Revising the Celtics Curse

J.M. Poulard —  September 29, 2011

The Los Angeles Lakers are by far one of the most prestigious franchises in all of professional sports. It’s one of the most expensive tickets in sports and all the celebrities come out to support the purple and gold, especially during the postseason. There are few teams that can match the level of appeal and fandom that typically comes with this team. Indeed, only the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers can truly comprehend what it’s like to be a Lakers player.

Indeed, (it seems) their fans are located everywhere and make it their business to travel to any and every venue to cheer on their team. This explains why a player such as Kobe Bryant will get MVP chants in places such as New York, Toronto and Boston to name just a few cities.

And truthfully, it’s rather easy to fall in love with this team given its rich history:

  • 16 NBA championships
  • 62.0% winning percentage
  • 129 All-Star selections
  • 18 players selected to the Hall of Fame
  • A slew of greats that can all be identified by one name: Mikan (Minneapolis), Elgin, West, Wilt, Goodrich, Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Shaq, Kobe and maybe one day Pau.
  • Three legendary head coaches: John Kundla, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
  • Legendary superstars throughout every decade in the franchise’s history (and by legendary superstars, we are talking about players that are considered to be in the top 20 all-time of great players in the history of the league).
  • Because they drive ratings, thus they are often on national television.

When we put all of those facts together, it’s easy to see why fans would gravitate towards the Lakers.

But then again, people down in Boston might have something to say about that, and they would probably be able to offer a few valid arguments; with the most poignant one being summed up in two words: Celtics Curse.

Indeed, there used to be a time when Lakers players and fans would get caught up in the history of the ghost of Celtics past. And frankly, it’s rather easy to see why. There used to be a time that Boston dominated Los Angeles every time they met in the NBA Finals. Some might say that “dominate” is a bit too strong of a word, but really it applies quite well. Have a look at the results of the Celtics-Lakers battles from 1959 to 1969:

  • 1959 NBA Finals: Boston defeat Los Angeles 4-0
  • 1962 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-3
  • 1963 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-2
  • 1965 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-1
  • 1966 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-3
  • 1968 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-2
  • 1969 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-3

Los Angeles finally broke through in 1972 and won the championship against the New York Knicks, with the Celtics no longer being a super power in the Eastern Conference. Fast forward to 1984 and it was Celtics versus Lakers all over again with Boston prevailing and people stating that the Celtics held a curse over the Lakers, after defeating them eight straight times in the championship round.

Many observers were of the opinion that history was doomed to repeat itself whenever these two teams faced off with the title on the line.

In reality, the curse had less to do with a franchise, and more to do with a person that eventually obtained a stature that seemed almost mythical: Bill Russell.

For years, people said that he was the greatest winner of all time and that his contributions on the basketball court transcended box scores. When watching interviews of players who spoke of the great Celtics center, they always showered him with praise and nothing but respect because they believed he was truly one of a kind as evidenced by his 11 championship rings.

And yet, in all honesty, for years I thought Russell was overrated. He struggled to score it seemed, shot an awkward hook shot and was often lit up by Chamberlain. In addition, players were probably unwise in constantly challenging him at the basket. Could so many players from varying eras have been wrong?

And then, some footage of those old Celtics teams was released and just like that it became clear: Bill Russell was a bad man.

No player in NBA history epitomized team play as much as the former Celtics center. His play simply revolved around elevating the performances of his teammates. Russell was an average scorer and thus he made sure that the players that were better at it than he was got their fair share of attempts. Thus, he would set screens, run give-and-go plays and feed open shooters from the post. He would occasionally take shots within the flow of the offense but more often than not his points came in the form of put backs.

Mind you, he might have been deferential on offense, but no one owned defense much like he did. Although Russell dominated the paint as well as the boards, he did an exceptional job of defending players out on the perimeter. Far too often, it seemed as though the left-handed center knew he could block a player’s shot, but that he picked and chose when he would go after it. Thus, early in the game he might allow his man to take a jump shot from about 10-12 feet, but later in the game he would come out to challenge and get a piece of the shot.

And as good as Russell was in one-on-one defense, he was exceptionally better as a help defender. He would meet players at the rim and either swat or alter their shots, which invariably created a sense of doubt amongst opponents whenever they entered the lane. In addition, when players sensed that center was waiting for them underneath the basket, they would at times stop just about inside the free throw line for a jumper or a floater type shot, but Russell would still catch a piece of it.

Needless to say, this made Russell quite an intimidator during his playing days, and yet there was more to his game; a psychological aspect if you will.

Between foul trouble and fatigue, it would be almost impossible for Russell to cover every inch of the court defensively. Consequently, he was very selective about when to chase down shots. Indeed, when watching those old Celtics play, there are times where other than rebounding the ball, he seems to be just an average tall player on the court. And yet, nothing was further from the truth.

Russell had the uncanny ability to create momentum all by himself.  He would get in a zone when he would go after every shot either at the rim or on the perimeter, block it and then throw the outlet pass to his guard for easy transition buckets. And just so we’re clear, the players that got the those fast break shots were Hall of Famers, thus we know they converted most of their opportunities.

The best modern comparison to the Celtics teams from the 1950s and 1960s would probably be the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns; except we would have to substitute Amare Stoudemire for Dwight Howard. The team would basically look like this:

-Steve Nash at point guard (playing the part of Bob Cousy)

-Joe Johnson at shooting guard (playing the role Bill Sharman and then later John Havlicek)

-Quentin Richardson at small forward (playing the part of a really young Sam Jones)

-Shawn Marion at power forward (playing the role of Tom Heinsohn)

-Dwight Howard at center (playing the part of Bill Russell)

Wouldn’t that Suns team be good enough to essentially put a curse on just about the rest of the NBA for a couple of years?

If we look at the rest of the history between the Lakers and Celtics, we will notice that the odds titled in favor of the purple and gold in recent years:

  • 1984 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-3
  • 1985 NBA Finals: Los Angeles defeats Boston 4-2
  • 1987 NBA Finals:  Los Angeles defeats Boston 4-2
  • 2008 NBA Finals: Boston defeats Los Angeles 4-2
  • 2010 NBA Finals: Los Angeles defeats Boston 4-3

For those of you scoring at home, ever since Bill Russell retired, the Lakers have won three out of five match ups against their hated rivals in the NBA Finals.

Magic and Kareem put on L.A. on the scoreboard in 1985 and once again in 1987; while Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol avenged a 2008 Finals loss against the Boston Celtics in the rematch in June 2010.

It seems that Los Angeles conquered its demons, but the truth is that there never was a curse to begin with. Just Bill Russell…

J.M. Poulard

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32 responses to Revising the Celtics Curse

  1. What a quality read. Thank you.

  2. Exactly. This is what I’ve been saying for years. There was never any Celtics curse; the Lakers just happened to run into the most dominant player of that era. It’s the exact same thing that happened in the 90s; when MJ was on the Bulls and had a full season under his belt, they won every single time. The only difference is that the Bulls faced multiple challengers. If anything, it’s admirable that those West-Baylor Lakers came out of the West so often, so consistently.

  3. Nothing irks me more then the dillusional love people have for Bill Russell. He was a 6-9 center who shot 44 percent from the field while being a non factor on half the floor. He was Ben Wallace with a team of hall of famers around him.

  4. I knew Aaron would hate this post.

  5. Russell plus a better team than Lakers (except 1969). That’s the true.

    They have the better team and played all that Finals (I must repeat, except 1969) with home court advantage.

    Lakers were Baylor (1959), then Baylor & West with some fellas (Did I mention, except 1969?)… againts a multi champion TEAM (OK, LA had Goodrich too in 1966 & 1968).

    Since the 80′s the history is very different

  6. You know things are bad when a blog devoted to the Lakers, celebrates a Celtic

  7. Teams are like empires whether the Greeks, Romans, Spanish, British and now American dynasties. They have highs and lows in their reigns. I observed once they become static and lethargic, a new energetic team takes over.

    I was a witness of Baylor, West and Chamberlain quest, they’re one of the best trio that played this game but the greatest achievement of that era really belongs to the Celtics. The spell was broken only in the mid 80′s when Lakers slammed them at their mythical Garden where leprechaun ghosts were always there at service for the Celtics. Nobody believes at these creatures in the 60′s, 70′s and early 80′s but there were just so many unexplained situations every time the Lakers play against the Celtics. Perhaps, the cockiest move of them of all, was the puffing of smokes of GM Red A. after every victory which was really painful to watch and and unforgettable sight for this Laker fan could bear.

  8. There were a couple of people (Craig W, another poster whose name I forgot) on the last thread (Baylor) who mentioned they had seen Baylor play. I was wondering if any of these people would mind commenting on Bill Russell, and what you saw in his play from watching him at that time.

    Are the numbers closer to the truth, or did he transcend those numbers? Is he really as legendary as some people say (in the same breath as Kareem, for example), Ben Wallace (as only Aaron says), or somewhere in between? Just wondering what some people who watched basketball in the 60s think.

  9. Interesting interview with Rick Adelman:

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/sam_amick/09/28/rick.adelman/index.html?eref=sihp&sct=hp_wr_a7

    If you read between the lines, it seems like some part of Adelman (surprisingly) didn’t want to deal with the huge expectations that come with being coach of the Lakers. He knows if he doesn’t win a ship here he’s considered a failure, and some of his quotes seem to suggest he was wary of that. I’d figured he was more of a competitor and would kill to have that good of a chance to win a title, so I’m a bit surprised.

  10. @9 – Thanks for linking the article about Adelman. I was also struck by the remarks about the Lakers position and thought there was some interesting reading between the lines about the discussions they had (he and Mitch and Jim Buss I would presume) about how the Lakers were moving very quickly and going in another direction. Also interesting was Adelman’s larger view (as expressed in this article) about coaching and wanting a level of control and involvement with personnel changes and with his staff. And, it may very well be that Lakers management was not looking to hire the kind of marquee, veteran coach that would exert that level of overall influence.

    ‘Going in a different direction’ has become one of those very common, catch-all phrases. But, it’s very apt with the Lakers situation. They had the choice for continuity with B. Shaw or hiring somebody with a very long resume (whether Adelman or anyone else). And instead, they decided to go with Mike Brown who reportedly came in loaded for bear with a ton of research and energy. That very immediate and direct approach must have appealed to Jim Buss. I would have jumped though hoops to get Adelman but at this point, all I want is the lockout to end and to see what Brown’s going to do.

  11. OK, so I’d like to solicit some suggestions from other Laker fans here and this is as appropriate as any a topic to do it:

    I’m going to be in Boston for a few days visiting family. If the Celtics were playing the Taliban, I’d root for the Taliban. I know there’s a pretty famous statue of Red Auerbach in Fanueil Hall, who is so going to get photographed wearing my Laker hat. But, as a Laker fan, I feel like I should do more. Any other suggestions on really mean (but legal) things I can do to thumb my nose at the heart of Celtic country and all its diehard-since-2008 fans?

  12. @11 – I grew up around 20 miles south of Boston and moved to So Cal at the age of 13. I have returned to the Boston area on a number of occasions and lived on Cape Cod for a few years (not too long ago). I’m a die-hard Lakers fan but I’m also very familiar with Boston, its traditions and its the fierce pride it has for its teams. With all respect and without wanting to dampen your fun or Lakers pride, I’d urge a degree of restraint vis-a-vis thumbing your nose at the Celtics – especially if you’re in the South Boston area. ‘Southies” do not deal with that kind of thing easily and they tend to run in packs. So, if you feel the need to scream ‘Celtic-pride sucks’, maybe don’t do it in a bar or a subway station, y’know?

  13. dave m – good comment.

    A number of years ago I was going to visit Boston for the first time and jokingly told my brother I planned to wear a Lakers shirt while there. He assured me it would be ripped off my back!

    ————————————

    Re: comparing Russell to Ben Wallace. Ben should be deeply flattered. By the way, did Wallace win two college championships before joining the pros, as did Russ?

  14. 11 – admirable attitude, but listen to dave and don’t give their die-hard fans a reason to make a Bryan Stow out of you.

    Re: post – meh. Aaron pretty much nailed it with his Ben Wallace comparison. I realize Russell was a truly great defensive player, but Auerbach deserves most of the praise because he did all the right things with all the right pieces. That team is overrated in general; ruling an eight-team league that was still in its early stages isn’t hard, especially after you’ve signed most of the available talent and have the best GM/coach. The Lakers were its only real competition (that’s why they met so many times in the Finals) and simply got outcoached (they didn’t lose due to lack of talent, that’s for sure).

    Beantown sucks. Go Lakers.

  15. is there anyone who knows where to find this celtics/bill russell 1960′s footage? would love to see for myself

  16. Good article. Reminds me of the friendly banter with a good buddy of mine who a Celts fan who claims Russell and his teams were the best ever. I always let him know the different eras can’t be compared because the caliber of basketball has evolved making it more difficult to win rings as time has progressed. Those Celts teams of the 60′s would find it hard to make it out of today’s NCAA tourney yet alone today’s NBA. In jest I tell my buddy Russell is overated he couldnt even hold his own against Len Bias. Boston sucks.

    Agree times must be bad if FB&G needs to feature Russell. I think that dramatic ending to the baseball regular season hurt the NBA. Hope they settle this mess soon.
    JLV

    Agree that we’ve

  17. As I thought… Kobe couldn’t turn down money and a chance to play competitive basketball where he grew up. It’s reported he is playing in Itialy if the owners don’t decide to stop being greedy in these negotiations.

    13,
    And Russell should be flattered. Ben had 50 lbs on him and I’m almost positive only steroids could make up for 30 of those. More than likely Russell would be a short Marcus Camby in today’s game. But it’s not fair to compare eras. My Ben Wallace comparison was regarding Russell and his contemporaries.

  18. #17. Not so fast, my friend (in my best Lee Corso voice).

    http://eye-on-basketball.blogs.cbssports.com/mcc/blogs/entry/22748484/32386008

    Also, your takes on Russell are comical. The game evolves, as do the players, but players like Russell are what the modern league is built on. By diminishing the value or greatness of pioneers, you imply modern times would be exactly as they are now without them. It’s faulty logic, at best.

  19. Rusty Shackleford September 30, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Booooooo Celtics!

  20. Buck Foston!

  21. 19 & 20,

    Those were our reactions in the 60′s, it was not only Russell who is dominating the games but also the other lephres…Sam Jones, KC Jones, Havlicek, Heinsohn and previous seasons were Cousy and Sharman. Towards 70′s followed by Nelson, Jojo White, Cowens and more until they reached to the Larry Bird era. Lakers got only one Championship in ’72 but got redemption in the years of Magic, Kareem, Wilkes & Coop’, Worthy and Scott. Admittedly, Celtics were much better team against all other teams during the 60′s and 70′s. It seems that Celtics dominated the professional league while UCLA Bruins dominated the NCAA. We have here a humble Wooden while the East has a cocky Auerbach.

    To compare Russell to Wallace or Camby is really unfair, perhaps it is like comparing the Beatles from today’s members of Black Eyed Peas. It is hard to compare eras, got to appreciate the past while expect new degree of measurement on the present. Kareem and Wilt are too slow for Bill Russell, however the formers have their own fortes in playing style in the post. I’d say Bill Russell is a combination of Olajuwon and Moses Malone, he possesses a high IQ and perfect timing in rebounds and blocking shots that leads to easy offense from those other sensational lephrechauns.

  22. Russell bashing in a Lakers blog is to be expected. I just didn’t expect such strong comments, such as the Ben Wallace comparison. Valid from a certain (biased) point of view, but exaggerated nonetheless.

    I never saw any of those guys play, although I did my fair share of trying. Footage from those old days aren’t so easy to come by, but from what I was able to see, Russell was a monster on the court. Fine, the league wasn’t even half what it is today and its a different time and whatever. But he did dominate. How many others accomplished as much as he did? He was part of a dinasty, a key cog in a TEAM that crushed the competition for years on end.
    Wilt didn’t even get close to that, neither did Kareem. A true teamplayer.

    Comparisons suffer a great deal when you account game evolution. Even in a sport where the rules changed very little and the teams are the same since the early 1900′s, like football (soccer for yanks), things get blurry when you try to compare players from different eras. Pelé was a physical monster who was healthier, stronger, faster and smarter than most of his counterparts. By today’s standards, he would be a regular dude with amazing skill. Logic has it he wouldn’t dominate. Hypotheticals…

  23. DISH Network (I believe) currently has commercials featuring Dion Sanders as little ferry type creature. In one of them Dion encounters a guy in an airport stating he is watching a football game on his cell phone, Dion informs him he’s only looking at numbers, does his magic and all of a sudden, the guy is watching an actual game on his cell phone.

    I mention that because it’s the best example I can give you. Russell’s numbers just didn’t tell you the whole story about this player. I caught a decent part of his career (since ’65 as a 13 year old). Trust me Ben Wallace was no Bill Russell.

    Bill was a fantastic athlete, a very smart player & was mentally & emotional tough. Least you forget, Russell dealt with a lot of racism in the 50′s & ’60′s, even in Boston. And he was not a “turn the other cheek” kind of guy. He stored that anger and took it out on everybody not wearing a Celtic uniform when he played.

    Many opponents were psyched out by “The Bearded Eagle” (as he was known in his day) defensive prowess. Much the same way so many boxers were mentally defeated before they even got in the ring with Mike Tyson. I saw many players get frustrated playing Russell & his Celtics (Wilt among them).

    And let’s not forget, Russell won 2 titles in college, the guy was simply a winner and a leader.

    And let me state, I’m a Laker fan, ever since 1965, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating talent. Today one of my favorite players is Tim Duncan.

    Individual stats just don’t tell the whole story…just ask LeBron

  24. Perhaps the more apt comparison is not Ben Wallace, but Joakim Noah.

    Athletic big
    Nose for rebounding
    Great defender & shot blocker
    Winner (2 titles in college)
    Superb teammate
    Somewhat limited offensively but finds ways to score nonetheless

    My issue with this is not that Russell wasn’t great – he was. But he is simply given far too much credit. Even if he did anchor that D, without Auerbach and his HoF teammates there, more than half (if not all) of those rings go on West & Chamberlain’s fingers.

  25. 21 – “To compare Russell to Wallace or Camby is really unfair, perhaps it is like comparing the Beatles from today’s members of Black Eyed Peas.”

    I’m not a huge Beatles fan, but surely you must be kidding.

    The Peas would suffer from comparison to a three year old banging on an aluminum pot!

  26. Rusty Shackleford September 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    My favorite memory of Bill Russell was him handing Kobe Bryant the Finals MVP trophy.

  27. @23 – very nicely said and absolutely spot-on.

  28. If you think Bill Russell was “just” a defensive guy surrounded by Hall of Famers you’re either an idiot or on the pipe. Either way, you’re not just wrong, you’re wrong in multiple languages. I’ve been watching basketball for most of my 42 years and Magic, Bird, Kareem, and of course, MJ are in the elite of the elite. Russ is right there with them.

    He didn’t just play defense, he took away the paint, your will, and completely changed the way your offense operated. Layups were not an option. So, the Celtics had the luxury of running their normal offense. Meanwhile, the Lakers, Sixers (outside of ’67), Royals, etc. had to settle for jump shots. Sure, it’s basketball, so some nights the C’s didn’t have it, and they got run out of the building. But, if it was the playoffs, forget about it. You know how many Game 7′s Russell’s teams lost? I’ll give you a hint. The number looks like the letter O. This isn’t an accident and it’s not coincidence that the players around Russ changed, yet he kept winning.

    Wilt fans obsess over the fact he led the league in assists once. Yet, he and Russell finished .1 apart in assists/game for their entire careers. I believe it’s like 4.5 to 4.4. Russell could run the break like a forward, and he was good about moving the ball through the Celtics rotation, getting it into the hands of a Heinsohn, Sam Jones, or Hondo. He’s never given credit for this, as if the team captain putting his team ahead of his own stats is somehow not worthy of admiration.

    Wilt fans also obsess about how he changed the rules of the game. Guess what? So did Russell. They didn’t exist in vacuums. The rules changed because both men dominated the paint. Bill Russell’s USF teams single-handedly introduced the modern concept of defense and THAT’S why Auerbach traded Hagan and Easy Ed MacAuley to get this “unproven” rookie. Those old white boys didn’t know what to do with Russ blocking shot after shot and refusing to let them score. 13 years later he was still doing it as a grizzled old man in the pros. Yeah, that’s totally overrated.

    Keep this in mind. Bill Russell won 3 state championships in high school, back-to-back national championships in college at a university with zero basketball tradition before or since (OK, Bill Cartwright went there, whoop de do), an Olympic gold medal, and then 11 of 13 NBA championships. Kareem and MJ have impressive resumes, loaded with rings, but they’re not really all that close to Bill Russell.

    You know that tired ass old line about how he was surrounded by Hall of Famers in Boston? Why do you think most of those guys got to the Hall? Because they were fortunate to play with Russ. Sure, Cousy, Hondo, maybe Sam Jones, and maybe Tommy Heinsohn get in anyway. But, put those guys on the Syracuse Nationals or Cincinnati Royals, where they can’t even get out of the conference finals year after year after year, and do you think the championship-obsessed Hall of Fame committee votes them ALL in? Not likely.

    Again, if you think Bill Russell is overrated you are empirically wrong and are only refusing to change your mind because of ego. Be a grown-ass man and get your learn on. It’s good for you. And I hate the fucking Celtics. But facts are facts.

  29. i’m surprised nobody has compared the Lakers to the Yankees of MLB in terms of rich dominating history and popularity nationwide, they did for the Cowboys and Steelers, but not Yankees?

  30. @ LD, it’s nice to know there are others who exist that can appreciate & respect an opponents unique abilities. Thank you for your post, I agree with you 100%. As a longtime Laker fan (since ’65) I hated the Celtics, but couldn’t help but marvel at what Russell did on the court.

    @ Dave M, thanks for the compliment on my post.

  31. LD, i don’t think anyone is doubting Russell’s achievements, credentials, stats, or accolades. What we question is whether he would really have pulled all that off in today’s basketball world. 1960′s NBA basketball likely does not even compare to today’s top level NCAA competition, so its a valid question. Would Russell shut down the Hakeem’s, Shaq’s of the league, or corral the Kobe or Jordan’s? Ben Wallace (in his prime) isn’t such a degrading comparison, the man was Defensive Player of the Year four times. I honestly want to know.

    The answer may come with being able to view the aforementioned footage. Does anyone have a link to it? Or know how to see it?