Outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, a 26-year-old minister named Jesse Jackson was leading a rehearsal of gospel songs by members of his Operation Breadbasket. Near the end of the rehearsal, one of its participants, Rev. Billy Kyles, left to go knock at Room 306. Its famous guest was a man prone to lateness and his presence was expected at a six o’clock dinner before a mass meeting later that night. Kyles was hoping to ensure that he would be on time for both events.
When Kyles entered the room, he was greeted by Ralph Abernathy, who asked Kyles to play at his upcoming revival. Kyles demurred before Abernathy’s best friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., began to tease him about his wife’s cooking abilities. King walked across the room to the balcony, where he looked down at the parking lot below. He saw Jackson walking out of the room where he had been leading the rehearsal just minutes before, prompting King to extend an invitation to dinner. Kyles assured King that Jackson had already been invited before Jackson called up to King, asking him if he remembered Ben Branch, the lead saxophonist of Breadbasket, who was standing beside him in the parking lot.
“Oh yes, he’s my man. How are you, Ben?” King greeted him before making a request: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Branch agreed and a shot rang out.
Chet Walker of the Philadelphia 76ers heard the news in his Philadelphia home. He sat, listening to news reports on the radio, unable to sleep until three in the morning. The start of the 1968 Eastern Division Finals — what has been called the Eastern Conference Finals since 1971 — against the Boston Celtics, set to begin the next night, was not on his mind. Across town, his teammate Hal Greer heard of the assassination while having dinner with his wife. “There’s no way possible we’ll play,” he told her.
Bill Russell, the Celtics’ star player and head coach, was in a state of shock after hearing about King’s death in his Reading home. That night, he could not sleep, telling reporters the next day that he just sat around for five hours before he could think of anything else. There was much that King advocated that Russell did not agree with, most notably his philosophy of nonviolence, but he still had a tremendous amount of respect for him. He had been one of the 250,000 persons gathered in Washington when King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and had worked with the Boston chapter of the NAACP. In the Freedom Summer of 1964, at the invitation of Charles Evers, the brother of the recently assassinated Medgar Evers, Russell had gone to Mississippi to lead integrated basketball clinics.
Yet Russell found himself both inside and outside the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, participating in his own way, while also possessing a rage and pride that made him seem like no more than an angry militant to many. He was the rare figure who both admired King while also joking that he would join the Nation of Islam if it weren’t for the group’s prohibition against eating pork. He was an intelligent man who prized his own integrity far more than his allegiance to any group or organization. In 1963, he’d told reporters, “I’d have to be awful foolish to believe in what is known as ‘The American Dream.’” The assassination of King, tragically, proved many of Russell’s fears correct. Just days after King’s death, echoing what he’d said before, he told reporters, “Stuff that I said ten years ago, that everybody dismissed as an angry Negro talking, is coming out today.”
The next morning, Walker arose, having heard from no one in the 76ers organization regarding that night’s game. He called Greer, who was as clueless about what was going on that night as he was. When Walker went to the arena that night, it was foggy and he half-hoped no one else would show up, that the thousands of expected spectators would choose to honor Dr. King’s memory instead of watching a basketball.
That afternoon, Russell called Wilt Chamberlain and they talked about what to do. Both players wanted the game to be postponed, but realized there was little they could do to make that happen. Also, there was concern from both players and management that there would be unrest and potential rioting if the game was cancelled, giving thousands of would-be spectators, in addition to those who would have been listening on the radio, no other way to spend their evening. Before the Celtics flew to Philadelphia for Game 1, Auerbach called a meeting where, together, they chose to play the next night, which provided the Celtics with a sense of unity in a moment of great uncertainty.
Chamberlain was quoted in an afternoon paper as saying he would like to see the “whole day taken off as some kind of memorial to Dr. King,” and also called Sixers GM Jack Ramsay to make his thoughts known. Ramsay did not agree with Chamberlain, pointing out that thousands of tickets had already been sold, and invoked the players’ contractual obligation to play. He made it quite clear that, in spite of the assassination, the game would be played.
When the Sixers arrived at the Spectrum, they were in a daze, disjointed. Chamberlain in particular was frustrated. He was not only saddened by King’s death, but unhappy with Ramsay’s remarks to him that afternoon and the fact the 76ers had not met as a team to discuss what to do as the Celtics had. Twenty minutes before tip-off, Wilt took matters into his own hands, ordering everyone but his teammates out of the locker room where he said they were going to put the matter to a vote. There was not much to discuss, though. It was far too late to postpone the game even though no one was in the mood to play. The final vote was seven to two in favor of playing, with Chamberlain and Wali Jones the only two to vote against participating in Game 1. Chet Walker, meanwhile, abstained, finding the meeting and the vote meaningless, calling it a “dreary charade.”
Entering the playoffs, the 76ers had been the favorites to win the title. After all, they were the defending champions and, for the third straight year, had the league’s best record. Accordingly, the 76ers dispatched the up and coming New York Knicks in six games in the opening round.
While the Sixers had their hands full with the Knicks, the Boston Celtics were playing the Detroit Pistons, who they also defeated in six games — winning three straight to close out the series after falling behind 2-1. Their victory set up a rematch of the previous year’s Eastern Division Finals. It was the fourth year in a row the Celtics and the Sixers would meet for a chance to go to the NBA Finals. The Celtics had taken two of the previous three, but had lost the most recent matchup the year before, their first year failing to win the championship since 1958, when Red Auerbach was still their coach and Bill Russell only in his second season of a long career.
Entering the 1967-68 season, Bill Russell was beginning his second season as head coach of the Boston Celtics, but his becoming coach of the Celtics was not a straightforward or easy decision for anyone involved. Two years before, in the summer of 1965, Red Auerbach announced that he would retire following the 1965-66 season, offering his rivals in the league one final opportunity to defeat his Celtics and prevent him from retiring as the eight-time defending World Champion. It was an opportunity that no one was able to capitalize on as the Celtics won their eighth consecutive championship, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1966 NBA Finals. It was after game one of that series that Auerbach revealed his successor: Bill Russell.
Auerbach was wary of bringing in an outsider, fearful they would disrupt the Celtics’ winning tradition, trying to shift attitudes and styles of play that did not need shifting, and so he reached out to three recently retired Celtics to gauge their interest in the job. First, there was Frank Ramsey, the archetypal sixth man, who had retired in 1964 and was living in Kentucky. Ramsey said he would be an interim coach but no more due to the lucrative nature of his post-playing career.
Next, Auerbach called Bob Cousy, who was currently the head coach of Boston College. Cousy, however, was wary of coaching his former teammates and was also concerned that taking a pro job may be too anxiety inducing. Finally, he called Tommy Heinsohn, who plainly told Auerbach that he was not convinced he could handle Russell, or really, that anyone could considering both how prideful he was and how irreplaceable he was to the Celtics. Finally, Heinsohn asked Auerbach, “Why don’t you make Russell the coach? He’s got so much damn pride he’ll handle himself.”
Initially, Russell resisted Auerbach’s retirement, and according to Red, Russell even called his wife, asking her how to convince Red to unretire so he wouldn’t have to play for a new coach. Auerbach, set on retiring, stood by his decision, but did tell Russell that he would not hire anybody to coach the Celtics without his approval. Red proposed that both he and Russell come up with a list of five potential coaches and that they would discuss the possibility of hiring anyone whose name was on both lists, but on their respective lists, there was no overlap.
Finally, Auerbach broached the subject of Russell coaching the team. At first, Russell thought it was a joke, but eventually he decided that he wanted the job. There were several reasons for his change of heart, but primary among them was hearing from black players throughout the league who were forced to deal with coaches with racist tendencies. Russell would have refused to play for such a coach and knew that he could avoid such a situation by becoming the coach himself. Also, Russell realized that he had placed Auerbach in an untenable position, leading him to call Auerbach, telling him, “Okay, Red. I’ll take the job.”
With his hiring, Russell became the first black coach in any of the major professional sports leagues, a fact that he claims did not cross his or Auerbach’s minds when discussing his potential hiring. Auerbach himself claimed that race had played no role in their decision making, and that if it had played any role in his thinking, he wouldn’t have offered Russell the job and Russell wouldn’t have accepted anyway. As Russell said, “I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro, I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.” Nevertheless, Russell did acknowledge its significance, calling it “part of the thing [Jackie] Robinson did… It is part of the same story. Now maybe there will be some more Negro coaches and managers in sports.”
In the 1966-67 season, Russell’s first as head coach, he struggled at times to balance his responsibilities as both player and coach. In the Celtics’ first game against the San Francisco Warriors, Russell forgot to ever sub out K.C. Jones, inadvertently forcing him to play all 48 minutes. It was a change of pace to have to consider the psyches of every player rather than just his own, but there was a valuable sense of continuity that Russell brought to the Celtics, keeping Auerbach’s standard six plays from his tenure as coach while also maintaining the sense of Celtic pride and winning atmosphere that had defined the team for so long. As coach, Russell made things easy for the Celtics’ most important player: himself. While his teammates would practice, the practice-averse Russell would often sit on the sidelines, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. None of his teammates could reasonably complain about the five-time MVP and nine-time champion, though, since his pedigree was impeccable, as was his effort in the games themselves.
And so the 1968 Eastern Division Finals began as scheduled the evening of April 5. It was a bizarre game, overshadowed and haunted by the tragic event of the day before. Leonard Koppett, who covered the game for the New York Times later described it as “the eeriest, most subdued sporting event I’ve ever seen.” Nevertheless, the game went on and the Celtics handily defeated the 76ers, who were unable to focus on the game, lost in confusion and disunity, with the team’s indecision on whether or not to play being seen in their performance, according to Chet Walker. While the united spirit of the Celtics certainly gave the team an advantage against the more scattered and desultory 76ers, the fact that Boston shot nearly 58 percent from the field, while Philadelphia missed more than half of their 45 free throws certainly did not help Philadelphia’s chances.
Sunday’s Game 2 was delayed in honor of Dr. King, and on April 9, both Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were in Atlanta where they attended his funeral. The series resumed on April 10, with the 76ers winning the second game in Philadelphia. Despite shooting worse than the Celtics, the 76ers took 16 more shots, which proved decisive. It was a similar story in game three as Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker, and Johnny Green controlled the boards, earning 50 rebounds between the three of them, again helping the 76ers win and take the series lead. They were also helped by a clutch scoring streak from Hal Greer, who scored 21 points in the fourth quarter alone. In Game 4, the only game of the series to be nationally televised, the 76ers fought to ensure the Celtics would not tie the series, playing a tight rotation of only seven players, four of whom scored 20 points that night. It was a close game, but Philadelphia still pulled it out, winning by five.
Following Game 4, which the Celtics lost at home to go down 3-1 in the series, Cliff Keane, a columnist for the Boston Globe, told Wayne Embry and Havlicek that they might as well have the floor taken up: “It won’t be needed until next year.” It was an understandable sentiment, but one that stuck with Wayne Embry, making him all the more eager to defeat the 76ers and prove that those celebrating the demise of the Celtics were wrong.
The Celtics were down 3-1, facing a season ending without a championship for the second year in a row. No team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Playoffs before, and considering the 76ers’ talent, and the Celtics’ age, there were few reasons to expect Boston to become the first.
Despite the Celtics’ three-game losing streak, Russell did not change his demeanor. He did not give impassioned speeches to his players, but chose instead to focus on reasserting the fundamentals. Including himself, Boston had six former champions on their roster, accounting for 31 titles between them. He knew that his team was made up of champions, veterans who knew what it took to win and would not cower in the face of adversity. Before Game 5, he told his players that he was not eager to go home now after they had come so far. Joking with Don Nelson, who hailed from Moline, Illinois, he quipped, “Don, you don’t want to back to Moline yet, do you?”
That same night, Wayne Embry and John Havlicek walked into the Celtics locker room together. There was a blackboard, and on it, they wrote in large letters, the words, “Pride” and “Determination.” Also, they added a small dollar sign in order to remind their teammates the financial stakes at play because in a league where players made tens of thousands instead of millions, each player’s share of the championship money mattered a lot. In that crucial, season-saving game, Havlicek and Sam Jones shined, combining for more than half of the Celtics’ 122 points. They were also helped by an extended slump from the Sixers in the fourth quarter during which they only made 2-of-20 field goal attempts, allowing the Celtics to stave off elimination for at least one more game.
In Game 6, the Celtics decided to lure Chamberlain away from the basket through repeated use of the pick-and-roll. This frustrated Wilt, who hated having to stray away from the low post defensively. Once Wilt got five fouls, Russell began to drive to the basket more, well aware of Wilt’s odd commitment to never foul out of a game. In addition to his 17 points, Russell also out-rebounded Chamberlain, helping lead the Celtics to a 114-106 victory, tying the series at three games apiece, setting up a Game 7 in Philadelphia.
Before Game 7, Russell came to Wayne Embry with a coaching idea that helped tip the series in the Celtics’ favor, a decision that Embry called “one of the most impressive coaching decisions Russ ever made.” Modifying a strategy they had tried in Game 4 that had backfired, Russell told Embry that he should guard Wilt. However, there was good reason for trying it again as this decision had a twofold effect. Firstly, it forced Wilt to contend with Embry, who was a larger physical presence than Russell, who normally guarded Chamberlain. Secondly, this put Bill Russell on Chet Walker, the Sixers forward who was averaging over 20 points per game in the series thus far.
As Russell told Embry, “Chet’s never had anyone like me guard him before.” Unsurprisingly, Walker shot poorly that night, going just 8-for-22. Hal Greer and Wali Jones offered little help themselves combining to shoot just 16-of-47. It was in a game like this, where the Sixers struggled to reliably score, that they particularly missed their sixth man, Billy Cunningham, who had broken his wrist in the series against the Knicks, ending his season. The Celtics also ran the pick-and-roll over and over again, freeing up Sam Jones and John Havlicek for open jumpers as Wilt again showed himself reluctant to leave the paint and cover the shooters who had been freed by Embry’s picks. Alex Hannum screamed from the sidelines for Wilt to switch, but to no avail as Jones, Havlicek, and point guard Larry Siegfried combined for 61 points.
More strangely, though, on a night the 76ers struggled to score, Chamberlain played an extremely passive game offensively. For whatever reason, Chamberlain only attempted two field goals in the second half, never asserting himself the way he had in so many games before, when he had shown himself to be perhaps the most dominant scorer in basketball history.
Nevertheless, the game was close down to the final minute. Near the end of the fourth quarter, with the Sixers down by two, Chet Walker drove on Don Nelson, shooting from a few feet out. The ball bounced on the rim three times before Russell grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Chamberlain with 34 seconds remaining. Russell, who would end up playing all 48 minutes that night, was beyond fatigued and missed the first free throw. Sam Jones approached him, and offered a bit of practical advice: “Flex your knees, Bill.” With Russell presumably flexing his knees the proper amount, he hit the second shot. On the other end, Chet Walker had his shot blocked by Russell. Greer then missed a follow up, which was grabbed by Russell, helping clinch the game, and the series, for the Celtics. After a one year absence, they were going to the NBA Finals yet again.
After the Celtics’ comeback against the 76ers, their defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers in six games seemed preordained, especially considering that this was their sixth matchup against the Lakers in the Finals in the last ten years, all of which had been won by Boston. Following their 15-point victory in Game 6 — which gave the team its tenth title in twelve seasons — instead of raucously celebrating together, the Celtics withdrew to the locker room where Russell removed everyone who was not one of his teammates. Once the team was alone, he asked Bailey Howell to lead the team in prayer. Russell was not a particularly religious man, but he took this moment to unite his team, acknowledging the bond that they had as Celtics — both black and white. It had been less than a month since Dr. King’s assassination and while the dream he so passionately proclaimed in August 1963 had not been fully incarnated, this was perhaps a version of it in microcosm — a world where black and white men were able to hold hands in the solemnity of prayer after achieving a common goal, a world where a black coach could be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.
That season, Russell had been fighting not just for the concreteness of a 10th championship banner for the Celtics, but also striving for a more symbolic achievement — becoming the first black coach to win a championship in professional sports. Yet this was not something Russell necessarily strove for. While Russell’s race was much commented upon by journalists upon his hiring, none within the Celtics organization seemed to pay much mind to it, simply agreeing that the hiring made sense. It was not a false colorblindness that led to this attitude, but a genuine belief that Russell was the right choice and that was that. When it came to becoming the first black coach to win a title, “Russ took it in stride,” according to teammate Wayne Embry. “Of course he’s proud [of that achievement] but he was proud to win the championship all those other years as well.”
After Russell left the locker room, he considered his achievements and told reporters that “It’s been a long time since I had to prove anything to anybody.” He paused briefly, before saying five words that had been true ever since his entrance into the NBA and had defined his life and identity so fully that no one else could attempt to label him any other way without doing violence to him. “I know who I am.”
This article could not have been written without the work of several historians and players who also chronicled this era in history. Of particular use to me were Aram Goudsouzian’s King of the Court, John Taylor’s The Rivalry, Chet Walker’s Long Time Coming, Robert Cherry’s Wilt, Wayne Embry and Mary Schmitt Boyer’s The Inside Game, Bill Russell and Alan Steinberg’s Red and Me, and Taylor Branch’s At Cannan’s Edge. I am thankful to all of them and want to acknowledge my indebtedness.