The Boston Celtics dominated the 1960s, winning nine titles in 10 seasons, including seven in a row from 1960 to 1966–a near-perfect decade that has never been replicated in major North American professional sports. The only year in the 1960s that Boston did not win a title was 1967, the season the Celtics lost to eventual champion Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics’ dynasty had two major inflection points: In 1950, owner Walter Brown hired 33-year-old Arnold “Red” Auerbach as head coach and general manager. On April 29, 1956. Auerbach traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for their first-round draft pick, 6-foot-10 University of San Francisco center Bill Russell.
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The move quickly paid dividends as Boston won the 1956-57 NBA championship, defeating the Hawks, 125-123, in a double-overtime Game 7 in which Russell had 19 points and 32 rebounds. After coming up short in the 1957-58 Finals when Russell was injured, the Celtics won the next eight championships from the 1958-59 through 1965-66 seasons.
The NBA had 10 or fewer franchises during the Celtics’ championship run. But other than the Chicago Bulls’ six titles in the 1990s in a much larger league, no other NBA franchise has approached the Celtics’ success of the 1960s. Here are the seven Hall of Famers who were most responsible for the dynasty:
1. Coach: Red Auerbach
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION: 1968
As Celtics head coach (1950-1966), general manager (1950-1984) and executive (1984-2006), he was part of 16 NBA titles. Auerbach was the NBA’s winningest coach when he retired from coaching in 1966 with a 938-479 record.
Auerbach was famous for his affinity for cigars, often lighting a victory smoke on the bench when the Celtics had a game in hand. But he was much more than a showman. Auerbach brought the fast-break offense to pro basketball by using Russell’s generational rebounding talent and Bob Cousy’s amazing ball-handling and playmaking abilities. He also created the sixth-man role by bringing one of his best players, John Havlicek, off the bench to attack opponents tired starters or less-talented second unit.
In 1950, Auerbach drafted the league’s first African American player, Duquesne’s Chuck Cooper. He was the first coach to start five Black players, and hired Russell as the NBA’s first Black head coach.
“He was the best coach in the history of professional sports. Period,” Russell said.
2. Center: Bill Russell
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION: 1975
If Auerbach was the architect, Russell–a five-time MVP who led the league in rebounding five times–was the foundation upon which the Celtics’ dynasty was built. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, winning 11 titles, and averaged 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
The NBA didn’t award a Finals MVPs during his career. But it’s telling that the league named its Finals MVP Trophy for Russell in 2009, 40 years after he retired as a player.
“[Russell] was the first person who ever dominated his sport without being the offensive guy…[he] made everyone else stars. [He] never felt an obligation to be the star [himself], unless it was absolutely necessary,” fellow Hall of Fame center Bill Walton told the Boston Globe.
As the Globe‘s Bob Ryan once wrote, “Measured strictly in wins and losses, Bill Russell has no peer in American athletic history.”
3. Guard-Forward: John “Hondo” Havlicek
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION: 1983
Havlicek was a driving force of the Celtics’ run in the 1960s, winning six titles during that stretch. But he also extended Boston’s reign over the sport into the 1970s, leading the team to titles in 1974 and 1976.
In a 16-year career, Havlicek was a 13-time all-star, an 11-time All-NBA selection, an eight-time All-Defensive team player and the 1974 Finals MVP. In the playoffs from 1966 and 1974, he averaged 25.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists–a statistics line that rivals any present-day NBA star’s.
In Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Havlicek stole an inbounds pass with five seconds remaining and the Celtics holding a one-point lead. The play was not only one of the great moments in NBA playoff history, but it exemplified Havlicek’s all-out style of play, which routinely drew admiration of teammates and opponents.
In Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, Russell called Havlicek “the best all-around player I ever saw.”
4. Point Guard: Bob Cousy, the ‘Houdini of the Hardwood’
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION: 1971
Cousy was the engine behind Auerbach’s fast-break offense. In 13 seasons, he made 13 all-star teams, 12 All-NBA teams, led the league in assists per game eight times, won six championships and was named MVP once.
Cousy did not win a title until Russell arrived, but he powered the Celtics’ offense during the early years of the dynasty, averaging 19.5 points and 8.2 assists from the 1956-57 through 1959-60 seasons. In 1963, he retired at age 34 after winning five consecutive titles.
Cousy was among the first NBA players to use creative dribble moves and passes. In 1956, Sports Illustrated‘s Herbert Warren Wind wrote that Cousy “has shown, in what has amounted to an enlightened revolution, that basketball offers a hundred and one possibilities of maneuvers no one ever dreamed of before.”
5. Forward: Tommy Heinsohn
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION AS PLAYER: 1986 | AS COACH: 2015
Heinsohn, a Hall of Famer as a player and Celtics coach, entered the league with Bill Russell in 1956-57, won eight championships in nine years and then retired after the 1964-65 season at 30.
“He was a big smoker back then, and some of us believed that it shorted his career,” wrote Dan Shaughnessy in the Boston Globe shortly after Heinsohn’s death in 2020. Heinsohn also won championships as Boston coach in 1974 and 1976.
For his career, Heinsohn averaged 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds playing alongside Russell. And, like Russell, he was known for saving his best for when the games counted most. In the 1963 playoffs, he averaged 24.7 points.
Heinsohn also was adored by Celtics fans as a broadcaster and unofficial team historian. As Chad Finn of the Boston Globe put it, “It’s not just that Celtics history cannot be told without Tommy Heinsohn … It’s that Celtics history … cannot be told without hearing his gravelly, boisterous voice telling it.”
6. Point Guard: Sam Jones
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION: 1983
Jones, a 6-foot-4 guard who played his entire 12-year career with the Celtics from 1957-69, won the second-most championships (10) in NBA history, trailing only Russell’s 11.
A five-time all-star, he averaged 17.7 points and was known for coming through in the clutch. In a five-year stretch in the playoffs from 1962-67, Jones averaged 25.3 points.
“Whenever the pressure was the greatest, Sam was eager for the ball.” Russell wrote. “To me, that’s one sign of a champion … Heart in champions has to do with the depth of your motivation, and how well your mind and body react to pressure. It’s concentration–that is, being able to do what you do best under maximum pain and stress. Sam Jones has a champion’s heart.”
7. Forward: Tom “Satch” Sanders
HALL OF FAME INDUCTION: 2011
Although his career statistics (9.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game) may seem pedestrian, Sanders carved out a niche as a strong defender and rebounder.
In 13 seasons, Sanders won eight championships–tied for third most in NBA history. He also made the All-Defensive team in 1968-69 and was elected to the Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2011.
When his playing career ended, Sanders–whose body had begun to wear down toward the end–told the Boston Globe that he would miss the camaraderie of teammates most. “[T]hat bond is something that exists only when you’re on the team,” he said.
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