Boston Celtics: The 5 Most Unsung Championship Heroes in Franchise Lore
The wizardry of Bob Cousy caught your eye; the elegant elevated grace of Bill Russell commanded attention; the sheer passion of a Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, or Kevin Garnett screams, "Watch me!"
Watch we have, and sung their praises, as well, in recognition of a triumph or two.
But ask a symphony conductor what the most difficult job is in an orchestra, and he will invariably identify the second fiddle. Lead trumpets, piercing piccolos and 76 trombones lead the big parade, but that second fiddle is always right there maintaining the integrity of the melody, holding it all together.
Any collaborative effort—from a band to a ballclub, a school faculty or even a marriage—requires the steady selflessness of the second fiddle.
The Boston Celtics, the originators of the Sixth Man concept, owe more than one of their 17 NBA World Championships to the under-appreciated efforts of some basketball second fiddles.
Abacus reveals the five most unsung championship heroes in the history of this extraordinary franchise.
Honorable Mentions (Third Fiddles?)
When Abacus was a teenager, “Loscy” (that’s what hangs from the Garden rafters) was the head coach of Boston State College, one small block away from the high school from which he graduated. Knowing that Bill Russell’s enforcer and protector might be lurking deterred quite a bit of truancy and class skipping. Abacus is told he had a similar effect on opponents.
Willie Naulls & Larry Siegfried
Both acquired prior to the 1963-64 season, Naulls and Siggy personify the basketball IQ of one, Red Auerbach. Naulls, a seven-year veteran out of UCLA, was purchased from the San Francisco Warriors. Siegfried, an Ohio State teammate of John Havlicek, was signed as a free agent (which in those prehistoric times simply meant that no one thought you could play).
Naulls, a four-time All Star earlier in his career, contributed in a reserve role to three championships; Siggy, known for his tenacity and heady play, the last five of the Russell era.
McDonald was a sophomore in 1976’s winning season. The attrition of a three OT Game 5 in the championship series forced him into action. Fresh legs allowed him to score six points, including the go-ahead lay-up in the final two minutes.
His NBA career was short-lived, but he continued to play overseas.
No. 5 Wayne Embry
Best known as the first general manager of color for a North American professional sports organization with the Milwaukee Bucks and later the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wayne Embry (No. 28) already had a championship ring and a story to tell before relocating to Bud Selig’s area of operation.
As a rookie out of Miami of Ohio, Embry joined a rebuilding Cincinnati Royal team in the Fall of 1958. A squad that would ultimately include Jack Twyman, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas would challenge the ‘60’s Celtics dynasty in three playoff series, twice gaining a 2-1 lead in games, including a 1966 opening round, best-of-five series.
Though overshadowed by Robertson’s gaudy numbers, Embry, a four-time All-Star, was a steady double-double man until the ’65-’66 season when his statistics (points, rebounds and minutes) all waned. Seizing an opportunity, Red Auerbach acquired Wayne the Wall for a third-round draft pick, and Embry provided a solid 10-15 minutes as Russell’s back-up for the following two seasons. Wayne was also a significant component of a codicil of veteran players who served as informal but crucial “assistants” to player-coach Bill Russell.
After falling in five games to Wilt Chamberlain’s 1967 powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Division Finals, the Celtics found themselves in another 3-1 hole in the following season’s rematch. In one of the NBA’s most bizarre series ever, rescheduled to include back-to-back games twice in deference to the national mourning over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Boston roared from behind and won a tight Game 7 in Philly. It was a key defensive rebound by Embry that finally put the Sixers down for good.
This was an active time for Boston back-up big men. Two weeks before trading for Embry, Auerbach had bartered Mel Counts for veteran Bailey Howell (No. 18). Two others were lost in the expansion draft, one who would, like Wayne Embry, reach loftier heights in his basketball afterlife. His name? John Thompson.
Small world, isn’t it?
No. 4 James Posey
Robert Horry may not have coined the phrase Vagabond Champion. After all, ballplayers have been courting winning situations since the dawn of free agency in the 1970s, but Big Shot Bob wrote the manual. (In the spirit of full disclosure, though, let’s note that Horry’s first two rings came with the organization that drafted him, the Houston Rockets.)
James Posey was a key contributor to the Miami Heat’s 2006 titlists. High energy, deliciously aggressive (as long as he’s our “hacker”) defense, and an uncanny knack for the big 3-pointer (42% in the Heat’s playoff run) do not necessarily grab headlines or highlights, but they are some ingredients in the recipe for success.
Well-traveled even while still ringless (Posey has been involved in three elaborate multi-team trades in his career), Posey signed a one-year commitment with Boston in the late August of ’07. The trade for Kevin Garnett a month earlier had established the new Big Three, and Posey’s skill set proved to be a good fit. His veteran leadership, particularly with an inexperienced second unit, helped a talented team become a very effective and efficient one, becoming the third Boston sports franchise to win a championship in the new millennium.
Financial inducement, along with a rising contender led by Chris Paul, sent Posey to New Orleans for two productive but ultimately unfulfilled seasons before the last of those mega-trades sent him last summer to Indiana. On his first visit to the Garden as a Hornet, the Celtic organization recognized Posey for his contributions to Banner No. 17. Close observers, including BR’s Frances White, could detect a tear in his eye.
Apparently, James did not consult with Guru Horry before signing on the dotted line with New Orleans.
No. 3 Don Chaney
Who is the only Celtic to have played with both Bill Russell and Larry Bird?
The answer is Don Chaney.
In today’s game, a rookie guard who shoots 32 percent from the field and 40 percent on free throws will be selling insurance or coaching a middle school team the following year. The Duck got a championship ring and a total makeover for his shooting mechanics. Many were the times for the next couple of years when you could sense him feeling for the ridges on the ball as he was preparing to launch that set shot of his.
What Don Chaney brought to Boston from Louisiana and the University of Houston was 6’5” in height, arms that seemed to stretch from the sideline to Newton, an even temperament, and a pretty good head for the game.
Time and diligence transformed Chaney into a better than adequate shooter, surpassing 80 percent foul shooting a couple of times and consistently reaching the mid to high-40s from the field. (To provide some context for this shooting, during the Russell years, exactly one rotation player—Bailey Howell—shot field goals at a 50 percent clip or better and it happened exactly one time—1966-67, oddly enough a non-championship season.)
Never flashy, Chaney grew into one of the steadiest guards in the league and was universally recognized as being in the upper echelon of the league’s defensive players. It seemed that whenever Chaney had a good scoring game, the team didn’t lose. He was not really expected to provide much scoring, so it was the icing on the cake.
A sign hung regularly from the old Garden’s second balcony read “Duck Freaks.” The fan club got to enjoy Chaney truly contributing to a championship team in 1974, matching up with the immortal Oscar Robertson. In actuality, there was precious little home crowd pleasure in this seven-game series as the road team emerged victorious in five of the games. (Abacus presumes such oddities are expected when a team competing for a championship is starting a 6’4” power forward, Milwaukee’s Greg Smith.)
Following free-agent stints with the American Basketball Association’s Spirits of St. Louis (Now, there’s a story!) and the Lakers, Chaney rejoined Boston early in the 1977-78 season and finished his career two years later. Maybe it was his 35 percent field goal shooting that convinced him to hang ‘em up.
Trivia Time again.
Which future teammate and future Celtic coach was a rookie with Chaney during his 1975-76 ABA tenure?
Abacus will check for answers in the Comment Section.
No. 2 Gerald Henderson
The visual image that lingers from the 1984 NBA Finals is Kevin McHale’s WWF audition during Game 4 in Los Angeles. The game (Celts down by six) and the series (LA up 2-1) were both altered after McHale’s clothesline of Kurt Rambis, the Green Machine corralling Game 7 at the Garden six nights later.
The McHale reputation might have been stained in vain had it not been for the Game 2 heroics of a much less heralded member of the team. A motivated squad of Lakers had stolen the home-court advantage with a relatively easy opening game victory, and was frighteningly close to forging a 2-0 lead in the closing minutes of the subsequent tilt. The aforementioned Mr. McHale had just blown two potentially game-tying free throws with 18 seconds left. After a Laker time-out, fifth-year guard Gerald Henderson deflected a cross-court Magic Johnson pass intended for James Worthy and converted the tying lay-up, forcing overtime. In the final minute of the OT session, Henderson’s assist on a short Scott Wedman jumper built a decisive three-point lead.
After McHale and the C’s lariated their way to that road win in Game 4, another OT affair, home court prevailed. And when the horn sounded to conclude a Game 7 111-102 victory, it was Gerald Henderson who corralled that errant final shot amidst the surging Garden throng.
Abacus is reasonably certain that last spring, as young Shaka Smart was leading his underdogs on their extraordinary run to the NCAA Final Four, Gerald Henderson was the only alumnus of the Virginia Commonwealth University basketball program who’d lived a more satisfying and exciting Hoop Dream.
No. 1 Nate "Tiny" Archibald
The word was that the “little guy” was out of shape, though it was hard to tell, so infrequently was he seen stripped of his warm-ups. This was all happening at a time when the already-drafted Larry Bird was spending a season losing to Magic Johnson—and nobody else in college ball.
It was 1978-79, and anticipation was a whole lot sweeter than the 29-53 disaster that was the Celtics’ season. How bad was it? Well, Red Auerbach attempted to conjure up some of his ‘60’s magic by appointing his left-handed, veteran center Dave Cowens as player-coach. The NBA’s collective response to Red’s tactic this time was “Fool me once…” or something like that.
Bird and new coach Bill Fitch arrived; Red was back on form with the subsequent acquisitions of 14’ named Parish and McHale; and the Green Machine was playing surprising Houston in the ’81 Finals.
Cedric Maxwell, Game 6’s “Jump on my back, boys” guy and another survivor of the disaster season, was the series MVP.
But that 1980-81 season, Banner No. 14, and perhaps even the Legend of Larry don’t play out quite the same way without the “little guy”—the only player in league history to lead the NBA in both scoring and assists in the same season.
The eyes of Abacus first bore witness to the talents of Nate “Tiny” Archibald courtesy of Raycom Sports (or some other equally minor broadcast outfit) in a college all-star game after UCLA had captured yet another title back in 1970. Compared to everyone else on the floor that day—and bear in mind that the 1970 NBA draft class proved to be one of the best ever—Tiny was a step and a half quicker and about a foot wider in his peripheral vision. He saw where to go, got there first, knew what to do when he got there, and was skilled enough to get it done. (Sound like someone else we’ve just mentioned?)
When he arrived in Boston, part and parcel of the infamous John Y. Brown-Irv Levin Franchise swap in 1978, his poor conditioning was the consequence of a serious leg injury. Once rehabbed and with Baby (Bird) On Board, Archibald was rejuvenated. He never averaged as much as 15 points or 10 assists in his Celtic tenure, attributable to surrounding talent and unselfish play, but he sure put some ‘up’ into the tempo of a team (sorry, Bruce) Born to Run.