December 26, 1964
“Red shocked me. I really thought that Red was going to start Havlicek as the fifth man in place of Heinsohn. But Red Auerbach is just different. So there’s five of us (Black starters) and I said ‘my gosh, we better win.’ And we did.”
The perspective of history has placed the date of December 26, 1964, as a milestone in Celtics and NBA history as it was the day that Red Auerbach fielded the first all-Black starting lineup in NBA history. Google the event and you’ll find numerous recent articles detailing its importance. In addition, you’ll find a nifty Mitchell and Ness commemorative t-shirt celebrating the event, replete with the uniform numbers of the five starters. They were center Bill Russell, guards KC, and Sam Jones, and forwards Satch Sanders and Willie Naulls who replaced the injured Tom Heinsohn.
In stark contrast were the newspaper accounts of the day in both the Boston Globe and New York Times which completely ignored the significance of the occasion while not making as much as a passing mention of the groundbreaking composition of Boston’s starting lineup. Their reportage was limited to comments on Boston’s comeback from a 13-point third-quarter deficit on the strength of substitute John Havlicek’s eight straight points on their way to a 13-point victory over St Louis in Kiel Auditorium.
Though, between the lines, much is revealed about the early NBA as Boston’s next game was the following night against the Detroit Pistons in Fort Wayne Indiana (where the team had to exit their train at a railroad crossing to get to their hotel) before returning home, for their fourth game in as many days, where they’d face the Lakers in the second game of a Boston Garden double-header that also featured a contest between the Pistons and the Knicks.
While Heinsohn nursing a torn left arch, the Celtics’ new starting lineup won 12 games in a row on the way to an NBA-best 62-18 won/lost record and their seventh straight world championship.
In later years Auerbach denied he was making a statement with a lineup that broke what was considered a longtime ‘gentleman’s agreement’ throughout the league where each team was expected to start at least one white player. He’d go on to observe, “They brought it to my attention later on. All we were trying to do here, all the time, is play the guys that, in our opinion, whether I’m coaching or someone else is coaching, is going to win the ballgame. That’s all.”
Forward Tom Sanders also commented that he was unaware of the significance of the occasion at the time and only pondered it after it was brought to his attention. So focused were the Celtics on winning in the midst of a grueling road trip that social change took a backseat to the business at hand.
However, it was fitting that the team that was the first in the NBA to draft a Black player, Chuck Cooper in 1950, and the first to hire a Black coach, Bill Russell in 1966, also achieved a milestone made all the more significant when viewed through the lens of history.