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The 1964 NBA Finals: Celtics vs. Warriors

Long ago, the Celtics-Warriors playoff rivalry has roots in Golden State’s east coast origin.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Before the Celtics and 76ers became bitter arch rivals, the Philadelphia Warriors were Boston’s most serious eastern rival in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Led by jump-shooting Kentuckian Joe Fulks, the Warriors of Philadelphia won the very first NBA title in 1947 over the long-defunct Chicago Stags.

The early Warriors basically grew out of the Philadelphia SPHAs, the great primarily-Jewish pro team of the pre-NBA era. SPHAs is an acronym for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, and the team was founded in 1917 by future NBA mogul and schedule-making legend Eddie Gottlieb. The SPHAs won twelve league titles under Gottlieb, who also played for the club before he coached them. In the early years the team had no official home court and was nicknamed “the Wandering Jews.”

After selling the SPHAs in 1950 to focus on the NBA, Gottlieb also served as a coach and owner of the Warriors through 1962. One can imagine how two highly competitive league titans like Eddie and Red Auerbach battled as they led rival franchises in close proximity.

After 15 mostly successful seasons in Philly as the Warriors, they won NBA titles in 1947 and 1956 and Gottlieb was approached to re-locate the franchise westward in an effort to expand the NBA.

Following the move of the New York-based Dodgers and Giants of baseball to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1958, Gottlieb selflessly sent his Warriors team to San Francisco to help grow the burgeoning league and take advantage of the rapid post-WWII population explosion of California.

A year later the former Syracuse Nationals quickly moved into the big, vacated and hoops-mad Philly market to fill the void. Thus the Nats became the 76ers in 1963. The Lakers had already left Minneapolis for the richer pastures of Los Angeles in 1959 after winning five NBA titles from 1949-54, blazing the trail for the westward trek that followed.

Gottlieb, known as “The Mogul” went on to head the NBA rules committee for 25 years, and serve as its sole schedule-maker for 30 years. Eddie and Auerbach were two of the foundational pillars on which the NBA was built.

The NBA Rookie of the Year award is named after Gottlieb, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1898. Auerbach’s father hailed from Minsk, Belarus, descended from a long line of rabbis. Red was born and raised in Brooklyn; the NBA Coach of the Year award is named after Auerbach.

Gottlieb’s organizational acumen was so instrumental to the early NBA that New York columnist Mike Lupica wrote in an eulogy that the running joke at the time was if Eddie had died in a car wreck, the league would not have survived either.

”Gottlieb was about as important to the game of basketball as the basketball,” fellow SPHA Hall of Famer and Temple head coach Harry Litwack once said.

Nine years after moving to “the City”, the Warriors again moved. This time in 1971 it was a short hop across the bay instead of a cross-country re-location.

The Warriors were renamed Golden State (Golden Bay might have been a better name), although they have played mostly in Oakland and some in San Francisco since then. The renovated and oft-renamed Oracle Arena in Oakland has been their primary home since 1971, and is the oldest arena in the NBA, having opened in 1966.

The billion-dollar Chase Center, the new Warriors home under construction back across the bay in San Francisco, is set to open and replace the aged Oracle for the 2019-20 season.

By comparison, the Celtics also were housed in the league’s oldest arena, the 1928-built Boston Garden, until 1995. They have played in the TD Bank Garden since then.

Only once since the westward move have Boston and the Warriors met in the playoffs in the NBA Finals. The two former Eastern foes were one game away from renewing that rivalry 54 years later in 2018, but maybe it will take place in 2019 with the return of injured Celtic stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving.

Post-season Celtics/Warriors series history: Celtics 4, Warriors 0.

Playoff W-L record: Boston 16, Warriors 7 (12-6 vs. Philadelphia Warriors; 4-1 vs. San Francisco Warriors)

Boston vs. Philadelphia Warriors playoff history: (1958-62, 3-0)

Hall of Fame big men Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Neil Johnston headlined this early east coast rivalry, along with high-scoring 6’5 jump-shooter Paul Arizin and flashy playmaker Bob Cousy.

The first Boston/Philly rivalry featured three Eastern Finals showdowns in a five-year span, all won by the Celtics.

In 1958, Boston beat Philly 4-1 after copping the first three games easily. Sharpshooting guard Bill Sharman led balanced Boston with 20.8 points per game as five Celtics averaged between 15 and 21 ppg in the series.

Russell yanked down an amazing 28.8 rebounds per contest in the five-game series.

NBA’s 50 Greatest player and Philly forward Arizin, one of the first great jump shooters and hang-time artists, led the Warriors with 24 ppg.

Johnston was a slender 6-9 hook-shooting center who led the NBA in scoring three straight seasons from 1953-55. But Russell’s suffocating defense helped limit him to 13.2 points and 9.6 rebounds a game in the 1958 eastern finals.

A year later, Johnston was forced to retire due to a severe knee injury at just age 29. So highly-regarded was he that when the NBA named its Silver Anniversary all-time team (limited to retired players) in 1970, Johnston was on the 10-man squad along with teammate Arizin and Celtic legends Russell, Cousy and Sharman.

Johnston also led the NBA in field goal shooting accuracy three times, foul shot attempts and makes thrice, minutes played twice and rebounds once.

Tom Gola, a versatile 6-6 star for the Warriors who led LaSalle to the 1954 NCAA title, averaged 14 points, 10 rebounds and nearly four assists in the series. Yet another Philly native, Gola’s hometown roots added to the rivalry’s intensity.

In 1960, the recently-retired Johnston took over as coach of Philly and led the Warriors to a 49-26 record, second only to the 59-16 Celtics.

Rookie league MVP Chamberlain and All-Star Arizin (both Philadelphia natives) combined for over 69 ppg as the Warriors edged Syracuse 2-1 in the first round.

But Boston went on to beat the Warriors 4-2 in a tough eastern finals. The Celtics led 3-1 before a 128-107 Warrior game five rout led by 50 points from rookie phenom Wilt.

Yet Boston rebounded to edge Philly 119-117 in the game six clincher as Russell neutralized Wilt, scoring 25 points with 25 boards compared to 26 points and 24 caroms by Wilt.

Underrated forward Tom Heinsohn led five Celtics in double digits with 21.2 ppg. Chamberlain topped everyone with 30.5 ppg, followed by Arizin with 24.2. Russell and Wilt each snagged 27 rebounds a game in the series.

The year 1962 marked the final season for the Warriors in Philly as they moved west to San Francisco after the campaign ended. Boston (60-20) finished 11 games ahead of second-place Philadelphia (49-31) in the regular season.

Former NCAA champion coach Frank McGuire, whose North Carolina team beat Wilt and Kansas in the 1957 title game in triple overtime, took over as coach from Johnston.

Incidentally, at the time the Warrior logo was a politically-incorrect Indian smiling and dribbling a basketball. In another stereotype, the Celtic logo at the time also featured a green-clad Irish man jumping up and down presumably in protest, shillelagh in hand and pipe in mouth.

Native son Arizin, a college star at Villanova and a Hall of Famer, retired at age 34 after the season rather than move west even though he had a few good years left. In his last campaign, the two-time NBA scoring champ still averaged 21.9 ppg and made his 10th All-Star Game.

This was also the season Wilt Chamberlain hit for 100 points against the Knicks abd averaged over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game under McGuire. Amazingly, he also averaged over 48 minutes per game in 1961-62 due to overtimes and rarely sitting out.

Thus the stage was set for a tough battle, and the Celtics and Warriors capped their fierce rivalry with a seven-game thriller in the 1962 eastern finals. The clubs alternated wins through six games for a 3-3 tie heading back to the Boston Garden for the decider.

In a classic barnburner, Boston rallied from a 56-52 halftime deficit to win 109-107 and return to the Finals for a sixth straight year. Unfortunately, no known footage remains of this epic series.

Clutch guard Sam Jones scored 28 to lead Boston, with Heinsohn netting 25, Bob Cousy 21 and Russell 19.

Tom Meschery of the Warriors, a power forward born in Russia, tallied 32 points to lead all players. Wilt scored 22 and Arizin tallied 19 in his final NBA game.

Heinsohn (22.1), Russell (22.0) and Jones (19.0) led a typically well-balanced Boston offense. Wilt topped all players with 33.6 ppg, with Meschery (21.6) and Arizin (20.3) contributing big points too.

Two years later the once-close rivals, now separated on oppositte sides of the continent, would meet again in the NBA championship series.

1964 NBA Finals: Celtics take down the first Twin Towers

Boston 4, San Francisco Warriors 1

The only Finals battle between the former Eastern rivals came in 1964, shortly after the Warriors moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco. In their first season out west, SF struggled without the retired Arizin.

Despite 44.8 points and 24.3 rebounds per game by Wilt, the Warriors were just 31-49 and missed the playoffs. Meanwhile, Boston beat the Lakers 4-2 to capture their fourth title in a row.

The next season under new coach Alex Hannum, the Warriors improved to 48-32 and knocked off the St. Louis Hawks 4-3 in the western finals to reach the NBA title round against the 59-21 Celtics.

The crafty Hannum had the distinction of being the only man other than Auerbach to coach a team to the NBA title during Russell’s 11 titles in 13-seasons run of dominance from 1956-69.

Hannum’s 1958 St. Louis Hawks, led by Bob Pettit, beat Boston in the Finals 4-2, and then the Celtics went on to reel off eight straight titles.

Later on in Philadelphia and reunited with Wilt, Hannum and the 1967 76ers ended the record Boston title run by beating the Celts in the eastern finals.

They then beat second-year NBA scoring champion Rick Barry and the Warriors in the Finals, 4-2. Ironically, the 1966-67 season marked the first time in Wilt’s career that he did NOT win the scoring title. But playing a better all-around brand of basketball, he won his first NBA title instead.

So Hannum, perhaps better than anyone, knew how to potentially beat Boston. The former NBA forward also had the distinction of being the only player Russell ever slugged in a game. Apparently he thought the best way to beat the Celtics was with size and muscle.

The 1963-64 season was a transitional one for the Celtics. It was the first campaign for Boston since 1950 without legendary playmaker Bob Cousy running the show and leading their devastating fast break.

The uber-popular Cooz retired in 1963 after clinching his fifth ring at LA over the Lakers after heroically returning from a sprained ankle to help lead the game six clincher in his swansong. So well-regarded was Cousy that he received a standing ovation from the Laker fans in LA.

Fast forward 20 years later and it’s hard to imagine Larry Bird or Kevin McHale receiving such a warm send-off in Los Angeles.

Trying to fill Cousy’s giant shoes in 1963 was K.C. Jones, a great defender and smart ballhandler who was not nearly the scorer or creative passer Cousy was. The quiet yet tenacious Jones was such a well-regarded athlete that he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams as a potential defensive back.

With K.C. in for Cousy, the Celtics were not as prolific offensively but they still scored 113 ppg (down from 118.8 in 1963). Yet they were better defensively, and they still boasted a number of Hall of Famers more than capable of carrying the offensive load.

Without Cousy the “Green Machine” still steamrolled the Cincinnati Royals, led by superstars Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas, 4-1 in the eastern finals to reach their eight consecutive NBA championship series.

This time instead of taking on the two-headed monster of Laker superstars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor for a third straight time, the Celtics had to face an imposing two-headed monster inside in the Finals.

The Warriors boasted probably the first true Twin Tower alignment in NBA annals in established superstar Wilt Chamberlain and rookie Nate Thurmond, two future Hall of Fame centers.

The Warriors featured a huge frontline with the 7-1 Wilt, 6-11 Thurmond and burly 6-7 forward Meschery, who was also well-known as a poet. Another 6-9 post, Wayne Hightower, averaged 13.2 ppg as a part-time starter.

But the faster and more athletic Celtics were able to beat the bigger Warriors rather convincingly with a devastating fast break, superior shooting, defense and championship experience.

Thurmond, who later blossomed into a star center after Wilt was traded to the 76ers, was a bit out of his element at forward. He averaged 10 points and 12.3 rebounds in a dozen playoff games, while Wilt poured in 34.7 ppg and grabbed 25.2 caroms during the 1964 post-season.

On the other hand, Russell averaged 27.2 rebounds and 13.1 ppg in the 1964 post-season. Sam Jones led Boston with 23.2 ppg in 10 playoff outings. Heinsohn contributed 17.4 ppg and Havlicek added 15.7 ppg as sixth man.

In the Finals, Boston won the first two games at home rather easily. Russell snagged 25 boards while Sam Jones and Hondo each poured in 28 points during a 108-96 win. A 32-15 second period catapulted the Celtics to the opening victory.

In game two, homestanding Boston raced to a 19-point halftime lead and ballooned it to 30 at 98-68 before cruising to a 124-101 victory.

Wilt scored 32 points and pulled down 25 boards, and Meschery added 24 and 10. But Sam Jones netted 31 points, Russell yanked down 24 boards and Heinsohn added 20 points to pace the victors.

Just when the series looked like a blowout, San Francisco made a series of it with a 115-91 win out on the west coast in game three.

SF shot to a 67-43 halftime bulge and held that margin to win by 24. Hondo scored 22 and Willie Naulls added 18. But Chamberlain netted 35 with 25 rebounds.

Meschery scored 17 of his 21 points in a first-period barrage. He also grabbed seven boards while Thurmond added 14 and 11. Quick southpaw point guard Guy Rodgers added 10 points and seven assists.

Thus the pivotal contest of the series was game four in San Francisco. A Warrior win would mean a brand new series at 2-2, while a Celtic victory would mean a commanding 3-1 lead heading back to Boston for a likely close-out win for the defending champions.

It turned out to be the closest and most dramatic game of the Finals, refereed by legendary officials Mendy Rudolph and Norm Drucker. Buoyed by a raucous record crowd of 14,862 at the Cow Palace, the hosts ran out to a 24-17 first period lead.

Courtesy of NBA TV replays and Youtube, the second half of this rare time capsule gem from over five decades ago is available to watch and study for hoop historians.

Boston trailed by as many as 10 in the first half before they edged within 44-40 at halftime. They then took the lead with a 36-20 third period blitz behind the offensive heroics of Heinsohn.

Wilt, shooting underhanded free throws a la future Warrior superstar Barry, air-balled a foul shot early in the second half.

But his patented baseline finger roll made it 48-42. Russell muscled in from the left baseline for a layup over the Big Dipper that rolled in.

Heinsohn then poked the ball away from a Warriro dribbler, and Sanders snared the loose sphere. The gangly Sanders then glided downcourt for a fine driving layup to cut the deficit to two.

However, Chamberlain scored inside and drew Russell’s third foul in the process. But his granny foul shot missed badly, his fourth such misfire in as many tries. Then came a classic meeting at the summit by the two all-time superstar rival big men.

Chamberlain snagged a miss by Rodgers and soared high for a dunk that was blocked by Russell - yet Wilt powered it through the hoop on the follow through over the defensive ace.

The Celtics took their first lead at 54-52 when Heinsohn converted a pretty three-point fast break drive. A pretty tip-in by “Tommy Gun” made it 56-53. Sam Jones stole the ball and drove in for a three-point play and a six-point margin.

A 17-foot Heinsohn jumper made it 61-55. Later a 10-foot pull-up jumper from the left side by “Ack-Ack” Heinsohn extended the margin to 65-56.

Wilt canned two foul shots to stop the game-changing 19-6 Celtic spurt. A gorgeous running hook from nine feet by Heinsohn again put the Celts up by nine. Tom then nailed yet another running hook as he swooped across the lane to make it 69-58.

”I’ve always felt that Heinsohn was a fine clutch shooter,” said TV analyst Fred Schaus, who had coached the Lakers in their Finals losses to Boston in 1962 and 1963.

After a Russell rebound and quick outlet pass, Havlicek then fed Heinsohn on the fast break for a pretty reverse layup and a 71-60 lead.

A tip-in by “Johnny” Havlicek, as legendary NBA play-by-play announcer Marty Glickman called him, made the margin 13 as Heinsohn took a well-earned breather. As late as 1973, Havlicek was still called Johnny, a nod to his youthful, innocent appearance and high-energy style of play.

Tenth-year veteran Ramsey rimmed in an 18-footer from the circle before Wilt scored inside to cut it to 75-62. Another Dipper basket inside sliced the lead to 11.

After scoring just 40 points in the entire first half, Boston exploded for 36 in the third quarter alone. Heinsohn scored 14 of his 25 points in the big quarter.

The Warriors put on a frantic rally in the fourth quarter, however. A Ramsey foul shot made it 78-66 with 10:25 remaining.

The speedy Rodgers, who could only go left, sank a tough drive yet Havlicek’s outside sht hung on the rim before finally dropping through for an 81-69 margin.

A three-point possession by Rodgers cut the lead to nine. Attles fouled out trying to gaurd Hondo, who hit one of two free throws.

Havlicek then made an incredibly athletic fast break drive that left Hannum mouthing an expletive on the bench in disbelief at the basket. The move would fit right in with today’s creative, high-flying style of play.

Hondo took a pass on the right wing, drove and jumped, double pumping in midair before scooping a layup high into the air that dropped cleanly through the net.

A Wilt free toss after Russell was whistled for his fifth foul, followed by a Meschery 15-footer, sliced the lead to 84-75 with 7:11 remaining.

Sam Jones answered with an outside jumper of his own and Boston inched ahead 90-79. Gary Phillips drained a 14-footer from the right baseline to get within 90-81.

Russell splashed a free throw and then Wilt tap-dunked in a driving Rodgers miss. Thurmond, the 6-11 rookie from Bowling Green hit a foul shot to pull within seven.

The lanky Sanders blocked a Phillips runner with four minutes left, and Havlicek canned a free throw for a 92-84 cushion. Rodgers pushed the ball up fast and banked in a shot.

Meschery missed a crucial fast break layin, and Wilt missed an alley-oop tip try as the home crowd was ready to explode. “This is the most exciting game maybe ever played in San Francisco,” gushed Glickman, a former Olympic sprinter at the 1936 Berlin Games.

Rodgers split a pair of foul shots to cut it to 92-87. After a Bosotn miss, Wilt tapped in a Rodgers miss to inch the Warriors within three.

Havlicek hustled down a key offensive rebound, but Heinsohn missed a hook shot. Rodgers was fouled on a drive and made two charity stripers to creep within 92-91 with 1:45 left to play.

Boston scored and then Russell clevelry batted a loose ball out of bounds of Rodgers. Heinsohn then drove to his right across the lane, drew two defenders and appeared ready to shoot as left his feet.

But as Wilt jumped to help defend his expected hook shot, Heinsohn dropped a perfect pass to his left back to an unguarded Russell, whose uncontested stuff shot made it 96-91. The superb assist by Heinsohn, often derided as a no-conscience gunner, was the backbreaking play of the game.

Phillips came back quickly and hit a jumper from 16 feet off the right baseline to make it 96-93 with 45 ticks to go. Ramsey missed a jumper, Wilt rebounded and out-ketted to Rodgers.

The quick lefty side-stepped Sam Jones and laid in a pretty drive to make it 96-95 as the crowd roared to life. But Bosotn struck right back. Ramsey quickly in-bounded to Sam Jones, who threw ahead to a wide-open Havlicek.

Hondo was fouled on a driving reverse layup with 16 seconds left, and he showed his clutch mettle even then as a young pro. He hit the first shot, and his second try bounced around and in for a three-point lead - a key advantage in the pre-three-point shot era.

Rodgers doubled over under the hoop after the second make, acutely aware of the Warrior predicament. Ironically, the fledgling American Basketball League had instituted a three-point shot for 25-footers in 1962, but the league died after just 1.5 seasons.

But no such potental tying shot existed then for the Warriros in the years before they had super-shooters like Rick Barry, Chris Mullin, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.

After a timeout, Meschery airballed a wild hook shot, and K.C. Jones rebounded the miss. Russell was fouled, and he air-balled his first foul shot try well short of the rim. He caught iron on the second free throw, but it also missed.

The Warriors rebounded and a 40-footer by reserve George Lee at the buzzer almost went in but caromed off the iron at the buzzer.

Boston led 3-1, and the series was all but over. For it would be 52 years before a team came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals for the first time - ironically accomplished against the Warriors by the Cavaliers in 2016.

On the strength of his third period outburst, Heinsohn led the Celtics with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Sharpshooting guard Sam Jones added 23 markers. Havlicek contributed 18 points off the bench, while Sanders scored a dozen and Russell pulled down 18 rebounds.

Wilt yanked down a whopping 38 rebounds and scored 27 points. Thurmond compiled 13 points and 15 caroms. Rodgers netted a series-best 23 points with six assists. Meschery added 12 points and Gary Phillips netted 10.

Back home at the Gah-den for game five, the Celtic title clincher was close all the way. Boston led 45-41 at intermission and 74-71 after three periods.

The Celtics hung on for a 105-99 victory to hang banner number seven overall, and win their sixth championship in a row.

Chamberlain poured in 30 points and pulled down 27 rebounds, and Rodgers added 19 points with seven assists. Future Warriors 1975 title-winning coach Al Attles (known as a physical defensive guard) netted 11 points, while Thurmond scored 11 and grabbed 14 caroms.

The clutch Heinsohn topped Boston with 19 points and eight boards. Sam Jones and veteran Ramsey each tallied 18 markers. Russell scored 14, pulled down 26 rebounds and doled out six assists.

Havlicek scored 14 points while Sanders contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds.

For the series, six Celtics averaged double figures, with another scoring over eight ppg. Sam Jones led the balanced Boston attack with 21.2 ppg, while second-year sixth man extraordinaire Johnny Havlicek (as he was called then) poured in 18/4 ppg.

Heinsohn contributed 15 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, with Russell tallyng 11.2 ppg - along with a whopping 25.2 rebounds and five assists per contest, both team highs.

Sanders and Willie Naulls each averaged 10 ppg, while veteran swingman Frank amsey added 8.2 per outing.

Wilt led all players with averages of 29.2 points and 27.6 rebounds per game in the series. But he only made 22 of 53 free throws in the series (41.5%).

Meschery contributed 16.4 ppg in the Finals, while Thurmond added 11.2 points and 13 caroms per contest.

Boston averaged 105.2 ppg on 41 percent field goal shooting, while the Warriors scored 101.1 ppg on just 39 percent accuracy. Other than Wilt and Meschery, the other Warriors combined to shoot under 35 percent from the floor.

The Celtics could roll out an all-defense lineup led by Russell, Havlicek, K.C. Jones and Sanders, all defensive aces.

Ultimately superior balance, depth, playoff experience and skill led Boston over the Warriors in 1964.

Seeing how far Boston advanced in 2018 wthout its two best players, one can foresee a similar outcome to 1964 in 2019 with the healthy return of Irving and Hayward.

Adding the talented duo to a solid group desperately hungry to avenge a second straight eastern finals loss could very well lead to Boston hanging banner number 18 in ‘19.

If you wish to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at