The Spirit of ’76 - 30 Years After the Greatest Game Ever Played
June 5, 2006
It was a mere 30 years ago that the Boston Celtics battled through three opponents to capture their 13th World Championship title. In the playoff months of April, May and June, the Celtics (in order) polished off: the Buffalo Braves, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Phoenix Suns - winning by the margin of 4-games-to-2 in each round.
The 1976 Celtics were coached by Hall of Famer and former Celtics All-Star forward Tom Heinsohn. The players on this special team were: John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, JoJo White, Paul Silas, Charlie Scott, Don Nelson, Glenn McDonald, Steve Kuberski, Kevin Stacom, Jim Ard, Jerome Anderson, Tom Boswell and Ed Searcy. Nelson, "Nellie", had announced already that this would be his final year. The team would finish the regular season with a 54-28 record - 8 games ahead of both Buffalo and Philadelphia and accomplished without having a scorer among the league's top 20.
The Celtics wanted very little to do with Philadelphia, Washington and the defending champion Golden State Warriors, as each team could have exposed the Celtics easier thus creating an advantage for the opposition in the march to the Finals.
Good news...bad news - the Celtics did not meet any of these three teams, but a painful injury to All-Star John Havlicek shot a jolt of uncertainty into the C's attack.
Boston met the Braves in the Eastern Conference Semi-Final series, after Buffalo defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 2-games-to-1, in the Eastern Conference Qualifying Round (equivalent of the First Round today). Havlicek, in the opening game of the series, suffered his nagging injury. "I had a torn plantar fascia in my right arch and I would miss the next three games of this series." recalled the captain. "I would ice it as much as I could and hoped that my teammates would carry the load."
The Celtics would capture Games 1 and 2 in Boston then Buffalo would return the favor in Games 3 and 4 in Buffalo. But that is all the Braves could garner as the Green and White cemented Games 5 and 6 to advance. Cowens paced the Celtics attack in the series averaging 24.5 points and 17.8 rebounds, while Scott poured-in 31 points to lead all players in scoring in Game 6. Despite his injuries, Havlicek still logged 35 and 32 minutes of action in the final two games of this series.
The Cavaliers were no easy prey for the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Amazingly and exactly like the Buffalo series, the Celtics raced out to win the first two games (both in Boston) and the Cavaliers were victorious on their home court in Games 3 and 4. The Celtics then promptly went on to win Games 5 and 6. White, now in his seventh season with the Green and White, led Boston in this six game tug-of-war averaging 22.5 points while playing 42.2 minutes per game. Havlicek continued to play in severe pain and would be limited to just a few minutes of playing time in Games 4 and 5.
The Finals and the Epic Game
The Phoenix Suns almost seemed an unlikely candidate for the NBA Finals. This was a team that finished third in the Pacific Division, two games above the .500 mark (at 42-40) and a whopping 17 games behind the division-leading (and the best win-loss record in the league that season) Golden State Warriors. But, like the Celtics, the Suns were a gritty and fundamentally sound unit. Phoenix defeated Seattle 4-games-to-2 in their Western Conference Semi-Finals series and shocked the Warriors, winning Game 7 in Oakland.
"They were a tough ball club," remembers Celtics President Red Auerbach, who was General Manager at this time. "But we were equal to the task and the fact that we had ball players who had played several years together and won the championship a couple years earlier (1974) really helped."
On May 23, 1976 at the Boston Garden, the Celtics were paced by Cowens' 25 points and 21 rebounds (while playing all 48 minutes) and White's 22 points. Havlicek, while still playing on one foot, scored 16 points in 40 minutes. Scott's 15 points and Silas' 14 rebounds and team field goal shooting of 50.7% helped secure Game 1, 98-87.
May 27, 1976, Game 2 at the famous Garden saw a tight first half (with Boston leading 46-41 at the break) then the Green and White jumped out of the second half gates with a strong third quarter outscoring the Suns, 34-16, en route to a 105-90 victory. The ever-resilient Havlicek, in 34 minutes, scored a team-high 23 points. Silas (17) and Cowens (12) controlled the boards.
With two victories in hand for the Celtics, the scene shifted to Phoenix.
"I remember John McLeod (Suns Head Coach) complaining after the first two games that Silas and Cowens were 'mauling' is players," recalls Havlicek. "He actually went to New York and met with the Commissioner at the league offices with his plea. Well, in the next two games at Phoenix, there must have been 85 or 90 total fouls called."
The Suns grabbed both contests, thanks in part to strong first quarter showings in each game. Phoenix raced out to a 26-17 advantage after one quarter in Game 3 and 35-30 after the first stanza in Game 4. The series, now knotted at 2 games apiece, returned to Boston with the pressure on the boys in Green and White.
It was a humid Friday night, June 4, 1976, and the Boston Garden did not have any fancy air conditioning but it did hold 15,320 screaming fans. What is widely considered the greatest professional basketball game ever played really did not start out that way as Boston led 36-18 after one quarter and by 22 points, 42-20, in the second. But the pesky Suns kept chipping away fueled by former Celtic Paul Westphal's offensive outburst in the final minutes of regulation to tie the game and force overtime.
Each team paced themselves, scoring just six points each, to force a second overtime, which came down to one shot...for both teams!
With the Suns leading, 110-109 and few precious seconds remaining, the call for Havlicek went out.
"On this particular night, we had JoJo be the option and he was covered then Cowens was the second option and he was covered. Don Nelson was taking the ball out of bounds and I knew he had 5 seconds to put the ball in play it seemed like he wasn't able to do anything," reflected Havlicek. "Probably at about 4.5 seconds I broke toward him and he inbounded the ball to me. With only a few seconds left so I started immediately to drive to the hoop and I saw two defenders and I figured I'll split the defenders and, hopefully, one of them will foul me and that will put me on the line. As I approached the two guys, they just backed off because they were told in their huddle 'don't foul under any circumstances'. As I jumped up in the air to try and get a piece of either one of them, they backed away and that's when I put in that bank shot that everyone thought had won the game (111-110)."
Both teams went to their locker rooms and the celebration for the Celtics had started. However, that's when the officials came in and said there was still two seconds remaining.
"Everyone was jumping around, everyone was excited and I cut my tape off (from around his ankles)," JoJo White remembers. "I saying, what can happen in two seconds? We go out, take care of the two seconds and the game is over."
Phoenix had the ball but Suns guard Paul Westphal called timeout. The Suns had no timeouts left. Westphal would draw a technical foul and give Boston a free throw. White, somehow, calmly made the free throw to move the lead to 112-110. Phoenix received the ball at halfcourt. It was just enough time for Suns forward Gar Heard to launch and make a turnaround 22-foot shot at the buzzer - the shot heard around the world.
The third overtime brought out additional Celtic heroes, like Jim Ard, who replaced Cowens after the center had fouled-out, sank two free throws and Glenn McDonald, replacing the fouled-out Silas, scored six huge points en route to the 128-126 victory.
"I went down early that afternoon with my son for shootaround (as I couldn't really practice with the team due to the injury)," Havlicek remembers. "With my injury I could play a little bit until it got sore and figured if I could get 20 minutes out of my body that would probably be it."
Havlicek played 58 out of the possible 63 minutes in the triple overtime game. White tallied 60 minutes.
"What I remember of the fifth game involved the rule change for the following year. Basically, it meant that a team could not benefit from an illegal timeout," Tommy Heinsohn chuckled. "I also remember the team that was able to stand up for the next game (following the triple overtime affair) was going to win because it really drained everybody emotionally and physically."
In Game 6 in Phoenix, more unusual happenings. No overtime sessions but the start time. This game started at 11 am because the US Open golf tournament was scheduled for the same day. It was 107 degrees and a majority of the churches were closed for the day. But the five Boston starters: Havlicek, Silas, Cowens, Scott and White all scored in double figures and Cowens (17), Silas (13) and Scott (11) each pulled down double-figure rebound totals in the 87-80 series finale and the world championship honors.
"If you hold up your end, that is what this team was all about," summarized White. "No one wanted to let the other one down, in crunch time or any time. You might have made a 'goof' ball play but then someone would save you or vice versa. That's what I remember about this team."