The Final Game
A filmmaker recalls his film on the 1966 Celtics.
Goldsmith had a particular affinity for the rhythms that live basketball offered. Yes, the film was about the Celtics, but it also provided the unique opportunity to present the sounds, atmosphere, and crowd as a participant. He had been inspired by “Olympia,” Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film on the Berlin Games that was the power of athletics and film at its utmost: The beauty of the world-class athlete overshadowing the Hitler-inspired propaganda that dominated some of her films at the time; the point being, few things rival pure athletics in all its glory. Goldsmith hired five cameramen, all with New York roots, all who had prior experience filming a sporting event; the trick to filming sports, Goldsmith thought, was not unlike that of filming nature: You must anticipate, be prepared, be there before it happens.
Game 1 was played on a Wednesday, and Goldsmith’s crew was ready. He placed two cameramen on a platform in the lower level, a spot the national television crews usually vacated. There was another at mid-court on the floor, and one under each basket. (A sixth camera, used by an Englishman not exactly acclimated to the nuances of a basketball game, filmed the crowd.) The old Garden, even then something of a relic, had a taste of Hollywood for a night.
Things didn’t exactly go to plan, however. The Royals, a good team in their own right, beat the Celtics by four. Goldsmith’s heart sunk. “I don’t have a movie,” he thought. He called his boss, and broke the news. Goldsmith then got permission to film Game 3, also played in Boston (the Celtics won Game 2 in Cincinnati). The Royals, sans any sort of sympathy for cinematic history, won again. Goldsmith was beside himself. The Celtics, the seven-time defending champion, coached by Red Auerbach and led by Bill Russell, were down 2-1 with the series going back to Cincinnati. They managed another road victory in Game 4, avoiding elimination and the end of a dynasty, sending the series back to Boston for the decider. Goldsmith’s film had one last chance.
(Fascinating anecdote: Wandering the hallways in the Garden after one of those losses, Goldsmith overheard a retired Bob Cousy, then of ABC, talking with a friend about the Celtics’ plight. Goldsmith remembers: “He (Cousy) was holding his head in his hands and saying to somebody, ‘We can’t lose. If we lose, they’ll never let us up. It will be like the Yankees, they’ll grind us in to the earth. We’ve got to win.’ He wasn’t saying this to anybody for publication, this was a private comment that he made. It’s that sense of how important it was to sustain their championship level. I got a feel for it from moments like that.”)
Game 5, played on a Friday night in Boston, was a good one. The Celtics won 112-103 behind Sam Jones’ 35 points, and Russell’s 16-point, 31-rebound effort, overcoming Oscar Robertson’s 37. With 95 seconds to go, Auerbach lit up a cigar, which was captured on film. Goldsmith found himself in the best of possible worlds: The Celtics won, and he had three games worth of film to put together what he now called “a fantasy game.”
For those interested in the game’s beautiful and somewhat under-reported history, the film provides an amazingly detailed look at Russell and the dynasty he led. You see Russell introduced to the crowd, where he runs to the foul-line to join his teammates before folding his arms, furrowing his brow, and staring forward at his opponent. You see his incredible anticipation, his timing, the undeniable shadow that he cast over every game, and in a broader sense, the League. You see a team shaped in his image. There’s also the pure force with which Oscar Robertson played, the dominance, and smarts. There’s the systematic teamwork that seemed to best define those Celtics teams, the will they used to overcome and win, again and again. And there’s Red, working the referees, using colorful language, and lighting up with the victory secure. This film goes beyond the subsequent words written, careers eulogized, or the anecdotes that filtered through in books and on television specials.
Goldsmith doesn’t remember the last time he saw the film (and couldn’t stomach the heavily edited television version). It won an award at the Oberhausen Sportsfilm Festival in Germany shortly after its release, but the film was bound to seep into history largely forgotten, in part because it wasn’t released in the US. Goldsmith donated a copy of the film to a Los Angeles library, sent a copy to the Celtics, and moved on with his career and to other projects.
The film is truly special considering the rare footage, and the warm feelings it invokes for Goldsmith. “I accomplished something that was very satisfying. I had a great time doing it,” he reflects. “And I’m proud of it. The impulse to do something like this comes from an emotional experience that you have yourself. And that’s the experience of going to a game. The feeling, the surges, and seeing the beauty of it, it was something I somehow wanted to communicate to people. That’s what the movie was about for me. I think I was able to do a lot of that, and that’s something that’s very satisfying to me.”
And now, finally, it can get the viewership it deserves.
To see NBA TV’s edited presentation of Gary Goldsmith’s “The Final Game” featuring the Boston Celtics versus the Cincinnati Royals in the 1966 Playoffs, check out this YouTube upload: Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5.
To discuss the film, email Todd at toddspehr[at]gmail.com