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Heller: Cookin’ with Cooke
Jerry West, the Los Angeles Lakers' all-world guard, was named MVP of the 1969 NBA Finals - the first time the award had gone to a member of the losing team. But as far as the appreciative Boston Celtics were concerned, it could just as well have been presented to Jack Kent Cooke.
Yes, Jack Kent Cooke, the eminent Squire who years later presided benevolently over the Washington Redskins when they won three Super Bowls. But in 1969, he was owner of the Lakers and, at 57, not as wise as he later became.
With the teams preparing to play Game 7 at the "Fabulous Forum" he had built in Inglewood, Calif., Cooke had flyers placed on every seat that read, "When, not if, the Lakers win the title, balloons [inscribed 'World Champion Lakers'] will be released from the rafters, the USC marching band will play 'Happy Days Are Here Again' and broadcaster Chick Hearn will interview [Lakers stars] Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain in that order."
This was a bad move on Cooke's part.
During pregame warmups, Celtics player/coach Bill Russell noted the giant net hanging from the ceiling, turned to West and growled, "Those [expletive deleted] balloons are staying up there."
And so they did. The underdog Celtics gave Russell, who retired three months later at 35, his 11th NBA title in 13 seasons with a dramatic and wholly illogical 108-106 victory. It also was their seventh championship in seven outings against the Lakers in what endures as the league's signature rivalry.
This was not supposed to be the Celtics' season. Aging and weary, they staggered home fourth in the Eastern Division with a 48-34 record and bore little resemblance to Red Auerbach's powerhouse teams that had dominated the league in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Meanwhile, the 55-27 Lakers romped through the Western Division behind their three stars and a formidable supporting cast. Though the Celtics eliminated Philadelphia in five games and New York in six to get to the finals, they appeared to have little going for them except tradition.
The Lakers immediately took control of the finals by winning the first two games. But then the Celtics won the next two and ultimately Game 6 to set the stage for Cooke and his balloons.
Why did the Squire display such foolish bravado? Perhaps he wanted to inspire his troops, who had lost Game 6 by nine points, but it had just the opposite effect. After becoming lord and master of the Redskins in 1980, at any rate, he was much more publicly respectful of all opponents.
The Lakers themselves should have been anything but overconfident. Current Lakers coach Phil Jackson, then a Knicks forward, recalled Boston's tenacity against New York in the Eastern finals.
"Sixty-Nine was the year we were supposed to get [to the championship series] instead of Boston," Jackson recently told Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum, "but they found a way. The Celtics always found a way."
And in Game 7, the way was paved by Cooke and his dratted balloons. The sight of them so angered the Celtics that they nailed eight of their first 10 shots for a 24-12 advantage and never let up. As the fourth quarter began, Boston led 91-76 - but, of course, it wasn't going to be as easy as that. The Lakers, upset beyond belief at their owner's audacity, were sick of losing to the Celtics and had too much pride to stay down.
With West and former D.C. high school star Baylor leading the way - plus John Havlicek and K.C. Jones fouling out for Boston - the Lakers stormed back. The Celtics had a tenuous one-point lead when a hero appeared.
With about a minute left, West knocked the ball loose on defense. It was picked up near the foul line by Don Nelson, later one of the NBA's most renowned coaches but then merely a solid if unspectacular player.
Taking quick aim, Nellie fired. The ball hit the rim, bounced a few feet straight up and dropped back through the cylinder. The Celtics led by three and it was, in effect, all over. The Lakers had two more chances and missed both. Somehow, some way, the old men in the dark green uniforms had hung on.
In addition to Cooke, Lakers coach Butch van Breda Kolff had aided and abetted the enemy. With Chamberlain on the bench with five fouls, the coach had refused to put him back in during the final minutes because "we're doing well enough without you."
However, his boss remained the biggest unwitting contributor to the final gasp of the Celtics' dynasty. Just like his balloons, Jack Kent Cooke was full of hot air.
About the Author
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