The Providence Journal's estimable sports columnist, Bill Reynolds, is out with a new book, Rise of a Dynasty: The '57 Celtics, the First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America.
The tome chronicles the rise of a team that would go on to win 11 championships in 13 years. But, in Reynolds's estimation, the squad did something larger: kickstart a league of only minor appeal and — with the emergence of Bill Russell, the sport's first black superstar — signal a period of immense social change.
The Phoenix caught up with Reynolds for a Q&A, edited for length.
YOU SUGGEST BASKETBALL IN THE 1950s WAS A MINOR-LEAGUE SPORT. Yes, absolutely. It had all the appeal of roller derby. It was basically seen as a goons' game — all these big, slow [guys]. To be 6'10" back then was [to be] a freak, a big genetic freak. That was the perception of it. And it was aided by the fact that the big columnists in New York — Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, guys who were syndicated all over the country — didn't like it, for all those reasons.
THIS IS A BIG QUESTION. BUT IF YOU HAD TO SAY IT IN A NUGGET, WHAT CHANGED THAT PERCEPTION? It changes over time. But my premise is that this Celtic team in '57 starts to change it. It's the first NBA Finals on national TV — the seventh game was nationally televised. It was an NBA Finals between two great sports cities — Boston and St. Louis, two big baseball towns. The year before, I think the Ft. Wayne Pistons had been in the Finals. It really wasn't a national league then. It didn't go west of the Mississippi River, it didn't go south of St. Louis. It was totally, totally different. So the fact that the Celtics and the Hawks — these two big, great sports towns — are in the finals, it's a great finals. The game's on national TV. It's a double-overtime game. The emergence of Bill Russell as a superstar. It's the first time the national TV audience sees what was essentially a great game played by great players.
WHEN WE THINK OF BLACK ATHLETES WHO HAD A TRANSFORMATIVE SOCIAL IMPACT WE THINK OF MUHAMMAD ALI OR MAYBE TOMMIE SMITH AND JOHN CARLOS, WHO PERFORMED THE BLACK POWER SALUTE IN THE 1968 OLYMPICS. WE THINK OF JACKIE ROBINSON. HOW DOES THE TIGHT-LIPPED, STOIC BILL RUSSELL FIT INTO THIS PICTURE. That's another one of the points I try to make in this book. Jackie Robinson is the first black to integrate baseball and everyone knows that. He's a cultural icon because of that. Here's a question: who was the first black to integrate the NBA?