The basketball contacted the front rim of the basket with some uncertainty as to its precise path. To Sam Jones, the shooter, “the ball looked like it had fingers and just crawled in.” It wasn’t an ordinary basket, but a buzzer-beater that notched the Boston Celtics an 89-88 victory in game four of the 1969 NBA finals. Had the Celtics not secured the narrow victory, they would have found themselves down three games to one versus the Los Angeles Lakers, a nearly insurmountable deficit in a NBA playoff series. Instead the game four win at the Boston Garden evened the series at two games apiece.
The dramatic last second shot was preceded by a Celtics time-out. The Celtics last possession of the game was made possible when Emmette Bryant stole the ball from Laker Johnny Egan with less than 14 seconds remaining. During the all-important time out, legendary Celtic center Bill Russell managed the team. Russell was a player-coach in 1969, a role he had assumed after Red Auerbach left coaching at the conclusion of the 1965-1966 season.
Russell had little doubt who should shoot the ball. The team’s best, and most clutch shooter was Jones, but Russell hesitated. Sam had announced his retirement earlier in the season. Bill had a moment of concern, if Jones missed the shot it would tarnish his successful twelve season career and before a home crowd no less. Russell noted, “If you miss the shot, people will forget all the clutch shots you made but they will always remember the one you missed.” In the end, Sam’s number got called. Once that decision was made, Russell next turned his attention to the matter of play selection.
In those days the Celtics ran a half dozen basic plays with some variations or options. There were no playbooks, no complicated offense. Even forty-five years after retirement, Jones can still rattle off the list; 1, 1-C, 1-R, 2-O, 2-I and so forth. In addition to the basic plays, many of the Celtics players suggested special plays from their college days. One such play was introduced by John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried, former Ohio State Buckeyes. Aptly named, “The Ohio,” the strategy was to set a triple screen near the free throw line, thus permitting the shooter, in this case Jones, a clear shot. Havlicek and fellow Ohio State alum, Larry Siegfried convinced Russell to call the play. Jones forgot that Russell wasn’t in the game for the final play. He figured if he missed the shot, Russell would be there to tap it in, but Russell took himself out because he wanted all shooters in the game. Jones would have no back-up from the Celtics’ star center.
The action resumed with an inbound pass from Bryant to Havlicek at the seven second mark. Havlicek formed a wall at the free throw line with Don Nelson and Bailey Howell as Jones circled from the right to the back of the screen to receive Havlicek’s pass. Jones’ right foot slipped as he attempted to plant it on the Garden’s parquet floor. Somehow he got the shot off and somehow the shot found its way into the basket. Jubilant Boston fans poured onto the parquet fully recognizing the significance of the win.
The 1969 Celtics finished the regular season with 48 wins and 34 losses. It was the team’s worst finish in twenty seasons. Many basketball followers had written off the Boston contingent, well aware of the advancing age of some of the team’s key elements. Sam Jones was thirty-six during his last season and Bill Russell, who would announce his retirement when the season concluded, was thirty-five. Even after the dramatic finish in game four, many fans still wondered whether Boston, in spite of its aging stars, could pull off yet another championship.
The 1969 NBA Finals returned to Los Angeles for game five. In that contest, Jerry West scored thirty-nine points and Wilt Chamberlain, who grabbed 31 rebounds, turned in a solid performance against Bill Russell. Sam Jones led Boston scorers, with 25 points, but it wasn’t enough. The Lakers prevailed 117-104 and regained the NBA Finals’ lead, three games to two. With the Celtics on the brink of elimination, the teams returned to the east coast for a sixth game at the Boston Garden. It was the last time Sam Jones would play there. That went for Russell as well, but no one knew it at the time.