The Final Game
A filmmaker recalls his film on the 1966 Celtics.
by Todd Spehr
Precious little game film exists of Bill Russell. By the unofficial count of a much-respected collector’s inventory, 11 games featuring Russ stood the test of time–just two of them are complete, while others are just bits and pieces of quarters or halves that someone had the presence of mind not to destroy. Talk about a shame. For Russell, his greatness is easy to establish in terms of team success but slightly harder to quantify considering the limitations of the individual statistics kept, making him almost imaginary; his legend is more mythological than visual. Relying solely on the bare essential information, one would surmise that Russell won almost always, was a terrific rebounder, an average scorer, anecdotally a ravenous shot-blocker and intimidator, who was universally respected and feared by those who lived through his career. Wouldn’t it be great to see him play?
In the early 1960s, in the midst of the Cold War and JFK’s leadership, the United States Information Agency began looking for ways to bolster how its country was viewed throughout the world. The old, drab, traditional documentaries were no longer impactful, and to combat the Soviet’s persistent view of the US as an unjust society, the filmmaking department within the USIA sought to find young, energetic, fresh filmmakers who could present the country in a positive light to foreign viewership. One of those filmmakers was Gary Goldsmith.
During the middle part of the ‘60s, Goldsmith had done films for the USIA on a variety of societal topics, and a new project beckoned. In early 1966, he met with his boss, George Stevens Jr. Stevens was in charge of this so-called stable of young filmmaking talent, and when he asked Goldsmith what topic he desired to cover for his next film, there was little hesitation.
“I’ve always been a basketball fan,” began Goldsmith. “And I particularly am a fan of the Boston Celtics. I think they’d make a great topic because basketball is the unique American sport, and the Celtics are an institution in American society.”
“OK,” said Stevens. “Let’s make the movie.”
Goldsmith had long admired the Celtics, despite residing in southern California. He wasn’t seduced by the star-catered system that the Lakers had (with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West), but instead appreciated the Celtics, their team spirit and obvious values. Goldsmith saw similarities between these Celtics and the Wooden-led UCLA teams, and had even followed the San Francisco squads of the mid ‘50s which featured Bill Russell and KC Jones. There was something alluring to the filmmaker about Boston’s togetherness, the family-oriented base, and the seemingly pure and simplistic fashion with which they collaborated. They were the team he wanted to film.
Getting permission for a film that required access and cooperation from a professional sports team in the heat of competition, especially for an organization already rich in tradition like the Celtics, was surprisingly easy. Goldsmith met with Red Auerbach in Boston, and while Red was everything you’d expect he’d be—“Blunt, absolutely honest, sarcastic, and great fun,” Goldsmith recalled—he was debriefed on an offer that was hard to refuse. “We told him that the purpose of this was to make a film to represent the United States all over the world, using the best basketball team in the world—could we come shoot the Celtics?” Goldsmith recalled. “It wasn’t going to cost them (the Celtics) anything, so Red was willing to do that.”
Auerbach allowed Goldsmith to spend some time with the team before filming, and he joined the Celtics on a short road trip shortly before the Playoffs. Goldsmith wanted to immerse himself in the team, and find something that would hopefully form the foundation for the film. Auerbach granted Goldsmith unfettered access. Sort of. “You can talk to any of the players, but don’t bug Russell,” Auerbach said. Later, during the trip, Goldsmith was in the hotel coffee shop eating breakfast when in walked Russell. He sat at the booth near Goldsmith. The two had met in Red’s office, and Russell was aware of the film. Goldsmith was in a bind: Here is Bill Russell, one of the most fascinating and aware athletes of the 20th century, by himself, and here is also the voice of Red Auerbach, audible in subconscious. Goldsmith, with the film’s best interests firmly in mind, never bothered to chat up Russell.
The road trip wasn’t exactly a success, the Celtics lost and as they flew back to Boston, a painful silence hung over the team. Goldsmith sat there, took it all in, and thought about his upcoming film. Originally, he wanted a documentary that exhibited the tempo and rhythm of the professional game, the type of feeling that resonates only by being there; but he also wanted the viewer to connect with the Celtics, to get to know the diverse mix of personalities and backgrounds that came together so harmoniously on the floor. But as that plane made its way back to Boston, the stench of defeat perhaps permeating more than it should over a regular-season game, the collective sorrow so evident, it occurred to Goldsmith that this in fact was the Celtics’ essence. They cared so much about every game, there was such pride in each performance, this is what mattered to them above all else. It was then that Goldsmith decided that the focus of the film would be just that: The game.
With that as the backdrop, Goldsmith made preparations for the film. He initially wanted to film what seemingly always unearthed the best in Russell and his Celtics: a game with Wilt Chamberlain. But with Boston drawing a very talented Cincinnati Royals in the opening round best-of-five Playoff series, and a clash with the 76ers certainly not guaranteed, Goldsmith had no choice but to go with the Royals. Cincinnati was no slouch, containing three All-Stars in Oscar Robertson (“A force of nature,” Goldsmith recalled), Jerry Lucas, and Adrian Smith. It was settled: Celtics vs Royals.