1976 classic endeared Suns to Valley fans

Greatest Game Ever

By Bob Young
The Arizona Republic
June 3, 2001


Where were you on June 4, 1976?


For more Phoenix Suns coverage, check out www.azcentral.com, Arizona's homepage.
If you were a basketball fan, particularly a follower of the Suns, maybe this will help:

It was the night the Suns and the Boston Celtics battled it out in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Twenty-five years later, that three-overtime classic still is regarded by many as The Greatest Game Ever Played.

It had all the elements of a game for the ages:

  • It matched a huge underdog, the Suns, against the NBA's most storied franchise, the Celtics.

  • It was played on the parquet floor of venerable Boston Garden.

  • It had great individual performances, dramatic plays, unlikely heroes and controversy.

  • It was the pivotal game in a championship series.

    "After all these years, the thing that occurs to me is what a privilege it is to have been involved in that game," said Paul Westphal, the current head coach at Pepperdine who was in his first year with the Suns after being traded by the Celtics.

    "That game meant so much to so many people. It's a game that nearly every fan who watched still remembers.

    The Suns' Alvan Adams and Gar Heard battle Boston's John Havlicek for the rebound.
    "And that game was a microcosm of our season. We were horrible in the beginning, stayed together, made an improbable run and, boy, we made it interesting in the end."

    The irony, of course, is that the Suns lost the game 128-126. It gave the Celtics a 3-2 lead in the series, and they closed out the Suns two days later at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

    The Suns still don't have an NBA championship. But that game, and a remarkable playoff run, left an indelible imprint on the Valley.

    "There is no doubt that season, that year, that team, that series and that game specifically galvanized the community," said Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo, then the general manager. "It brought a community together. People of different persuasions and different parts of country rallied around that team, and we were becoming a melting pot even then."

    That game has since been introduced to even more fans as a staple of classic sports broadcasts.

    "I never knew I'd be making history," said Ricky Sobers, a rookie guard on that team. "They've actually immortalized us. Nothing wrong with that at all. I still go out and continue to meet people that remember that game. It feels like half the people in the world have seen it."

    Out of nowhere
    Maybe what made that game so special was how the Suns got to it in the first place.

    The 1975-76 Suns went through a brutal midseason stretch in which they lost 18 of 24 games and fell into last place.

    It was an odd team, a blend of veterans such as Dick Van Arsdale, Pat Riley and Keith Erickson who were in the twilight of their careers, and a pair of impact rookies, Alvan Adams and Sobers.

    It was undersized, with 6-foot-9 Adams in the middle.

    The Suns also had Westphal, who came over in a trade for Charlie Scott before the season, and they acquired forward Garfield Heard at midseason.

    When Van Arsdale suffered a broken wrist in late February, it looked as if the season was lost.

    "The team was on the bus and everybody was down after they sent Van home," Suns broadcaster Al McCoy said. "All of a sudden, (coach) John MacLeod marched over to the bus driver and told him to pull over.

    "He told them they were feeling sorry for themselves because they lost their captain and the season wasn't going the way they expected.

    "He started asking them, 'What are you here for? Why are you on this bus?'

    "They set a goal to make the playoffs, and things turned around."

    Phil Lumpkin, who would be a key figure in Game 5, remembers another turning point that also offered a glimpse of one player's future.

    Suns guard Dick Van Arsdale shoots a jumper over the Celtics' Charlie Scott.
    "We had just gotten blown out in Chicago, and I remember Pat Riley addressing the team," Lumpkin said. "He pointed out a couple of guys I won't mention and said they were playing buddy-buddy basketball.

    "He said the rest of us were depending on those guys to make the playoffs and it couldn't continue if we were going to win."

    Riley remembers giving the speech, but not the particulars.

    "I was a talker," said Riley, who went on to greater speeches as coach of the Lakers, Knicks and Heat. "I wasn't playing much then, but I was the elder statesman."

    It must have worked. The Suns won seven in a row after Riley's speech, including a victory in Los Angeles against the Lakers that clinched a playoff spot.

    Riley hit a running left-handed hook in that game against the Lakers.

    "He didn't have that shot," remembered Dennis Awtrey, a key reserve behind Adams on that team. "I had never even seen him use it in practice. At the end of the game, he throws in a left-handed hook across the middle to beat his old team."

    The Suns started thinking that something special might be happening.

    After winning 10 of their final 13 games to finish 42-40, they upset Seattle in six games to open the playoffs.

    Next, the Suns faced the Golden State Warriors, the defending NBA champions who had rolled through the regular season.

    But the red-hot Suns won a double-overtime thriller in Game 4 thanks to a clutch shot from Erickson, won Game 6 at home by a point and then stunned the Warriors on the road in Game 7 to advance to the NBA Finals.

    'Monstrous' upset
    "That was a monstrous upset," said Joe Gilmartin, former Phoenix Gazette columnist who was the first to put The Greatest Game Ever Played tag on Game 5 of the Finals - in the June 5, 1976, edition of the Gazette.

    "That Golden State upset came out of nowhere," he said. "The Warriors dominated the league in every respect. It was huge, but nobody ever talks about that."

    Perhaps that is because the Suns had more to offer.

    They lost the first two games of the Finals by 11 and 15 in Boston.

    But when Phoenix won Games 3 and 4 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the momentum changed.

    Hello, history
    Curtis Perry pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds to go with 23 points.
    That set the stage for The Game.

    Tip-off was scheduled for 9 p.m. on a Friday. Boston Garden was stifling hot and rocking in anticipation of another blowout.

    Broadcaster Brent Musburger recalls that Boston patriarch Red Auerbach had whipped the fans into a lather by suggesting that CBS and Musburger were biased toward the Suns in Games 3 and 4.

    "To be honest, I probably was," said Musburger, who still calls NBA games for ESPN Radio. "I was hoping it would be a six- or seven-game series. That's what any network wants.

    "They were waiting for me with everything but tire irons."

    One elderly fan went after Musburger and had to be restrained. Another hit him with a pair of old undershorts.

    "It would have been a memorable night for me even without the classic ending," Musburger lamented.

    When the Celtics jumped out early and the Suns lost Erickson, who sprained his ankle when he stepped on John Havlicek's foot, it looked as if the fans would get what they expected.

    "We were up 22 on them early," said Tommy Heinsohn, coach of the Celtics that season and now a Boston broadcaster. "But Paul Westphal spun his magic, and they came back."

    MacLeod and others credit Lumpkin, now a high school coach in Seattle.

    "It was like we were hyperventilating," MacLeod said. "(Lumpkin) was a very deliberate guard, and when we put him in, he slowed everything down.

    "It calmed everybody down, and we made a heck of a run. I think we'd have been blown out if not for Phil Lumpkin."

    Erickson was in the Phoenix locker room with ice on his ankle.

    "I had an interesting perspective," he said. "I had an earpiece so I could hear Musburger call the game, and I could hear the fans stomping."

    Erickson could follow the ebb and flow by the crowd noise and Musburger's call as the Suns got back into it.

    Still, the Celtics were in control late in regulation.

    "I was lying on the table in the fourth quarter, and the ballboys came in with the sweat pants and jackets," Erickson said. "They were laughing and joking around because the Celtics were about to win.

    "A couple minutes later, the stomping had stopped and the ballboys came back to get the jackets and take them back out."

    The Suns took their first lead of the game with 23 seconds to play in the fourth quarter, but Havlicek hit one of two free throws with 19 seconds to go to send the game into overtime.

    The timeout
    "It wasn't a great game until the overtimes," Gilmartin said. "The Suns were horrible early in regulation. The Celtics were horrible late in regulation."

    Twice, the Celtics led by four points in the first overtime, and each time the Suns came back.

    Alvan Adams recorded 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists on the night compared to Dave Cowens' 26 points, five rebounds and four assists. Both centers fouled out.
    Heard tied the score at 101, but the most controversial moment came when Boston's Paul Silas stole the ball with three seconds to go and tried to call a timeout.

    The Celtics didn't have a timeout.

    Referee Richie Powers, now deceased, ignored Silas' pleas for the timeout. Had he given it to the Celtics, a technical foul would have been called.

    "I'd put my money on Paul Westphal making that free throw," MacLeod said.

    Westphal said he saw Silas call the timeout.

    "And so did Richie Powers," Westphal said, laughing.

    Silas, coach of the Charlotte Hornets, said he tried.

    "That's what everybody still talks about 25 years later," he said. "That's all right with me. I did. I tried to call one and Richie Powers didn't see me or didn't want to see me.

    "He didn't acknowledge it. I know they feel if he had, it would have been a different ending. Bottom line is that he didn't and we got another ring."

    Some within the Suns organization said Powers later told a Phoenix golf professional that he didn't want to see the championship decided on a technicality.

    Still, Al Bianchi, MacLeod's assistant coach, had a ring made years later on which he had the words "(Expletive) You, Richie Powers" neatly inscribed.

    It ain't over yet
    On to the second overtime they went, and Westphal's steal led to a Curtis Perry jumper with five seconds to go that gave the Suns a one-point lead.

    But Havlicek made amends for his missed free throw in regulation with a 15-foot running leaner.

    Gar Heard launches "The Shot" to send the game to a third overtime.
    When he hit the shot, fans stormed the court and the Celtics left the floor.

    "Guys had taken the tape off their ankles. Havlicek had his shoes off," recalled Dave Cowens, the Celtics center who now coaches the Warriors.

    But Powers determined that there was a second left on the clock.

    A fan attacked him. Awtrey went onto the floor thinking somebody was attacking Perry.

    There was bedlam.

    In the maelstrom, Westphal hit upon a stroke of genius. He suggested that the Suns take a timeout they didn't have, which would result in a technical foul.

    While it would give Boston a free throw, it also meant Phoenix would get to inbound the ball at midcourt instead of from beneath its defensive basket.

    "I always believed you shouldn't benefit from an illegality," Heinsohn said. "And they did."

    The shot
    The NBA changed the rule the next season, but the Suns got to inbound from midcourt after Jo Jo White's free throw.

    Meanwhile, Silas was being ignored again. This time, he suggested to Heinsohn that the Celtics foul because the Suns weren't in the bonus situation.

    "(Heinsohn) didn't think they'd get a shot off," Silas said. "Lo and behold ..."

    The Suns had drawn up a backdoor play for Heard, but the Celtics defended it.

    So Perry threw the ball to Heard about 18 feet from the rim.

    He caught and shot.

    The high-arching beauty hit the bottom of the net, forcing a third overtime.

    "The funny thing is that if the fans hadn't gone onto the floor and attacked Richie Powers, we probably wouldn't have had the chance to get that shot," said Heard, an Atlanta Hawks assistant coach.

    "The fans probably sent it to a third overtime. Just being in Boston, I never thought we would get the shot off (before the buzzer).

    "The thing I'll always remember is that Ricky Sobers was standing under the basket with the ball in his hands after it went through the basket. He had a smile from cheek to cheek standing there holding that ball."

    McCoy had his hands full, too. A drunk had been punching him in the shoulder each time the Celtics did something good during the game.

    "When Gar hit that shot, he leaped up and passed out right in my lap," McCoy said. "Tom Ambrose was keeping statistics for me, and he was trying to get him off me. It was not the best of conditions."

    During timeouts, Bianchi tried to keep fans out of the Phoenix huddle with little success. Colangelo was so upset with security that he threatened not to bring the Suns back to Boston for a potential Game 7 if something wasn't done.

    "I think we would have been there," Colangelo said, laughing. "But I wanted to send a message."

    In the third overtime, with Suns center Adams and Awtrey fouled out and both teams exhausted, Boston reserve Glenn McDonald, now a Los Angeles Sparks assistant, scored six points and Westphal just barely missed another steal as Boston held on to win the game.

    Heinsohn fainted after the game and had to be hospitalized.

    The Suns are convinced they would have won Game 6 in Phoenix had they come out of Boston with a victory.

    "After we lost that game, we came home flat," longtime trainer Joe Proski said. "The crowd was flat, so was the team. The bottom line is that whoever won that game won the championship.

    "If we had won it, we'd have knocked them off here in Game 6."

    The Celtics won 87-80 and hung another banner. But the Suns won over a city.

    "This is a game that won't go away," Colangelo said. "The fact is, it's such a historic game that it's never out of your mind, really. It's always there. It keeps coming back."

    COPYRIGHT 2001 Arizona Central. Used with permission.
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