The Detroit Pistons only faced the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics once in the playoffs. For a time, it appeared the Pistons might shock the legendary player and his team, but Russell was the greatest winner for a reason.
Red Auerbach retired as the Boston Celtics head coach after winning his eighth consecutive NBA championship in 1966. Instead of hiring someone outside to replace him, Auerbach named center Bill Russell as the player-coach. Who was going to tell Bill Russell what to do after all?
Back then, players also being the head coach was not unheard of in the NBA. (Note: under the current collective bargaining agreement, it is no longer allowed). At the time, the Pistons were run by a player-coach in Dave DeBusschere,. who owner Fred Zollner had made coach when he was 24-years-old.
NBA teams did not have the massive coaching staffs they do now, so the ‘farm system’ of eager assistants looking to move up was not present. Russell had no assistant coach, which was fairly common back then.
After all, making a player also the coach saved money. The billion-dollar TV deals, arenas filled with luxury boxes and packed with 20,000 fans was years away. One of the reasons the Celtics players were hungry every year to win the NBA title, was they needed the playoff share money.
When Russell took over as player-coach in 1967, the NBA only had 10 teams, and they were highly concentrated in the East and Midwest. Outside of the two California teams, it only went as far west as St. Louis and as south as Cincinnati.
It was big national news when Russell took over, and not because he was becoming a player-coach. Russell was the first Black man to ever coach a major professional sports team. No sport in the United States, baseball, basketball, ice hockey or football, have ever had a Black head coach, until Russell.
Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier for players in baseball 20 years earlier (pro basketball had never been that rigid, the Detroit Gems in the ’40s had several black players) but none had risen to a position of authority like a coach.
And this was occuring in 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement, so this made Russell taking over an extra big deal.
In his first season as coach, the Celtics saw their championship streak ended by his old rival, Wilt Chamberlain, as the Philadelphia 76ers steamrollered them 4 games to 1, in the Eastern finals.
(That 76ers team, with Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham would later be voted the greatest NBA team in history).
It was the first time Russell had ended the season with a loss since 1958. For a ultra-competitive person like Russell, it was unacceptable.
And now, the Celtics would face a new foe from the Motor City that had two future Naismith Hall of Famers.
Detroit Pistons enter the picture
Because it was so East-centric, the Pistons had always played in the Western Conference, so they only had faced Russell’s Celtics during the regular season. They had not made the NBA finals since 1956, the year before Russell came into the league, so the Pistons had never had a playoff series against him
But things were changing, for the good, in Detroit during the summer of 1967. DeBusschere had tired of the dual roles and, near the end of the 1966-67 season, assistant Donnie Butcher was elevated to head coach. He would now get a full training camp in charge.
In the NBA draft that year, the Pistons had the No. 1 pick, and took Providence guard Jimmy Walker, who was expected to add some scoring punch (he is also known to modern fans as Jalen Rose’s father).
WIth Walker, the previous year’s first-rounder, Dave Bing, and veteran Eddie Miles, Detroit was solid in the backcourt. Power forward Happy Hairston (who would start on the 1972 Lakers championship team) had been acquired in a trade to bulk up the frontline.
The biggest news, however, was that, with the addition of the Seattle SuperSonics and San Diego (soon to be Houston) Rockets as expansion teams, the Pistons were moved to the Eastern Division (now Conference). They would now be playing the Celtics, 76ers and Knicks on a regular basis.
With a focused DeBusschere, Bing turning into one of the top shooting guards in the league and Hairston providing inside scoring, the Pistons improved 10 games from the previous year, for a 40-42 record (its best record since moving to Detroit).
With one game remaining in the regular season, the Pistons were tied with the Cincinnati Royals (now Sacramento Kings) for the fourth playoff berth in the East. The Royals lost by two points to the Knicks while Detroit walked into Boston Garden and defeated the Celtics (who played without Russell), 125-116, as DeBusschere has 32 points and 19 rebounds.
The way the playoffs were set up, the top seeded 76ers played the third-seed, New York, while No. 2 Boston would now face No. 4 Detroit. It would be the Pistons first playoff appearance in five years
For the first time, Pistons fans could go to Cobo Arena and see their team take on the legendary Bill Russell and the Celtics in the playoffs.