The 1969 NBA World Championship Series to determine the champion of the 1968–69 NBA season was played between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, the Lakers being heavily favored due to the presence of three formidable stars: Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West. In addition, Boston was an aging team; they made the playoffs as the 4th place team in the Eastern Division, and were not favored to make it to the finals. The Celtics' finals victory – the last championship of the Bill Russell dynasty – is considered one of the great upsets in NBA history.
This series is also notable in that West, with an average of nearly 38 points a game, won the Finals Most Valuable Player award, despite being on the losing team. This was the first year a Finals MVP award was given, and it remains the only time in NBA Finals history that the MVP was awarded to a player on the losing team. It also marks the first time ever in NBA Finals history that a Game 7 was won by the road team.
The Los Angeles Lakers had won 55 games in the regular season (2nd best to the Baltimore Bullets' 57 wins), seven more than their perennial rivals, the Boston Celtics, and therefore held homecourt advantage for the first time ever in an NBA Finals meeting vs. the Russell-led Celtics. Both teams had their share of problems in the regular season. Though the Lakers's acquisition of star center Wilt Chamberlain before the season prompted many observers to predict for them the title that had previously eluded them, their arrival at the Finals had not been easy; the season could have been described as a "soap opera"; Chamberlain and reigning Laker superstars Elgin Baylor and Jerry West had some difficulty in meshing their accustomed styles. And second-year coach Butch van Breda Kolff and Chamberlain clashed terribly throughout the season, frustrating the entire team. In Boston, player-coach Bill Russell was suffering from age and exhaustion, hampering the team both as the starting center and as the coach. In addition, perennial scorer Sam Jones played so poorly that he lost his position as starting shooting guard to Larry Siegfried. The Lakers's appearance in the Finals was expected, but they lost the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals to the San Francisco Warriors on their home court before prevailing, and then outlasted the Atlanta Hawks 4 games to 1 to gain the rematch with the Celtics. Boston's campaign was considered a surprise. They upset the 2nd place 76ers and were fortunate that the 3rd place Knicks upset the 1st place Bullets; Boston then knocked off New York in the Eastern Division finals. The home team won all their games, except for Game 7.
On the hardwood, there were several key matchups. At center, low scoring, defensive stalwart Celtics center Bill Russell was matched up against his long-time rival Wilt Chamberlain (Lakers), multiple scoring champion. At forward, agile Celtic Bailey Howell played against perennial All-NBA member Elgin Baylor, captain of the Lakers, while Laker Keith Erickson tried to slow down high-scoring Celtics forward John Havlicek. At guard, a somewhat revitalised Sam Jones was matched up against Lakers superstar Jerry West. X-factors on both teams respectively were Don Nelson, the sixth man of the Celtics, and sharpshooting Laker Johnny Egan, the only other pure guard except West on the L.A. roster.
Celtics win the series 4–3Lakers win 120–118, Lakers lead series 1–0
Prior to the series, Celtics player-coach Bill Russell decided not to double-team Lakers star guard Jerry West. West was initially complaining of exhaustion, but in the game, all was forgotten. He used this freedom to score 53 points on opposing guards Sam Jones and Larry Siegfried. In an action-packed match, the lead changed 21 times, and it was Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain who sealed the game with a clutch basket 23 seconds before the end.Lakers win 118–112, Lakers lead series 2–0
Again, Russell declined to double-team West. In a tough, physical match, West continued his scoring dominance by scoring 41 points. Along with fellow guard Johnny Egan, who scored 26 points, and 31 points from Elgin Baylor (among them the last 12 Lakers points), the Lakers won. Celtics forward Don Nelson and Lakers forward Bill Hewitt required a half-dozen stitches each after in-game collisions.Celtics win 111–105, Lakers lead series 2–1
In Game 3, Russell finally decided to double-team West. With the heightened pressure, West lost his shooting touch. Also, the exhaustion he was complaining about prior to the series became so big that he asked to be taken out for longer stretches. In both pauses, the Lakers fell back by double digits. The heroics belonged to Celtics forward John Havlicek: playing with a swollen eye after being poked by Keith Erickson, he scored 34 points.Celtics win 89–88, series tied 2–2
This was an ugly game filled with 50 turnovers and low shooting percentages that was the turning point in the series. The Lakers had a one-point lead with 7 seconds left and the ball. However, after receiving an inbound pass along the sideline, Baylor was controversially ruled to have stepped out of bounds, causing a turnover. For the last play, Celtics players Havlicek, Siegfried, Bailey Howell and Jones executed a so-called "Ohio", with the three former Ohio State Buckeye players setting a triple pick for the latter. Jones jumped off the wrong foot, but the ball avoided the block attempt of Lakers center Chamberlain, hit the front rim, bounced on the back rim and somehow dropped in for the series-equalizing buzzer beater. So instead of the Lakers going home with a 3-1 series lead, it was all even at 2 games apiece.Lakers win 117–104, Lakers lead series 3–2
Enraged by the unlucky Game 4 loss, the Lakers overran the Celtics with high-power basketball. Wilt Chamberlain played through a swollen eye, after Celtics guard Em Bryant had poked him. With just three minutes remaining and the Lakers safely ahead, Bryant stole the ball from West. Instead of letting Bryant run, he lunged for the ball, pulled his hamstring and had to be carried out of the game. It was immediately evident that West's swollen leg would not heal until the end of the series.Celtics win 99–90, series tied 3–3
In another ugly game, the Celtics were up 55–39 at halftime and never looked back. The Celtics at one point went 6-of-27 from the field, but the Lakers could not make use of this slump. With neither Baylor nor the limping West providing consistent scoring, Boston cruised to an easy victory. This game was also one of Chamberlain's lesser games: with Russell hounding him, the multiple scoring champion scored only 8 points, provoking criticism that he had choked when it counted most.Celtics win 108–106 and win series 4–3
In anticipation of a Lakers win, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had ordered thousands of balloons with "World Champion Lakers" printed on them suspended from the rafters of the Forum. Flyers were placed in every seat stating, "When, not if, the Lakers win the title, balloons will be released from the raftors, the USC marching band will play "Happy Days Are Here Again" and broadcaster Chick Hearn will interview Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain in that order." Before the game, the Celtics circulated in their locker room a memo about the Lakers' celebration plans. When Jerry West went to the court for a pre game shoot around and saw the balloons, he became furious with Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke. Russell noted the giant net hanging from the ceiling during pregame warmups and said to West, "Those fucking balloons are staying up there." With only two true guards on the Laker roster and West still feeling the effects of the hamstring pull, Celtics coach Russell ordered his men to fast break at every opportunity.
Los Angeles shot poorly in the early going, and the Celtics jumped out to a first-quarter 24–12 lead which was cut to 59–56 at halftime. Then, Celtics sixth man Don Nelson scored 12 points in the third quarter, while the Lakers hardly connected on a quarter of their field goal attempts: the Celtics led 91–76 after the third. Early in the fourth quarter, Chamberlain incurred his fifth foul (he had never fouled out of a game in his career) and had to play more tentative defense. Then with just over 5 minutes remaining and the Lakers trailing 103-96, Chamberlain landed awkwardly when grabbing a rebound and came to the bench with an injured knee. Behind backup center Mel Counts, the Lakers cut the lead to 103–102 with two minutes left. Chamberlain then informed Van Breda Kolff that he was ready to return, but the coach infamously told the superstar center "we're doing fine without you" and Chamberlain never got back in the game. Boston still had that 103-102 lead with 1:33 left in the game when reserve guard Keith Erickson knocked the ball away from John Havlicek. The ball went right to Don Nelson, who put up a desperation 18 foot shot from the free throw line to beat the 24 second clock; the ball hit the back rim, bounced high in the air and fell through the hoop to give Boston a 105-102 lead. The Lakers committed costly turnovers in the last moments and trailed 108-104 before making a meaningless last second shot that made the final score 108–106.
After Game 7 ended, the Celtic players happily sprinted off the floor to a locker-room celebration, but Bill Russell sought out the disconsolate Jerry West, embracing him and offering his admiration. West averaged 38 points during the series and had a triple double in Game 7 (42 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists). West was named Finals MVP, making him the only Finals MVP from a losing team. This was the first year of the award.
The Celtics' 1969 victory proved to be the end of a significant chapter in NBA history; Boston's long run of excellence was over. Russell's retirement as a player and a coach had been anticipated, and Sam Jones's farewell had been announced some time earlier. General manager "Red" Auerbach's leadership over the team's fortunes continued, and the former great forward Tom Heinsohn was selected as the new coach. The Celtics slowly adjusted to new times, and, with another group of star players (the stalwart John Havlicek remained), won the NBA title five years later.
The Lakers' Game 7 loss led to the departure of Butch Van Breda Kolff. Much public opinion sided against the coach, who was quickly branded as the man who banished his star center to the bench in the crucial final minutes of a Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Elgin Baylor, the team captain, diplomatically stated that the coach had made his decision in the team's best interests, and, whatever the results, all had to live by it. West by all accounts was furious over Chamberlain's benching, claiming that all coaches are obligated to place their five best players on the floor in such a crucial situation. Chamberlain had no forgiveness in store for Van Breda Kolff, for whom he had harsh words in his 1974 autobiography. Above all, owner Cooke, whose goal was a Laker championship, was determined to find the coach who could bring it to pass. Providence College's Joe Mullaney was hired for the 1969–70 season.
But Mullaney wasn't able to bring the Lakers to a championship, losing to the New York Knicks the following year behind Willis Reed's inspiring Game 7 performance. After another playoff loss to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks (a series in which an injured Jerry West did not play) in 1971, Cooke hired former Celtic Bill Sharman as head coach before the 1971–72 season; eventually the Lakers won 69 games and a professional sports record 33 straight games, en route to defeating the Knicks in the 1972 NBA Finals, despite Baylor's retirement early in the season.