The First Se

RED AUERBACH came from coaching high school. He told his players: “Hey, I hired you. I’ll fire you.”

For nonstop antics, though, nobody topped Chuck Connors, a six-foot-six Celtic forward who would end up becoming better known as a movie actor and television’s “Rifleman.” Those who played with or against him in that first season remember him as a garish character who was forever theatrically on. In the stands during a preliminary game, in a railway station, or in the aisle of a plane, Connors would without prompting start spouting Shakespeare, or “The Face on the Barroom Floor.” In Boston’s first season he was a publicity man’s dream, ever ready to spread the then-dubious name of the Celtics to servicemen’s clubs or radio audiences —any place where a ham would do. “‘Casey at the Bat,’ twenty minutes on Boston, little jokes, and stuff,” Connors later said. “I was the original Garagiola. I never got paid then. I just went wherever Howie McHugh told me to go. I was kind of making up for my bad basketball by offering that service to the Celtics during the day.”

Indeed, his game was not much to speak of. Connors could run, and he could rebound, but he was a poor shot, averaging 4.6 points a game while making only 24 percent of his field-goal tries at a time when 28 to 30 percent was respectable. His teammate Harold Kottman, who often guarded him in practices, would slack off Connors so noticeably that Connors was obliged to warn him: “Kottman, guard me, you son of a bitch or I’m gonna knock every tooth in your head out. You’re making me look bad.”

Al Brightman, another Celtic teammate: “He wanted to be an actor. And he was plying his trade on everybody all the time. He’d get on top of those lockers in train stations and even denounce Roosevelt. Which was real sacrilege in those days. But for Chuck, anything to get a crowd. ‘Now that I have you here’—and he’d go into his spiel.”

John Simmons, Celtic teammate: “I saw him once in a train station go up to this short guy—total stranger—four foot ten, maybe. Walk up to him and lift up the guy and say, ‘Dad, where have you been? I haven’t seen you in a while.’ Six foot six, Chuck was, and had this big booming voice, and everybody would be laughing at this little guy that’s his ‘father.’ Or if he saw a girl in a department store, he’d come out with a quote like, ‘Glory be to God. And there she is—dawn on the hills of Ireland.’ And then he’d be off on his big routine with her.”

Connors: “Another one was: ‘Have you heard this, my dear...?’ And then I’d lay one on. ‘If I were king— ah love, if I were king! / What tributary nations would I bring/ to stoop before your scepter and to swear / Allegiance to your lips and eyes and hair. / Beneath your feet what treasures would I fling: / The stars should be pearls upon a string, / The world a ruby for your finger ring / And you should have the sun and moon to wear. / If I were king.... But honey, I haven’t got any dough. Let’s go to your place.’ What poem? It’s one by FranÇois Villon. But I added some lines to it. His was too short.”

Connors and the Celtics often stumbled during the first season, and it sometimes drove their coach Honey Russell half-crazy. In St. Louis, when his team blew still another late-game lead to the Bombers, Russell left and made his way back to Boston on his own. His players wound up stranded in Buffalo, New York, during a blizzard. With time on their hands the Celtics proceeded to drink liberally at the train-station bar and then decided to huddle around a civic monument—a life-size bison built of cement and coated in bronze. In the tomfoolery that followed, the creature’s tail was severed from its body, an incident that made the newspapers and compounded the ill will Russell already bore his charges. When the players finally reunited with him back in Boston for a team practice, the coach was in a foul mood.

“And Honey was a rough man in his day,” said Connors. “Behind his back we used to call him the Chicken Hawk; his nose had been broken about six times. It looked like an S-turn in the road. But we loved the guy. He was tougher than nails. So anyway, he had all of us on the bench. And he started up about the antics in the St. Louis game and all the things we’d gotten into on the way back. And then he got into the fact we used to go to this bar called the Blue Moon a lot. It was right around the corner from the gym. And one of the players that went there was Harold Kottman. Kottman was six-eight, and he was very young. He was from Glasgow, Missouri, a real small town, and he wasn’t used to big-city life. He used to go down to the Blue Moon and cry in his beer to the bartender, saying what a sh— coach Honey was. Which somebody passed on to Honey. And God, mad as Honey was at all the rest of us, he was even madder at Kottman. So thank God for Harold. He saved all our asses. It didn’t make Honey so mad that somebody had pulled the tail out of the buffalo and all the other things we had done. But Kottman saying he was a sh— coach—that got him crazy. What he did was he told Harold if he’d get that six-eight ass of his up off the bench, he’d drop him right there. Well, no need to tell you, Harold stayed right where he was. Didn’t budge.”