The Longest Day
When the Suns and Celtics hooked up in Game 5 of the ’76 Finals, everyone was expecting a quick resolution. Little did they know …
More than one newspaper declared it The Greatest Game Ever Played, a label that lives on today. The legend grows with every replay on ESPN Classic.
The strange truth, however, is that if not for a missed John Havlicek free throw in the closing seconds of regulation, Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals would be considered just another Boston Celtics win. For most of the first 48 minutes, in fact, it was a poorly played contest.
“Not what you would consider a classic,” admits Dick Van Arsdale, whose Phoenix Suns fell into a 22-point hole early on, giving credence to the belief that they were not in the same league as the Boston Celtics.
Sure, the Suns had stunned the defending-champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. And yes, they had recovered from an 0-2 deficit to even up the championship series with a couple of wins in the desert, despite having dropped all four regular season meetings with the Celtics.
But the 8-year-old franchise was obviously living on luck. After all, with a 42-40 regular-season record, the Suns were fortunate even to be in the playoffs, let alone in the tradition-rich Boston Garden competing for a title against the 54-28 Celtics.
“Cosmic forces at work,” jokes then-Celtics coach and current Boston broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn of the Suns’ second-half surge that set the stage for history. “Paul Westphal was just absolutely fantastic in their comeback. He made like two or three 360 (-degree) moves full speed.”
Led by the inspired play of their star guard (who had been acquired from Boston in an offseason trade) and the steady hand of their seldom-used reserve, Phil Lumpkin, the Suns slowly crept back into the game. Just as the visitors had struggled in the first half, the home team was out of sync in the second and eventually relinquished the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
Suns center Alvan Adams fouled out with 19 seconds to go, sending Havlicek to the line with a chance to retake the advantage in the game and, likely, in the series. But Hondo was off target on his second attempt, sending the game into overtime, tied at 95.
Suns forward Keith Erickson, a double-digit scorer who had rolled his ankle in the first half, could hear the fans stomping their feet from inside the locker room as the Celtics took control in the extra period. But back-to-back buckets from his teammates Curtis Perry and Gar Heard knotted the score again. Another Havlicek miss, this time from the corner, and it was on to overtime No. 2.
“It’s a good thing it’s Friday night,” CBS Sports broadcaster Brent Musberger told the audience on national television. “You kids don’t have to go to school tomorrow. Ask your dad to get you another Coca-Cola.”
No caffeine was needed for the Celtics, whose pressure defense and crisp passing allowed them to grab hold of the game yet again. With a pump-fake and a drive inside, Jo Jo White laid in two of his 33 points on the night, giving Boston a 109-106 lead with 19 seconds left. But a Van Arsdale field goal, a Westphal theft and a Perry jumper later, the Suns were suddenly on top, 110-109. It was only Phoenix’s second lead of the entire night.
The Celtics’ all-time leading scorer and the Finals MVP in ’74, Havlicek wasn’t about to miss again. He didn’t. With five seconds to go, the 14-year veteran caught the inbounds pass, dribbled up court and let go a running, leaning 15-footer that banked in as the clock expired and the Garden erupted.
“We all ran off the court and thought the game was over, because we were ahead by one,” recalls Celtics forward Paul Silas.
The 15,320 Boston fans thought so, too, and began a victory celebration that quickly spilled out onto the parquet floor.
“The security was not very good. I think (Celtics president) Red Auerbach planned it that way,” laughs Van Arsdale, now the Suns’ senior executive vice president. “There were probably 300, 400 fans on the court.”
Adams, who had watched the final play from the bench, was confused.
“It was like, ‘The people are rushing the floor! Is the game over?'” remembers Adams. 'I don’t think so. Nah, there’s still some time left.'"
Sure enough, referee Richie Powers signaled that there was still time on the clock. One second, to be exact. And while Suns broadcaster Al McCoy tried to get out from underneath a drunken fan who had passed out in his lap, Powers tried to escape the wrath of one angry fan, who had attacked him.
“The fans were irate,” says former Clippers, Hornets and Cavs head man Silas, one of seven players in the game who went on to become NBA coaches. “It was unbelievable.”
“Pandemonium,” is the way Celtics center Dave Cowens describes the unusual scene.
While the Suns regrouped and the fans were separated from the court, the Celtics were notified that the game was not yet over. The already balmy building was about to get a whole lot hotter.
“They called us back onto the floor, and I wasn’t a happy puppy,” says Heinsohn. “This game now was somewhere around midnight, for crying out loud.”
“Would you believe that I had gone in and cut my tape off?” adds White, who earned MVP honors for the series. “I thought the game was over and then, ‘Oh, there’s one second on the clock. Really, what can happen in one second?'”
Not much, one would think, but Westphal had an idea. By calling a timeout they didn’t have, the Suns were given a technical, which gave the Celtics a free throw and the two-point lead, 112-110. But the strategic move allowed the Suns to inbound the ball at midcourt instead of underneath the opposite baseline, a rule that was changed the following season.
“That was a great call on Paul’s part,” says Suns head coach John MacLeod, who quickly drew up a play for Westy while fans continued to run into, and get shoved out of, the Phoenix huddle. Jerry Colangelo, then the Suns GM and now their chairman and CEO, threatened not to bring his team back to Boston for Game 7 if security didn’t regain control.
The Suns took their positions on the court, which was surrounded by a human wall of police and anxious fans, and Perry was handed the ball.
“We had the play set up for Paul to shoot a jump shot in the corner,” MacLeod says, “but they covered him.”
With their first option denied, Perry inbounded the ball to Heard, who had set the pick for Westphal and was open at the top of the key. The 6-6 forward, who had blocked a potential series-winning shot by Warrior Jamaal Wilkes in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals two weeks earlier, turned and fired a high-arching jumper over the outstretched arm of Celtics forward Don Nelson.
“He took a deep shot with a man right in his face,” sighs Heinsohn, “and he made it.”
The fans, who only minutes earlier were screaming, laughing and crying, were struck silent, as if the wind had been knocked out of them all at once. Awtrey, meanwhile, waved at the crowd to take a seat; the “Sunderella Suns,” as they’d been nicknamed in the Phoenix media, had a new lease on life.
“I think people remember me more for three seconds than they do for the rest of my career,” joked Heard in June of 2001 during an NBA.com chat on the 25th anniversary of “the shot Heard round the world.”
Silas, who had argued with Heinsohn that the Celtics should use their last foul instead of giving Phoenix a shot, couldn’t believe they were going to a third OT.
“I didn’t think anyone would win,” says the rugged forward, who scored 17 points before becoming the third Celtic to foul out.
Eventually, someone did win, although not without one last five-minute fight. Back and forth the Celtics and Suns traded jumpers, as if putting on a shooting clinic. Nelson, Sobers, Perry, White, Heard and White again knocked down shots. But it was a rookie by the name of Glenn McDonald who made the difference, bringing fresh legs off the bench for Boston and scoring six quick points for the 128-120 lead.
Still, the game was not over. The Suns attempted another rally, reeling off six straight points of their own, including a length-of-the-court pass from Perry to a streaking Westphal, who scored to bring the Suns within two with 11 seconds to go. Turning and racing back down the floor, Westy’s reaching hand tipped a pass to Silas, but the Celtics maintained control and outlasted the Suns, 128-126.
After the game, Heinsohn collapsed in the locker room and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he spent the rest of the night.
“I got dehydrated and just conked out,” he explains. “You know, it was a pressure-packed ball game.”
It was also the key ballgame of the series. The Celtics traveled to Phoenix with the win and the momentum; they knocked out the worn-out Suns in Phoenix two days later.
“That certainly was the pivotal game,” says Van Arsdale of the 63-minute thriller. Havlicek will never admit it, but I say if we’d won Game 5, we would’ve won the championship.”
Win or lose, the Suns earned a wealth of respect, both from Boston fans and the rest of the sports world.
“I think it put Phoenix on the map as far as the NBA is concerned,” says MacLeod. “Still today, many people remember exactly where they were on that Friday night in June when that game took place.”
For Cowens, who was pictured battling Adams on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the memory he will never forget is of one particular fan at the Garden that night.
“There was a lady sitting in the front row,” he says. “She told me that it was the first professional basketball game she had seen in her life. I just found that funny, because all I could think was that she probably thought every game was going to be like that.”
Needless to say, they aren’t.
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