Fifty years ago this week—May 2, 1968—the Boston Celtics defeated the L.A. Lakers to win their 10th championship in 12 years, an astonishing feat that has never been repeated in ensuing decades. An integral part of the Celtics’ playoff success that year was Mississippian Bailey Howell, a 6’ 7” forward from Mississippi State University.
While playing for the Bulldogs, Howell set the record for most points scored in a single game—47—a record that still stands today, and is all the more impressive considering that no 3-point line existed at the time. In the 1957-58 season, Howell set a record for most free-throws made—243—and during his three years, he made a total of 682 free throws; both records still stand 60 years later.
In 1958, Howell once shot 100% from the free throw line, going 16 for 16, a feat no Bulldog has managed since. Howell also holds the Mississippi State record for most rebounds in a game, season, and career, as well as the highest average of rebounds per game for a season as well as career. From 1957-59, Howell averaged 27.1 points per game for the Bulldogs, the highest multiple season scoring average in Bulldog history.
Howell joined the National Basketball Association in 1959. From then until 1964, he played for the Detroit Pistons. Then from 1964 to 1966, he played for the Baltimore Bullets (currently known as the Washington Wizards). Though he was having all-star seasons, his teams didn’t stand a chance in the playoffs with the Celtics dominating.
From 1959 to 1966, the Celtics won an astonishing eight titles in a row—a record that no other North American professional sports team has ever touched. Howell joined the Celtics in ’66 and then to 1970, he helped Boston win two titles, bumping their franchise total up to a league high 13. Howell’s career ended with the Philadelphia 76ers during the 1970-71 season.
During Howell’s two championship seasons with the Celtic, he averaged 18.1 points per playoff game and 15 points per playoff game, respectively. His NBA career scoring average was 18.7 points per game. The 1968 Celtics’ playoff run was impressive in that they overcame a 3-1 deficit to defeat the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers in the conference finals—the first time a team ever came from back from 3-1 to win a best of seven series. Today, only 11 teams have ever done this in league history. They would go on to defeat their archrivals, the Lakers, in six games.
During that 1968 championship round, Howell rubbed shoulders with numerous future NBA Hall of Famers such as John Havlicek, Bill Russell, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor, to just name a few.
In 1969, Howell would get a chance to compete against another future hall of famer, Wilt Chamberlain. 1969 was even more impressive in that the Celtics finished with the 4th best record in the Eastern Conference, and were therefore the underdog throughout the playoffs. Losing the first two games to the Lakers, it looked like L.A. would finally succeed in eliminating the Celtics. But Boston came back from the 2-0 deficit—a first in NBA finals history—to win the series in seven games.
Howell himself would get inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997, and then into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. Nine years ago, Mississippi State retired Howell’s jersey, No. 52—the first time MSU had ever so honored a player. Howell, who currently resides in Starkville, is the namesake of the Bailey Howell Award, given each year to the best college player in Mississippi.
Today, the Celtics have a whopping total of 17 championship banners, the most of any franchise in NBA history, with the Lakers coming in second with 16. The Celtics are poised to have home court advantage in the conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers this month, and so another trip to the Finals could well be within reach. Should the Celtics, who finished with the 4th best record overall in the league, claim their 18th championship banner this year, Celtic fans as they reflect back on their team’s legendary history, should remember that banner 10 and 11 would never have been possible without Mississippi legend Bailey Howell.