Posted Oct 21 2010 9:27AM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:09PM
I didn't watch the best game I ever saw. In 1976, when the Celtics and Suns played in the NBA Finals, Game 5 didn't start until 9 p.m., bedtime for us kids. And since our family didn't have a VCR (that's video cassette recorder, for you Generation Tech youngsters), and 24-hour sports networks weren't yet invented, there were no replays or highlights. That game stood as a myth for 20 years, until someone from NBA Entertainment slipped me a fuzzy copy.
So, what did I miss?
Oh, just a few plays here and there.
There's nothing quite like watching theater as it happens. The goosebumps swelling, the grapefruit in the throat and the paralysis from being caught by surprise ... that's all part of the experience of seeing it live.
Well, 20 years after the fact, I already knew who won and how it ended. And yet it didn't matter. This was witnessing, however belatedly, an epic championship game that was once, twice, three times a gem. Three overtimes of amazing basketball still managed to resonate, even then, even now.
You can still hear Brent Musburger: "Garfield Heard, turnaround jump shot, IT'S GOOOOAAAHHHEEEEDD."
You watched a game that you thought -- or hoped anyway -- would never end. And if Paul Westphal got his hands on a Celtics' pass near the end of the third OT for the steal, maybe they'd still be playing right now at the old Boston Garden.
Best. Game. Ever. Just look it up.
Truthfully, it was the best three OTs ever. The game itself, as in the 48-minute regulation, was fine but nothing special. The Celtics actually led by 22 at one point. JoJo White was killing Phoenix. Then the Suns chipped away in the second half. John Havlicek, usually a clutch guy, missed a free throw with 19 seconds left, forcing OT, where the fun really began.
The first OT went back and forth, and the score was tied with three seconds left. Then came one of the game's five Biggest Moments (we'll cite the other four in a bit). Paul Silas grabbed a loose ball and signaled for timeout. Well, the Celtics had none. That should've been a technical foul. Except the officiating crew, Richie Powers in particular, didn't see Silas. Or pretended not to see Silas. Westphal, a career 82-percent free-throw shooter, should've been at the line. Game over.
Instead, game on. The second OT was the one you see on all the flashbacks, and for good reason. Westphal made a steal, Curtis Perry hit a big jumper (Moment No. 2) and the Suns led by one with five seconds left. What a game. And then Hondo (Moment No. 3) took an inbounds pass and sank a 15-foot leaner at the buzzer (or so everyone thought) for the apparent one-point win.
Fans roamed the Garden floor (there was no courtside security back then) and half the Celtics were already in the locker room. Hondo said later his shoes were already off. But Powers, perhaps feeling a bit of remorse from the Silas non-technical, ordered a second put back on the game clock. The film doesn't show it, but supposedly, because of this, Powers was nearly attacked by an enraged fan.
What could possibly happen in a measly second? Moment No. 4. In one of the all-time smartest basketball plays, Westphal ran to Powers and called timeout, knowing the Suns didn't have any. A technical free throw was awarded to the Celtics, which JoJo made, giving Boston a two-point lead.
But Westphal's crafty move also allowed the Suns to inbound the ball at midcourt, rather than under their own basket. How many players -- or coaches, for that matter -- would have the wherewithal, with chaos swarming all around, to clear their head and think of such a thing?
Which led to Moment No. 5. Heard was a midseason pickup for the Suns. And he played 61 of a possible 63 minutes in Game 5. Surely, with a second left in the second OT, the Suns down a basket, he was tired. Many years later, when he coached the Mavericks, I asked Heard about his Moment, and he laughed, somewhat sarcastically.
"It's not even 2 o'clock in the afternoon," he said, "and you're the second person to ask me about that today."
Heard continued: "People come up to me all the time, even now, all these years later. It's just one of those things people will never forget."
The turnaround jumper. From 18 feet. He took an inbounds pass from Perry. The ball cleared the rim and softly rolled around inside the net. Tie score again. After the basket, the Garden was silent; all you could hear was Musburger screaming.
In the third OT, the Celtics were led by Glenn McDonald, a reserve who would only play nine more games in his short NBA career. He scored six points. Everyone else was whipped. With the Celtics up a basket in the last few seconds, Westphal nearly came up with another steal. He should've been the hero, along with Perry or maybe Heard.
Instead, Celtics 128, Suns 126.
Well worth the 20-year wait.
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