It was a game the Boston Celtics seemingly had in hand over the Philadelphia 76ers, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston led by 9 with three minutes to play, but the Sixers, behind Wilt Chamberlain, Dave Gambee, and Chet Walker, clawed back into the game with a furious late rally. Chamberlain scored on a dunk for the last of his 30 points with five seconds to play to cut the Boston lead to just one, 110-109. On the ensuing play, Celtics center Bill Russell struck the support wire behind the basket as he went to throw an overhead inbounds pass. Philadelphia would get the ball under their own basket with just five seconds to go, trailing by one. To show how much sports have changed, Russell went to the Celtics huddle (Philadelphia called a time-out) and proclaimed to his teammates, “Someone bail me out. I blew it.”
As Sixers guard Hal Greer threw the inbounds pass to Chet Walker on the right side, Boston Celtics six-foot five guard-forward John Havlicek made one of the great plays of anticipation in the history of the league. Havlicek jumped up and knocked the ball away from Walker and over to Celtics guard Sam Jones, who dribbled out the clock. The call of the play by gravel-voiced Celtics announcer Johnny Most is almost as classic as the play itself.
It was Most’s signature call. The Celtics would go on to win the 1965 NBA Championship against the Los Angeles Lakers, defeating superstars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor once again. They would win another in 1966, and two more before the decade was out, eleven championships in all, in Bill Russell’s thirteen seasons as a Celtic. No sports team, not the Yankees, nor the Montreal Canadiens, or anyone in football, has ever had such a dynasty as the Boston Celtics of the Russell era. And it was Havlicek’s steal that kept the dynasty intact for another four years. Philadelphia would win the 1967 NBA championship with much the same team as played in this game, the only interruption of a string of Celtics banners in the 1960s.
John Havlicek, a magnificent athlete drafted in three sports, had had a tryout with the Cleveland Browns in 1962 as a wide receiver, even though he had never played football for Woody Hayes at Ohio State. Havlicek was the last player cut in training camp. The WR Cleveland chose to keep instead? Ray Renfro, an all-time great for the Browns. Havlicek, nicknamed “Hondo”, is the leading scorer in Celtics history with 26,395 points. He won eight championships in his 16 seasons with the Celtics before retiring in 1978, at the age of 38. In a career full of great moments, it is his steal of Hal Greer’s inbounds pass that perhaps is most remembered. And it was fifty years ago today.