BOSTON — For many fans of the New England Patriots, there’s an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world vibe now that Tom Brady has left for Tampa Bay.
Arguably the greatest NFL quarterback ever, Brady’s departure has created a void that regardless of who lines up under center next season, he will fall well short of the play of his predecessor.
The weight and pressure of being the next man up following an all-time great player is something Hank Finkel knows a thing or two about.
Filling the shoes of Brady is a daunting concept, for sure.
Just imagine what Finkel was attempting to do when the Boston Celtics acquired him in 1969 as a starting center to replace the newly-retired Bill Russell.
Russell, a 12-time All-Star, winner of 11 NBA titles, a five-time League MVP with a 22.5 rebounds per game career average … yeah, that Russell.
“Nobody could take Russell’s place,” Finkel, 77, said in a phone interview with NBC Sports Boston. “That was absurd.”
YEAR ONE: REPLACING AN ICON
But Russell was gone, and Finkel was brought in to be the team’s starting center.
So the comparisons were inevitable, regardless of how unfair and unrealistic that might have been at the time.
“It wasn’t a pleasant situation, to be honest,” said Finkel, who has lived in Lynnfield, Mass. for nearly 50 years. “The fans took it out on me because I was playing the center position which Russell played. Because we didn’t make the playoffs or championship, the fans got frustrated and took it out on me. It was a real unpleasant time in my basketball career.”
Not only were the Celtics learning that year what life would be like without Russell, Boston was also coping with the retirement of Sam Jones — who, like Russell, would eventually have his Celtics jersey retired in addition to finding his way into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
And the team’s rookie point guard Jo Jo White showed up after the season had already started as he fulfilled military service duties.
THE ROOKIE HEAD COACH
Making matters even more challenging was the fact that the Celtics were breaking in a rookie head coach, Tommy Heinsohn.
The two-time Hall of Famer (as a player and as a coach) would go on to win more games (427) than any Celtics head coach not named Red Auerbach (795).
But he knew going into that first season as the team’s head coach that it was going to be unlike the title runs he was accustomed to as a player.
“Well, it was more or less when I took the job, Red (Auerbach) was going to rebuild the team,” Heinsohn told NBC Sports Boston in a phone interview. “So I didn’t feel any undue pressure. Red Auerbach told me. I knew the situation.”
So when Auerbach told Heinsohn the team had traded for Finkel, it was a chance to coach a player Heinsohn was familiar with due to them having similar backgrounds.
“I knew of Henry Finkel because he was from my hometown in New Jersey,” Heinsohn said. “He’s a 7-footer that went to a little Catholic school in Union, New Jersey (St. Peter’s College) and ended up at Dayton. Big 7-footer, not the most athletic guy but he could shoot the ball. He took up space and he was competitive.”
Finkel was an All-American at Dayton, leading the Flyers to the Sweet 16 in both his junior and senior seasons. As a senior, he averaged 22.7 points, 12.1 rebounds and was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round (17th overall) of the 1966 NBA Draft.
He appeared in just 27 games as a rookie with the Lakers, and was made available for the following season’s expansion draft in which he was selected by the San Diego (now Houston) Rockets.
FINKEL’S MINUTES DROP, ASKS FOR TRADE
Finkel showed the promise many saw in him that first year in San Diego, averaging career highs in several categories such as scoring (11.6 points), rebounding (7.1) and assists (1.4) while shooting 49.2 percent from the field, which was also his best mark.
But in 1968, the Rockets landed the top overall pick and used it to select future Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes which led to an immediate drop in playing time for Finkel.
“We were fighting for the same position, and we know who was gonna win that,” quipped Finkel. “So that left me expendable.”
Finkel then asked to be traded and was pleasantly surprised when told that he would be shipped out to Boston.
Closer to home.
A chance to play more minutes.
It was all Finkel could have wanted; that is until he arrived in Boston and realized the transition wasn’t going to be nearly as smooth as he would have hoped.
Things got off to a promising start for Finkel in his first game when he tallied a double-double of 21 points and 17 rebounds. However, Boston lost 110-108 to the Oscar Robertson-led Cincinnati Royals.
Boston would lose its first four games that year and 14 of its first 20 before finishing the season with a 34-48 record while failing to make the playoffs.
And while there were several factors contributing to the team’s struggles that season, Finkel often found himself being blamed even though Boston was clearly in rebuilding mode — something most Celtics fans knew nothing about because of the team’s dynastic ways back then.
The Celtics dynasty was fueled in large part by Russell, whose shadow of greatness consumed all who came after him.
And in the case of Finkel, if he didn’t know this at first, the Celtics fans reminded him over and over and over again.
“The fans wouldn’t let me forget it,” he said. “They were unmerciful on me; really tough. I can understand the booing stuff, but it was continuous; the name-calling … it was just awful. It wasn’t a good situation for me. I didn’t anticipate that when I got here. It affected me personally, and it affected my family also.”
RED TO FINKEL: “WE’RE GONNA GET YOU SOME HELP”
At the end of that first season, Finkel was ready to retire and said as much to Red Auerbach.
Auerbach didn’t want to see Finkel go, and convinced him that the following season would be better because help was on the way.
The following year, the Celtics added future Hall of Famer Dave Cowens to the roster.
“And the rest is history,” Finkel said.
Cowens’ arrival, along with Boston trading for Paul Silas, allowed Finkel to serve as a key reserve, a player whose defense against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the keys to Boston’s 12th NBA title which came by knocking off the Milwaukee Bucks in 1974.
Fast forward to today where Finkel sees similar challenges awaiting whoever replaces Patriots icon Tom Brady.
It’s too soon to know exactly who the Patriots next quarterback will be.
But when it comes to replacing arguably the best to ever play the game, here’s some advice from Finkel, a man who has been-there, done-that before.
“You better hope that they’re gonna bring in some great players,” he said. “And the reason I say that, is because when Red told me, 'Calm down, we’re gonna get you some help,' the help was Dave Cowens. Now if it were someone else, I’m not sure it would have been as effective as Dave coming here and us starting to win immediately.
"He better hope that the Patriots bring in some great players to accommodate his style. If they don’t and they start losing, the fans are gonna let you know it. If you win, they love you. Look at Tom Brady; he’s a winner. (Bill) Russell was a winner. Cowens was a winner. Larry (Bird) was a winner and they loved him dearly, still love him.”
Finkel added, “But if you lose in New England, they’re gonna run you out of town — or try to run you out of town, anyway.”