Sam Jones: The Little Stool That Could, 1962

[April 2, 1962. Philadelphia Warriors versus the Boston Celtics. Game five of their best-of-seven series in sold-out Boston Garden. To start the fourth quarter, Boston guard Sam Jones and Philadelphia’s Wilt Chamberlain start jawing. Jones, no physical match for Wilt, thinks quickly and grabs a stool to fend off a seven-foot whooping. The moment was captured forever in this grainy wire-service photo that circulates on social media every now and again. But do you know about the rest of the fourth quarter? 

There’s no reason that you should, 60 years later. The Battle of Boston Garden, as some then memorialized the moment, isn’t magically available today on Youtube. Neither does it factor in much, if at all, in the myriad biographies of Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, et. al. In fact, the Battle of Boston Garden has been largely forgotten and probably with good reason. The battle was just a series of dramatic scraps, not epic, NBA hand-to-hand combat.

But if you want to remember just how crazy things could get in the early 1960s in the heat of the NBA playoffs, this is your game. If you also wondered why the old Boston-Philly fans couldn’t agree on anything, read on. The two cities were dished different sets of facts in their afternoon papers, and with no video evidence to dispute their partisan conclusions, Bostonians and Philadelphians navigated different realities, equal parts real and imagined.

To illustrate these points, what I’ve done is pull excerpts from the next-day game stories in the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Daily News and juxtaposed them. Boston is the Globe’s Herb Ralby, a real veteran scribe on staff since the 1930s; Philadelphia is the Daily News’ Jack Kiser, a great reporter who I really enjoy reading many years removed. And just FYI – The Philadelphia Warriors were sometimes called “The Tribe.”]

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Boston’s Bill Russel (r) restrains Wilt Chamberlain from putting his hands on Celtic Same Jones.

Boston: Sam Jones is a calm individual who sticks to basketball and stays out of trouble. But yesterday, the calm was ruffled, and Jones jammed with Philadelphia’s Will Chamberlain to trigger a series of temper-explosions . . .

Jones had driven on Chamberlain toward the basket. As he went by, Wilt’s arm struck him on the chest, and Jones wheeled to face Chamberlain. Words were exchanged. It seemed from the sidelines that Chamberlain offered his hand in a peace gesture. Suddenly, Sam darted back off the court and picked up a photographer’s stool, and went after Wilt. Bill Russell stepped between them, as players poured off the benches. As Chamberlain chased after Jones off the court end, fans and police joined in.

Philadelphia: The fuse was lit by Sam Jones . . . He began swinging elbows on a rebound under the Tribe basket just as the fourth period began. One of the elbows caught Chamberlain in the ribs, and Wilt cautioned his old buddy to “keep your elbows to yourself.”

One word led to another, and when Wilt offered his hand to Jones to end the argument with a handshake, Sam shoved it away and raced off the court. He picked up a photographer’s stool and began brandishing it.

Both benches emptied, and fans began streaming and streaming onto the court. Wilt moved menacingly toward Jones, and Sam retreated with stool in striking position. “He kept yelling, ‘I’m going to cut you, I’m going to cut you,’” Wilt grinned later. “I told him he better use the stool before he used a knife. I was just trying to calm him down, and he was trying to show off. A big show. That smart indelicacy (only the word Chamberlain used wasn’t ‘indelicacy’). If I had wanted to fight him, that little ol’ stool wouldn’t have stopped me.”

Boston: Wilt made no peace gesture, Sam claimed afterwards. “He wanted to break my arm,” said Jones, who later claimed it was his hand. “If I’m goin’ to fight him, I’m not going to fight fair. So, I grabbed the stool. Chamberlain claimed Jones had used obscene language to him. When Sam hit him in the chest, Wilt went after Jones.

Guy Rodgers brandishes the stool.

Philadelphia: So Jones kept retreating, and Tribe guard Guy Rodgers took the stool away from him. Enter Braun. He showed in and began shouldering Rodgers around. “I’m trying to stop a fight, not start one,” Rodgers later said he told the veteran guard. “Just leave me alone.”

But Braun stepped back, fists clinched, and Rogers belted him one on the mouth. “I wasn’t going to stand around and get hit first,” Rodgers explained. “When it looked as if he was going to swing, I let fly. I didn’t want to hurt anybody, just protect myself.”

Boston: One of the first Celtics into the melee to help his teammate was Carl Braun. When Braun saw Rodgers grab the stool away from Sam, he stepped in and held Rodgers off. Then, as police got things under control, Carl was walking back toward the court with referee Norm Drucker, Rodgers stalked him. “Why did you help Sam when he had that stool in his hands?” Rodgers demanded of Braun.

“I’d help a teammate any time in a fight,” replied Carl, his hands by his sides. With that, Rodgers belted Braun in the mouth, drawing blood, and took off. He ran smack into a group of fans who took whacks at him before the police rescued him. 

“I never hit a man with his hands down in my life,” said Braun. “I can’t stand anybody who would do that. He’s just a fresh guy. No, he’s not tough. Look I’ve been around this game a long time and been in with [Paul] Seymour and the rest like him. Compared to them, Rodgers is a lamb.”

Philadelphia: Then fans, who had been surrounding the players, smothered out the action with mauling and swinging. Coach McGuire was hit three times in his role of peacemaker, and it took 10 minutes for police to restore order.

Boston: Nobody was tossed out of the game for this ruckus because [Auerbach nemesis and] referee-in-chief Sid Borgia, who worked to game with Drucker, said too many were involved. But Chamberlain was awarded a foul shot against Jones’ charge.

Philadelphia’s Guy Rodgers (r) makes his dive away from Boston’s Jim Loscutoff.

Philadelphia: The restored order was only temporary. Rodgers was the central figure in the second uprising moments later. He was driving for a basket, was cut down at the waist by Loscutoff, the league’s undisputed hatchet king. Rodgers went down, bounced up, grabbed Loscutoff, and slammed him face first into the floor under the basket.

Loscutoff bounced up, took a flying tackle at Rodgers and missed. Guy made a dive for the suddenly popular photographer’s stool, and awaited Jim’s next charge. It didn’t come because Frank Radovich, husky Tribe sub, grabbed Loscutoff in a strong bear hold and wouldn’t let go. Rodgers, meanwhile, was being pounded by spectators and wound up seven rows deep in the stands before being rescued by police. The men in blue yoked the two most-violent spectators with arm locks, hustled them off to the pokey, and peace was restored, 

Boston: Tempers still were hot when Loscutoff charged Rodgers under the basket, and Guy gave him a little nudge sending him flying through the steel uprights. Jim picked himself up like enraged bull and charged at Rodgers, who fortunately fell down. Or he might have landed in the balcony. Loscutoff fell over Rodgers and immediately was grabbed by three Warriors on the bench. Rodgers, who previously had scorned Jones for picking up a stool as protection against Chamberlain, grabbed the same stool as protection against Loscutoff. Again, the benches emptied, the fans and police spilled onto the floor. This time, no punches were thrown.

Jim Loscutoff (r) is restrained.

Philadelphia: Tom Heinsohn, weeping Celtic forward who didn’t get into any of the earlier action, tried to crash the party minutes later by throwing an elbow at Rodgers on a drive, getting nothing but a foul for his efforts.

He was more successful the second time. He charged Warrior sub Ted Luckenbill, body-blocked him to the floor, and was tossed out of the game by ref Borgia. Finally, things calm down long enough to complete what started out to be a ballgame.

Boston: No sooner had play started again, when Heinsohn charged Ted Luckenbill near the same basket. Borgia immediately tossed Tommy out of the game. Heinsohn was still red-eyed from having almost been flattened early in the quarter by his old adversary, Tom Meschery. As Heinsohn took his favorite hook shot, he was hit hard by Meschery. “He almost cold-cocked me,” Heinsohn said bitterly. “It was his sixth foul, and he was out of the game, and he wanted to make it a good one. They were knocking us all around into the basket without having fouls called on them. But every time we retaliated, a foul was called.” 

Sitting next to Heinsohn was Bob Cousy. In the third period, Cousy had been sent flying onto the floor between the uprights by an Ed Conlin shove. Enraged, he jumped up looking for a fight. He admitted later he didn’t know whether it was Conlin or Luckenbill who shoved him. “I didn’t think it was Ed,” he said, “because we’re good friends. I know him well. I didn’t think he’d do it.”

“That’s a lot of hooey,” chipped in Heinsohn. “I don’t buy that. Look what he did to Russell in Philadelphia yesterday. There are no friends in this game. They were all trying to give it to us.”

The series now switches to Philadelphia for the sixth game tomorrow night. “Let’s have the fellows who want to play basketball on one side,” said Russell, “and the fellows who want to fight in another place.”

[Five players with a stern $50 fine each, then a significant amount, for taking part in the hooey. The fined included Jones, Loscutoff, Heinsohn, Rodgers, and Luckenbill. “I’m advising both teams that if the next game or games are marred by similar scuffling, severe fines and suspensions will be in order,” said league president, Mo Podoloff, a.k.a., Pumpernickel to the players.

I did find a mention of the Battle of Boston Garden in Red Auerbach’s 1977 autobiography, which he co-authored with the then-young Boston writer Joe Fitzgerald. Surprise! Auerbach blames the whole thing on Wilt. 

“Tempers flared again in game five when Sam drove on Wilt late in the final period. He got hit on the chest as he went by, so he snapped at the big guy. Wilt, obviously tired and no doubt irritated by the Celtics’ lead, shouted back and began moving towards him. Sam reached for a photographer’s stool and waived it menacingly over his head. “If I’m going to fight him,” he explained afterwards, “I’m not going to fight fair.”

Wilt also throws in a brief mention in his 1973 autobiography with writer David Shaw. Surprise! Wilt says it wasn’t his fault.  He and Jones collided. Wilt wrote that the two teams nearly had “another near-riot in the fifth game when Sam Jones and I collided, and he ran over to the sidelines, picked up a ballboy’s wooden stool and came charging at me.”

Ready for one final surprise? Here’s an excerpt from Mark Bodanza’s recent biography of Sam Jones titled Ten Times a Champion. Remember Jones is reflecting on an incident that occurred more than 50 years earlier. Some of the details likely aren’t correct (for example, Jones clearly didn’t try to foul Wilt). Here you go.]

Sam hit the goliath Warriors’ center hard when he went up for a basket, trying to instead send Wilt to the foul line. “I knew I hit him too hard. I felt bad. He was angry.” Chamberlain went after Sam Jones with a vengeance. “I knew I couldn’t fight him,” remembers Sam. “He was the strongest player in the league.”

Sam knew he needed to protect himself, so he grabbed a photographer’s stool out from under him and fended off the 7-feet-1 Chamberlain as if he was a circus trainer. “Chamberlain told me he was going to make me eat that stool,” recalls Sam. That worked long enough to permit Sam’s teammates to come to the rescue. Russell grabbed Wilt by the waist, and the remainder of Sam’s teammates formed a protective screen around their threatened teammates. The incident is forever immortalized in a notable Boston sports photograph.

As dramatic as the action of the court, the untold part of the story, or what happened next, maybe just as interesting. The Celtics traveled to Philadelphia for game six, scheduled for Tuesday, April 3. After Sam settled into his hotel room, you had a visitor who picked him up at the entrance to the lobby. After a short ride with Will Chamberlain, the two stopped at Wilt’s mother’s house for dinner. Sam sat down to the table with Wilt, his mom, and brother and sister . . .

“We had chicken and rice with good gravy of course. It was free, and that made it even better,” remember as a smiling Sam. Mrs. Chamberlain couldn’t help but ask what Sam intended to do with that stool a few nights before? Sam was candid. “I was going to break your son’s legs, ma’am. He was trying to kill me.”

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