling contests, an average of 44.1 minutes a game - all at age 30.5 after a regular season where he played 40.6 minutes per night. And after making it to the Finals four straight years, shortening the off-season each summer.
Dennis Johnson was nearly 33 and played 964 playoff minutes, an average of 41.9 per game. By contrast, Earvin Johnson played just 666 post-season minutes, James Worthy 681 and Jabbar 559 since LA played five less playoff contests as fatcat kings of the weak west.
The Lakers cruised to the Finals by playing two sub-.500 teams and one 42-40 team, three clubs with a combined opponents' winning percentage of just .479. Boston grinded its way through 17 brutal, halfcourt pounding games against Chicago and two 50-or more win teams in order just to get to the title series. The seven games against the uber-physical Pistons took place over a mere 12 days.
On the other hand, LA had played 12 far less intense, fast-breaking contests as they ran their way to a free and easy 120.6 points a game amid the wide-open style of the wild Western Conference.
Included in their romp to the Finals were sweeps of a 37-45 Denver team in the first round by 27.3 ppg, and a 39-43 Seattle squad in the Western Conference Finals. In their lone series that went past the minimum, the Lakers downed a 42-40 Golden State squad 4-1 in the conference semis by "only" 10.8 ppg.
Only a 51-point outburst in game four by Sleepy Floyd - including a record 29-point period - kept the Warriors from being swept.
Three days after Boston finally dispatched the pesky Pistons in game seven of their eastern finals bloodbath by a 117-114 count, the Celtics had to travel all the way across the country to play a rested, younger, hungry and healthy LA team.
But not before Bird had to address time and energy-consuming claims by two Pistons who did not handle losing the East finals to Boston.
Bird had played all 48 minutes of that seventh game vs. Detroit, scoring 37 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out nine assists. He shot 13-24 from the field and 10-10 from the foul line, yet had to endure the baseless, sore loser post-game comments of Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman, who asserted that the three-time reigning league MVP was "overrated."
When asked if Boston had any chance to beat the Lakers, led by his then-buddy Earvin Johnson, Thomas emphatically said the Celtics had no chance. Boston assistant coach Chris Ford shot back "well at least we will get that chance."
Against the rugged defense of the Bad Boy Pistons, Bird averaged an impressive 27.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists a game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 94 percent from the foul line (47-50).
In the last three highly tense games, Bird upper his transcendent all-around game to an even higher level. He tallied 36 ppg, shot 39-69 from the floor (57 percent) and was a perfectly clutch 29-29 at the foul line while pulling down 30 rebounds and doling out 20 assists.
And his series numbers would have been even better had he not been thrown out of game three in Detroit for throwing the ball at Bill Laimbeer after the Piston center and Rodman combined to tackle Larry brutally to the floor on a layup attempt.
Overrated? - uh, yeah right. Rival coaches Hubie Brown and Billy Cunningham, among others, strongly defended Bird against the baseless, sour grapes comments of Thomas and Rodman. Yet it was still a distraction for a team in need of no other issues.
For even after defeating Detroit, Bird and Boston had to deflect the senseless controversy while trying to prepare for the Lakers, with Larry even holding a press conference in LA before game two to exonerate Thomas. Bird graciously said that if the racially-oriented comments "don't bother me, then they shouldn't bother anyone else."
Of course, 16 years later when Bird returned as president of the Pacers, one of his first moves was to fire Thomas as head coach and hire former teammate and assistant coach Rick Carlisle. Larry Legend has a long memory.
Meanwhile back in the red-hot early summer of 1987, Los Angeles had been resting and preparing for Boston back home for EIGHT days after sweeping the Sonics 133-102 in game four of their relatively easy series.
The results of the first two games vs. the tired Celtics were predictable. LA averaged a whopping 57 fast break points per game to post lopsided victories by 13 and 19 points. They ran their way to a whopping 133.5 ppg and shot almost 59 percent from the floor against the hobbled Celtics.
On top of that assault, defensive ace Michael Cooper bombed in a then-Finals record six triples in just seven tries during a game two 141-122 runaway. Coach K.C. Jones refused to use the injuries and fatigue as an excuse, pointing out that LA had demoralized his squad with its running game and surprising three-point accuracy.
A prophetic LA fan tauntingly jiggled a marionette featuring a Celtic dummy replete with the words "tired legs" displayed atop the home-made toy. McHale, who had lost weight during the Buck series due to a bout of the flu, hobbled off the court to classless jeers as he re-aggravated his broken foot in game two. The outlook looked bleak, to say the least.
As the series shifted cross country to Boston for game three, even many of the Celtic faithful were simply hoping to avoid a humiliating sweep at the hands of the bitter western rivals.
LA continued its up-tempo dominance early in the third game while an ice-cold Bird missed his first six shots, helping the Lakers race to a 29-22 lead after the opening stanza. Things didn't look promising.
With Parish in foul trouble, Boston coach K.C. Jones reached deep into his bench and tabbed third-stringer Kite to replace the Chief. Walton had been ineffective in LA and the move to insert Kite was seen by many as sheer necessity and desperation.
After all, Greg had played just 110 minutes in 15 post-season games to that point, with four DNPs, and would score just 17 points over 20 playoff games in 1987.
He was supposedly just a big body, an insurance policy practice player, a banger hack, a classic pasty stiff - right?
But the stereotypes about Kite were actually not that accurate. Although he was a very poor shooter, Greg was not that bulky or immobile, and was actually quite flexible. He was double-jointed, ran the floor well, was fairly quick off his feet, and was a fine interior passer. Kite was also a very good rebounder and a tough defender who set good screens.
In short, he was the type of teammate every player likes to play with, whose only glaring weakness was bad hands and thus very little scoring ability.
Anyway, enter benchwarmer Kite for All-Star Parish. Almost immediately he made his presence felt on defense, on the boards and with his ability to run the floor much better than the injured Walton. The determined backup, finally given his chance to shine in a big moment, gave the tired Celtics much-needed energy.
Kite forced Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out of his preferred spots, made him miss hooks, and forced him to take tough turnarounds which he also missed. Once when Jabbar tried to go by Kite on the right baseline, Kareem blew a fairly easy left-handed layup, then waited for the obligatory star foul call against a lowly-regarded reserve - one that did not come.
Kite crashed the boards and ran the floor with abandon, giving Boston a desperately needed shot in the arm, even from the least likely of lifeblood sources.
In one sequence, he rebounded Bird's missed driving backhand flip layup try, missing a tip-in at first. He got back up quickly and rebounded again but on his second putback try, Jabbar hit him on the arm and got away with the foul. Kite misfired by putting the ball off the glass too hard and McHale's tip follow was good, yet was disallowed for goaltending.
But Kite had inspired his team by outhustling and out-running the 40-year old Jabbar, almost 15 years his senior, in the June heat of the non air-conditioned Boston Garden. His five offensive boards would give Bird and company extra chances to finally get untracked.
After a frigid start, Boston heated up in the second period, making 11 of 12 shot sat one point. Both Bird and Dennis Johnson caught fire, with Larry making six in a row in the quarter while DJ canned six of seven.
When the smoke cleared, Boston had erased a seven-point deficit and led 60-56 at the half. And much of it was due to Kite, who hadn't scored a point. When Walton subbed in for him in the final minute of the half, it was Greg, not the fan favorite Hall of Famer and former MVP, who got a well-deserved rousing ovation.
Kite played so well that he actually earned a second half start from coach Jones, and he didn't disappoint. He continued his strong work on the glass and by screening, defending and running the floor.
Then came the biggest play of his career. As Earvin Johnson sped downcourt on a fast break, Kite hustled back on defense. Johnson double-pumped and scooped up a patented drive, a shot that he typically made and often drew a foul on, too.
But not this time.
Because Kite had trailed the play and not given up. He flew in from Johnson's blind left side and easily rejected the Laker's shot out of midair, slamming it to the parquet floor. He then completed the play by alertly recovering the loose ball before it could go out of bounds.
The Garden crowd erupted with joyous surprise and glee at the resounding block of a superstar by a third stringer. Greg Kite rejecting "Magic" Johnson?! Maybe the Celtics weren't dead after all.
The box score doesn't show it, but Kite also blocked another Johnson shot. When the 6-8.5 Laker guard posted up Ainge, Kite cleverly anticipated the Johnson bogart move, came over to help and blocked his short shot off the glass just before it reached the backboard.
But because of Kite's reputation as a non-leaping third string center - and Johnson's rep as the superstar - the officials ruled it goaltending. Replays showed that Kite timed the block perfectly and blocked it off the glass instead of after it hit glass.
Yet Greg seemed to know his place in the NBA universe and thus did not argue the bogus call. Or maybe he was too pleased with how he had been playing and the Celtic lead to be that upset.
Later, he once again blocked a Johnson drive yet was called for his fourth foul on a questionable whistle. His fifth foul moments later on another Johnson drive was a hard foul that sent the message that Boston was not going to let the Lakers get anything easy, like they had in the prior playoff rounds and in the first two games of the Finals.
Boston had taken a solid lead by then and they hung on for a 109-103 victory.
The win, unexpected by many who underestimated Celtic pride, postponed the coronation of the Lakers and prompted Ainge to slam the ball down onto the ancient parquet at the buzzer, punctuating the gutsy triumph led by his ex-BYU teammate.
And it clearly stated that despite being bruised and battered, Boston not only refused to be swept, they had a legitimate chance to win the title.
Even though Bird scored 30 and DJ 26, arguably the bigger reason for the win was Kite. His stat line looked like this: 22 minutes played, 0-3 FGAs, 0-0 FTAs, 9 rebounds (five offensive), two assists, one official blocked shot, one turnover, five fouls, 0 points.
Although his defense and board work were impressive, his intangibles - effort, energy, hustle and inspiration - went far beyond statistics.
When the Celtics trooped off the floor after pulling within 2-1 in the third and final meeting of their epic trilogy of championship series in the 1980's, it was a sheepishly smiling Kite who was fittingly interviewed by CBS afterward.
Yet the Celtics would not be able to overcome all their injuries in that Finals and lost in six. Less than a year later, Boston released Kite. Greg was not out of work long and would go on to play eight more years for the Clippers, Hornets, Magic, Kings and Knicks before finishing up with Indiana in 1995, one game short of the NBA championship series when the Pacers fell 4-3 to Orlando in the Eastern finals.
Although Greg was seen as the prototypical hard-hat player in a league that celebrates smooth offensive-oriented players, for one day on June 7, 1987 in game three of the NBA Finals, he was a true star on the league's biggest stage.
Gerald Henderson: Game 2, 1984 Finals
Henderson steals the ball
Backup guard Gerald Henderson was a fine defender, extremely quick and a fine leaper. A solid ballhandler but not a true playmaker or penetrator and passer, he was a good third guard and mostly a career backup, playing five seasons for the Celtics from 1979-84 as an unknown third rond draft pick out of Virginia Commonwealth.
He averaged 8.8 points a game in 20.4 minutes over 400 games, starting 130 for Boston. But in 1983-84, he started 78 games, scored 11.6 ppg and teamed with Dennis Johnson to form a very good defensive starting Celtic backcourt.
Criticized for their inconsistent shooting, the duo nonetheless helped Boston to the 1984 NBA title.
In game two of the epic 1984 Finals, Henderson came up with the great plays in Celtic playoff lore that helped pave the way for that series win. Although there is a misconception that Boston "stole" that game, they did hold a 36-26 lead after one period.
The Celtics led 111-108 with just over a minute to go after Larry Bird split a pair of foul shots. But a three-point play by James Worthy and two foul shots by Earvin Johnson with 35 ticks remaining in regulation gave LA the lead.
Kevin McHale had a chance to tie it with 20 seconds to go, but back-rimmed two foul shots in a row. The Lakers rebounded and called timeout, and it looked like Boston was likely to go down 0-2 to the Lakers. No team had ever lost the first two games at home in an NBA Finals and come back to win.
But then Worthy, who was 11-12 shooting from the field in the contest, made one of the worst crunch-time passes in Finals history, and the speedy Henderson was there to capitalize and save the Celtics.
"Boston is going to try and make a steal, they have their best defensive team in there right now," observed former Celtic great Tom Heinsohn, announcing the game for CBS courtside.
As the Celtics pressed fullcourt, with 18 seconds to go, Worthy threw a sideline in-bounds pass to Earvin Johnson. Bird and McHale immediately double-teamed Johnson, who threw back to Worthy, not known as a good ballhandler, near the deep left corner.
"Big Game" James panicked as the ball looked like a hot potato in his hands. Not wanting to be fouled, he guided a hanging crosscourt pass intended for current Laker coach Byron Scott. But the speedy Henderson anticipated it well, cut in front of Scott and tapped the pass away from him at the three-point line toward the basket.
He then grabbed the loose ball and without a dribble, laid in a right-handed layup high off glass over a scrambling Worthy to tie the game with 13 ticks left, forcing overtime.
"It's all tied up...a great play by Henderson," exclaimed long-time Celtic announcer Johnny Most from high above courtside as the crowd roared.
"The leprechaun at work here in Boston Garden, a steal right when you need it," noted Heinsohn. "Fabled things have happened here, and this will be one of them if the Celtics come back and win...(what) a steal by Gerald Henderson," he presciently predicted.
In the OT, Henderson was called for a charging foul as the Lakers inched ahead, 118-115. Things looked grim again for the Celtics as LA fed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his favorite right baseline hook.
But tired, the 37-year old center left it just short and Bird rebounded the rare Jabbar missed hook. Larry then quickly fired a long outlet bomb to Henderson, who took the pass at full speed like a wide receiver.
Gerald took the ball hard to the hoop, was fouled by Johnson and banked in a tough off-balance layup before slamming into the stanchion. His free throw tied it up with 2:14 remaining in the extra session.
"Gerald Henderson has been an 11th hour hero with 15 points," noted CBS play by play announcer Dick Stockton.
Worthy split two free throws, and Bird then fed McHale with a deft bounce pass post entry feed. Kevin turned and drained a patented fallaway 13-footer to give Boston a 120-119 lead at the 1:47 mark.
Yet ex-Celtic Bob McAdoo drained a high-arching left side 14 footer to give the Lakers the lead back. After Jabbar missed another crucial hook, Bird rebounded with 24 ticks to go.
The Celtics swung the ball around the horn against the thinly-veiled Laker zone. Bird drew two men near the right elbow and dished to his left to Henderson.
Gerald head-faked a flying Worthy out of position, took a dribble into the left side of the lane and passed off to well-positioned sharpshooter Scott Wedman.
Wedman then drained a clutch left baseline 17-foot jumper over Johnson that gave Boston a 122-121 lead with 14 seconds to go.
Robert Parish made a huge steal in the left corner from McAdoo, Bird hit two foul shots and Boston held on for a memorable 124-121 win to even the series, and went on to win in seven.
Without that great Henderson steal, the Celtics likely would have been down 0-2 heading to LA, an unenviable position to say the least.
Henderon scored 16 points, dished out five assists and made three steals in the pivotal victory. For the series, he averaged a respectable 12.3 points, four assists and 1.4 steals a game.
After the game in the Celtic locker room, a happy Henderson imitated Most's gravelly voice calling the game-saving swipe. "For a minute there I could hear Johnny Most going 'Henderson steals the ball,' " he laughed.
Glenn McDonald: Game 5, 1976 Finals
Mac comes up big in 3rd OT
Arguably, the least unlikely Celtic Finals hero ever was seldom-used backup swingman Glenn McDonald.
McDonald was a first round pick in 1974 out of Long Beach State, but he played only about 10 minutes a game and averaged 4.2 points a contest in his two seasons with the Celtics.
In the first four games of the 1976 Finals vs. Phoenix, he scored a combined total of seven points. It looked like he might get some garbage time in game five as Boston ran out to an early 20-point lead.
But then the Suns kept coming back and forced overtime. At the end of the second OT, John Havlicek looked to have won the game on a running left side banker with two seconds left. But Garfield Heard tied it with a rainbow 22-footer at the buzzer, forcing the first triple overtime Finals contest ever.
When called on late in the third overtime of the epic fifth game of the 1976 Finals, young McDonald came up big.
Fatigue and foul-outs and shortened the Boston bench. Celtic off guard Charlie Scott had fouled out of his fifth straight game in the title series. So head coach Tom Heinsohn summoned McDonald, who had a fine shooting stroke - and more importantly, fresh legs - into the fray.
He would not be disappointed. JoJo White passed nicely on the fast break to Glenn, who banked in a right side layup.
Moments later, Havlicek threaded a fine pass to McDonald, who drained a tough right baseline fadeaway jumper over Dick Van Arsdale to put Boston up by four. The second-year man slapped his hands together as he ran back upcourt while the Celtic fans rejoiced and the Suns called timeout.
"Glenn McDonald!" screamed Johnny Most.
Who was this number 30, the Suns had to be asking? You expect to get beaten by Hondo, Dave Cowens or White, but not by Glenn McDonald.
Moments later, Glenn soared high to rebound a left corner miss by the Suns, drew a foul and canned both free throws to give the Celtics a commanding six-point lead. By now, the marathon game that had started on Friday, June 4 was now being completed on June 5.
All in all, McDonald scored eight points, including six of the 16 Boston points in the crazy third OT. The Suns almost rallied from six down after two baskets in the final 30 seconds by former Celtic Paul Westphal, but came up just short as time ran out, 128-126.
In the game six clincher, McDonald earned quality playing time, but came up with just one basket. Yet Boston pulled away late behind a late burst by Cowens to win the title, 87-80.
McDonald would play just nine more games in his NBA career with Milwaukee after Boston released him just before the 1976-77 campaign. His pro career high was 18 points, but the eight he scored in game five of the 1976 Finals were easily the biggest of the 635 he tallied in 165 career regular season and playoff games.
Paul Westphal: Game 7, 1974 Finals
Westy fulfills great promise off bench in clincher
In college, former Celtic guard Paul Westphal's Southern California teams were consistently good and even went 24-2 in 1970-71, but both Trojan losses came to eventual champion UCLA.
Back then only the conference champion team from each league could make the NCAA tournament, so USC sat home despite being one of the top five teams in the nation. Four years later when multiple teams belatedly began to be invited to the big dance, USC would have been a strong Final Four threat.
Westphal, a native of southern California, was the player legendary Bruin coach John Wooden tried hardest to recruit, even more than Alcindor (Jabbar) or Walton. But the proud, slightly contrarian Westy turned him down, wanting to try and beat the Wizard of Westwood instead of becoming a Bruin and winning a near-certain three straight national titles.
Although USC did beat UCLA a few times in his three varsity seasons, they never won the Pac 8 or made an NCAA appearance.
Picked 10th in the first round by Boston in the 1972 draft, he came off the bench on a veteran team that didn't use ir trust its reserves, especially young and flashy ones like Paul, much.
Yet Westy played a key role for Boston in capturing the 1974 championship to earn his lone ring, the first for the Celtics in the post-Russell era.
The Bucks had staved off elimination and a Celtic celebration in game six at Boston two days earlier in a double-overtime classic. John Havlicek appeared to have clinched Celtic title number 12 with nine of his 36 points in the second OT, capped by a high-arching baseline jumper over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a miraculous shot that gave Boston a 101-100 lead.
But in the final seconds, Jabbar tossed in a long running hook from the right baseline over backup center Hank Finkel to give the Bucks an epic win and even the series, 3-3.
Westphal had scored just 22 points in the first six games of the Finals, an unusual series that saw the road team win five of the seven games. Yet the second-year guard, who would later blossom into a perennila All-Star with Phoenix, would be forced to play big minutes in the decisive seventh game.
In a pressure-packed championship series game seven at Milwaukee, Westphal subbed in for defensive ace Don Chaney. "Duck", like Paul a future NBA coach, got in foul trouble pressuring Buck veteran great Oscar Robertson, who was attempting to go out on top in the final game of his 14-year career.
Westphal came into the do-or-die situation and delivered big time. He scored 12 huge points, while also helping hound Robertson into a miserable 2-13 shooting night in his swansong.
At one point he had bottled up Robertson and knocked the ball out of Oscar's hands as he rose to shoot. On a fast break later in the final period, Paul drew a foul in transition that prompted a tirade from the infamously ref-baiting Robertson.
Westphal nailed a clutch left baseline fadeaway in the fourth quarter, then improvised perhaps the final nail in the Buck coffin. After corraling a loose ball in the lane he jumped into the air to shoot, only to have the 7-2 Jabbar quickly loom toward him.
Westphal jacknifed his body in midair, double-clutched and then tossed a perfect short lob pass over and behind Jabbar to Dave Cowens, who wisely caught the ball in midair and banked it in softly before Kareem could recover.
Behind a 31-21 fourth period as Westy played all but the final seconds, Boston went on to win 102-87 to clinch title number 12. But they probably would not have done it without number 44.
Don Nelson: Game 7, 1969 Finals
Nellie's lucky bounce and Ziggy's steals buried Lakers in epic swansong of Russ, Sam
Long-time Celtic forward Don Nelson won five NBA titles with Boston after being released by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1965, mostly as a key reserve and later sixth man.
The most gratifying of those five was likely the upset an aging 48-34 Celtic club pulled over the heavily-favored 55-27 Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and newly-acquired Wilt Chamberlain.
In the 1969 Finals, Los Angeles enjoyed the homecourt advantage over Boston for the first time in their seven showdowns. They rolled to a 2-0 series lead as a determined West bombed in 53 and 41 points, respectively, in the Forum.
Boston won game three as West was held to a series-low 24 points while John Havlicek netted 34 markers, and his former Ohio State teammate Larry Siegfried poured in 28.
In the pivotal fourth game, Sam Jones bounced in an 18-foot, wrong-footed leaner at the buzzer to give the Celtics an improbable 89-88 win that tied the series 2-2. This despite 40 more points by West.
Back in LA for game five, the Lakers took the lead back as West tallied 39 more. In game six at the Boston Garden, the Celts staved off defeat with a 99-90 win as the heady, good-shooting Nellie scored 25 points. West and Baylor each scored 26, but Wilt was held to eight.
So the scene was set for a memorably epic game seven, the final NBA contest in the glorious careers of Bill Russell and Sam Jones. Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke foolishly placed multi-colored balloons in netting high above the Forum court to be dropped after the ultimate Laker victory over their long-time nemesis.
Cooke also printed and laid out a post-game agenda that called for the USC band to play "Happy Days Are Here Again" followed by post-game interviews of West, Wilt and Baylor at halfcourt afterward.
When player-coach Russell got hold of this agenda, he scuttled his game plan and showed it to the Celtics in the pre-game locker room as motivation. An angry, proud Boston team came out running and gunning as Havlicek took the opening tip and drained a long corner jump shot over Baylor to set the tone.
The Celtics raced to a 91-76 lead after three quarters over the tight Lakers, who felt all the pressure.
Havlicek threaded a gorgeous lookaway hook pass over his shoulder from the left wing through the lane to a surprised Nelson, who bobbled the brilliant feed briefly before laying it in. It appeared Boston was on its way to its ninth crown of the decade.
Yet LA, led by West, had one big run left. Despite being hampered by an injured, tightly-wrapped thigh, Jerry still managed to rally LA within a basket on several long jump shots and free throws.
Boston played just seven men in the game and was running out of gas late as the partisan, frenzied crowd urged the Lakers on. Russell, toiling with five fouls, missed a two-footer from straight in front of the hoop. Wilt, who never fouled out of an NBA game in his career, also was playing with five fouls.
Something had to give.
And then Chamberlain landed awkwardly after a defensive rebound, jammed his knee and had to come out of the contest. Many fans and observers jumped to the suspicion that Wilt, who had lost all but one of his prior playoff encounters vs. Russell and the Celtics, was begging out late in the seventh game because the pressure was too great.
Ironically, with Wilt sidelined in favor of backup and former Celtic Mel Counts, the Lakers continued to rally. Counts even appeared to tie the game on a pull-up transition jumper from behind the foul line, but was called for a traveling violation.
Wilt asked back in during the waning moments, but Laker head coach Butch Van Breda Kolff declined to put the 7-1 superstar back in, sparking a controversy.
High drama, to say the least.
"In that situation, anything less than a broken leg isn't enough to come out of the game," Russell would later say, criticizing Wilt on a speaking tour and damaging their friendship for years.
Still a hungry, desperate LA club eager to avenge all those Finals losses to the Celtics kept coming. Baylor nailed a right wing jumper, but both West and Elgin missed subsequent chances to tie it up.
West drew a charging foul on Nelson with 1:53 to remaining. Boston double-teamed West, and the Lakers swung the ball around the horn to the right corner to Laker swingman Keith Erickson.
Trailing 103-102 with about 1:35 left, Erickson turned down a corner jumper for what looked like a better opportunity to take the lead. The ex-UCLA star spied Baylor underneath and tried to thread a pass to the Laker star for a layin. Except the underrated Siegfried anticipated the dish, cut quickly across the lane and snagged the pass, then passed to Hondo as he fell out of bounds in a spectacular play.
Siegfried advanced the ball over halfcourt, but got trapped in the right corner by a West/Erickson double team. He calmly stepped through it and passed along the sideline to his best friend and roommate Havlicek, who fumbled the pass but quickly recovered.
But then the athletic Erickson, in an attempt to atone for his costly turnover, almost came up with a game-changing play. As Havlicek turned his back and direction while dribbling, the ex-Olympic volleyballer slapped the ball away hard from behind Hondo with his left hand, and started to speed upcourt anticipating a potential transition basket.
Yet instead of a Laker fast break, his pokeaway slap flew about 12 feet through the air directly to Nelson in traffic near the foul line, as if it was a perfect feed. Nellie lined up the shot and launched it. The shot was straight but long, and bounded off the back iron.
The ball bounced high into the air, traveling a foot or more above the backboard even. After what seemed like an eternity as Russell, Counts and West jockeyed for rebound position, it then dropped straight back down through the net to give Boston a 105-102 lead.
The fortuitous bounce with about 75 seconds left to play all but killed the Laker spirit and comeback. The leprechaun somehow had made the trip west. West shot a long jumper that was on ine but short, and Russell soared for the rebound.
A turnover gave LA the ball back with 46 seconds left. Counts drove the right baseline against Russell and appeared to have a step on him, but his ill-advised reverse under the backboard was easily stuffed by Russ, who also grabbed the rebound at the 35-second juncture.
The unsung Siegfried dribbled through Laker pressure and drew a foul with 24 seconds left. The NBA free throw shooting leader calmly swished both shots for a 107-102 cushion. Then as LA pushed tried ot push the ball up fast with a long Johnny Egan pass, Siegfried made another huge steal and batted the pass to Havlicek.
Hondo split the pair with 15 seconds to go. Baylor drained two foul shots with jus seven seconds left. Egan stole the ball at midcourt and drove in for a layup just before the buzzer to provide the final two-point margin.
"A bitter disappointment for Los Angeles," understated ABC play by play announcer Chris Schenkel.
That improbable basket by the 6-6 ex-Laker was Boston's last, and they held on for a 108-106 victory in perhaps the most famous NBA Finals contest ever.
Em Bryant, another unlikely Celtic hero, scored 20 big points in game seven, almost three times his season average. Siegfried, who usually started, came off the bench in that decisive contest and made several huge plays down the stretch. Along with Ziggy's steals, it was the Nelson basket off the near steal that proved to be the final straw for LA.
In the 142nd and final meeting of the NBA's greatest head-to-head center rivalry, Russell scored just six points while Wilt tallied 18, but the Laker center converted a mere four out of 13 free throws.
"What are they going to do with those balloons up there?" crowed Red Auerbach, repeatedly looking up to the rafters. "They'll eat 'em! I want to watch them take those balloons down, one by one."
A weary Russell savored this fina victory in the post-game locker room.
"I know it sounds corny, but I told the guys before the game no matter what happened, that I wouldn't trade you guys for anyone in the world," he told ABC analyst and former Royals All-Star Jack Twyman in the victorious locker room.
He hugged Havlicek and kept his arm around him as John spoke to Twyman about one day retiring. Russell threw his head back, eyes closed, reveling in his 11th title over 13 long seasons.
Nellie scored 16 points off the pines in that epic game, and averaged 11.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per outing for the series. Not bad for a reserve. No basket in Nelson's 15-year career could have topped the final one that bounced in.
Jones scored 18.7 ppg and Siegfried 14 ppg for the balanced Bostonians. Six Celtics averaged double figure points, while a seventh in Russell scored 9.1 ppg and grabbed 21.1 rebounds per contest. Wilt was held to just 11.7 ppg but yanked down 25 caroms per outing.
West, who scored 42 points on 14 baskets and 14 free throws, added 13 rebounds and 12 assists. After averaging a ridiculous 37.9 points (without a three-point line) and 7.4 assists a game, he was named Finals MVP. It was the only time a player from the losing team has won the award.
After the game, Havlicek (who averaged an impressive 28.3 points and 11 rebounds per game in the Finals himself) held the hand of the extremely disconsolate West, telling him, "I love you Jerry." The high-bouncing Nelson basket would be replayed in his mind for many years.
It was the sixth time his Lakers had lost in the Finals to the Celtics, and was the most gut-wrenching. "Most of the times we met, I feel Boston was just a little bit better, although with a few different bounces here and there we might have won some of those series," West recalled. "But in 1969, that was the one time I felt strongly we had the better team."
West was so distraught over the haunting loss that he almost retired. Fortunately for him, he came back to play five more seasons and finally won that elusive crown in 1972 when LA was coached by former Celtic guards Bill Sharman and K.C. Jones.
Perhaps Nellie, his little-used former teammate from 1963-65, used up all his hoops luck in that game and for Boston over 11 seasons as he won five rings to just one for West.
For despite becoming the winningest regular season coach in NBA history with 1,335 victories, Nelson never guided a team to the Finals despite skippering some top-notch clubs over 31 seasons in Milwaukee, Dallas and Golden State.
And ironically, the teams that eliminated some of his best clubs were the Celtics and Lakers. Six times he led the Bucks to a division title and on three occasions in the 1980's he took Milwaukee to the Eastern finals, only to lose each time.
Twice they fell to Boston in the conference finals (1984 and 1986), and again to the Celtics in a 4-3 thriller at the 1987 eastern semis. The only time Nellie's Bucks beat Boston (1983 ECSF), they then lost to the eventual champion 76ers in the conference finals. In 1991, his "Run TMC" Warrior club was knocked out by the Lakers in the western semis.
One can't help but wonder if Jerry West would trade just one of the many titles he won as Laker GM for the 1969 Finals and to take back that Nelson high-bouncing basket. I bet he would.
If you wish to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.