The Boston Celtics finally did it last Sunday. They pulled down the curtain on basketball's longest season by making the Suns set and winning the National Basketball Association's championship series 4 games to 2.
Exactly seven months and 13 days after the first tip-off of the campaign, Boston adjusted its defense, ironed the wrinkles out of its offense and defeated Phoenix 87-80 on the latter's home court, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
It was Boston's 13th NBA championship and no matter how often the Celtics hear the music it's still a grand old song. Said team captain John Havlicek, sipping from a bottle of champagne, "It never gets old. It only gets old if you lose."
But, in a sense, the Suns won, too. They distinguished themselves, extending the Celtics to six games in a series that started out as a rout and wound up the next thing to a barn-burner. However, on Sunday, Phoenix dipped into its spring of emotion and pulled up a bucket of desert sand. The well that had sustained the Suns had finally run dry. "We were no fairy tale," said Phoenix' Curtis Perry. "We were for real."
June 13, 1976
The city of Phoenix was ready for Game 6, psyched after the memorable three-overtime fifth game in Boston Friday night when the Celtic fans put on what resembled an anti-busing demonstration. The Suns had been beaten, but the game was so exciting that two fans watching the game on television back in Phoenix wound up being taken to the hospital. One jumped up and hit his head on a chandelier, and when his next-door neighbor went to help him, he tripped and fell.
The Celtics, who had lost Games 3 and 4 at Phoenix, were ready for the sixth game, too. Boston played it cool and efficient, though finding it difficult to operate with its fingers in its ears against the home-court din. The first quarter ended at 20-20; the half with Boston up by five at 38-33. By the opening of the fourth quarter, Phoenix had toughed it back to 57-56.
The Celtics used their switching defense to stop Garfield Heard and Perry inside and got their running game cranked up. Yet the score was tied (for the 12th time) at 66-all, with a little under eight minutes to go, before airtight Boston defense finally produced a Phoenix vacuum. For almost the next seven minutes the Suns did not score a field goal and by then Boston had a 10-point lead and the corkscrews in the champagne.
The winners used textbook basketball down the stretch, scoring almost every time they handled the ball, the big play being a Dave Cowens steal from Alvan Adams that resulted in a three-pointer. That was the beginning of the end to a series that had more than its share of highlights.
For example, the incredible fifth game in the raucous Boston Garden on Friday could be used as a training film for the National Guard—or donated to the Basketball Hall of Fame. It had three overtimes (first time ever in an NBA championship series), classic heart-stopping moments and a near riot caused by a group of fans who would have cheered the Boston Strangler. Afterward, Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo all but suggested that the Suns needed either additional police guards, or machine guns to protect themselves.
"I'm glad you told me," said Boston General Manager Red Auerbach blandly when he was told of Colangelo's remarks, patting the pocket where he kept the stat sheets of the 128-126 victory.
Besides having to suffer an agonizing defeat, the Suns had to endure the attentions of a mob of sloshed crazies. Referee Richie Powers was assaulted by one extremist. Suns Ricky Sobers and Dennis Awtrey were ready to rumble. A courtside table was picked up and hurled into the air. A basket support was almost toppled over. And the elderly and woefully undermanned Garden security force stood virtually helpless as hundreds of snorting fans stormed the floor at the close of the second overtime, believing that the game had ended and that their beloved Celtics had won. In fact, a full, fateful second remained.
The scene, when play finally resumed, was not encouraging for Phoenix. "It's a fortunate thing that one of the players did not wind up with a broken leg or a broken arm," said an angry John MacLeod. The Phoenix coach had had to spend half of each time-out weeding Celtic fans out of the Phoenix huddles, and he harbored a suspicion that the chaos had intimidated his team in a way the Celtics could not. The Suns began the third overtime cautiously, as if they expected the worst from the crowd. "You never know," said Phoenix' Dick Van Arsdale. "Some crazy fan is liable to come at you with a gun."
"If some fan hits me on the court, he's in trouble," said the 6'10" Awtrey, the Suns' substitute center. "That's our territory. We can't go in their territory. They can't come in ours."
The disorder marred a game that should be remembered and savored like a crystal glass of vintage wine. It was so exciting that a dehydrated, haggard Coach Tom Heinsohn staggered into the Boston locker room and almost fainted.
The epic began to unfold with the Suns down 32-12 after nine minutes. Their best play until then had been the time-out. But MacLeod had taken a diverse group of veterans—some of them castoffs—and rookies, and molded a tough team. Patiently they chipped away, good poker players waiting out a run of doleful luck, systematically running their clockwork offense.
Meanwhile, the Celtics were being forced to shoot from so far outside that they required downrange tracking; in the last half they scored only 34 points. Both teams had opportunities to win the game near the end of regulation but Perry and Havlicek each blew free throws. For that they should be thanked. The score remained 95-95 and what took place thereafter opened clogged arteries from coast to coast.
The first overtime merely caused television sets to smoke, ending at 101-101. The second overtime was the thriller. Fifteen seconds from the end the Celtics had a three-point lead and the fans were chanting "We're No. 1," though it might as well have been "Jo-Jo-White," so spectacular had been the Celtic guard. Then Van Arsdale scored and Paul Westphal stole the ball from Havlicek, giving Perry a 15-foot jump shot. He rebounded his miss, took another jumper which hit to put Phoenix ahead 110-109.
The Celtics ran a play for Havlicek. Hondo had last scored way back at the end of regulation, and since then had been practicing the 20-foot curve ball jumper. But now Havlicek put down his shoulder, drove down the left side past a wary Ricky Sobers and banged one in off the backboard from 15 feet out—111-110. Instant hysteria. The fans took over the floor. The problem, as Referee Powers eventually made clear, was that there was still one second to play.
In the ensuing confusion, Westphal came up with an ingenious idea. The Suns were to get the ball at the endline with one second and no chance at all. So when the floor had been cleared, Westphal called a time-out, which was illegal since Phoenix had no time-outs left. White therefore got to shoot a technical, which put Boston up 112-110. But the Suns had the ball at midcourt. They got it in to Garfield Heard who launched a jumper that brushed the ceiling and swished. And it was time for overtime No. 3.
For much of the series, the Boston backcourt had been inconsistent. While Charlie Scott blasted away with the accuracy of a sawed-off shotgun, and reserve Kevin Stacom skated on melting ice under Heinsohn's heated gaze, only White, who later was voted the series' MVP, had held things together. But even Jo Jo could not finish off the Suns. In this third overtime it remained for reserve Glenn McDonald—at the stroke of midnight—to accomplish that. Just as the digital clock in the arena jumped to 12:01, McDonald scored on a short jumper to give Boston a lead it held the rest of the way, hanging on to win 128-126. On this night, at least, Phoenix was indeed a team of Sunderellas.
They also were down 3-2 and riddled with injuries. Keith Erickson twisted his ankle early in Friday's game. Westphal's left knee was wrenched, and Awtrey was limping on a sore foot. Still, the Suns maintained their belligerence. "We know we're going to beat them," said Heard. "It's going to take seven now, but we're going to beat them. We showed we came to play."
"They earned their respect," Paul Silas acknowledged from the Boston dressing room.
Earlier in the week, the talk had been of retaliatory strikes. Boston had pushed Phoenix around in winning the first two games, and the Suns had complained long and loud. Then, in Game 3 the Suns showed some muscle of their own. "We're going to go down swinging," said Colangelo. Meanwhile, everyone was trying to figure out what exactly was meant by "tactile contact," which is permitted by NBA rules, and how to relate it to the bump-and-run tactics used by the Celtics.
The fourth game in Phoenix on Wednesday was slowed by fouls at the start. Officials Don Murphy and Manny Sokol called 21 penalties in the first 10 minutes and Heinsohn set a new record for footage on the isolated TV camera as he complained, mocked, stormed, gestured, feigned bewilderment and conducted classes in sideline theater of the absurd.
Still Boston hung close, down by two points with 1:34 to go before Sobers drove the middle and invented a shot that blasted off the backboard and through the net. When White missed a jumper near the buzzer, Phoenix had a 109-107 win. Afterward, Heinsohn said the game lacked only cheerleaders and acne. "It was high school," he roared.
"They cheat," said Charlie Scott. "If they don't want us to play, tell us to stay home."
Only Cowens and Havlicek offered voices of reason. Cowens said he was sick of the complaints about the refereeing. And Hondo pointed out the Celtics were not showing much intelligence. "How dumb can we be?" he asked. "They call fouls if you touch them and we get into a hand-slapping contest." Heinsohn's theatrics throughout the series came under close scrutiny as the media in Phoenix and Boston and points in between sneered at his flamboyant behavior and dissected his strategy, giving credence to the coach's belief that he was being persecuted—a feeling fostered, no doubt, by his having to look over Auerbach's head every time he turned around.
Meanwhile, the suave MacLeod was being hailed as the great innovator, as much for his tasteful suits and ties as for his prescience and an enlightened offense. Walking from the Boston Garden on Friday night, Westphal was told by Silas that Heinsohn was ill.
"Gee, I hope he's all right," said Westphal. "Our team needs him in there."
But Boston had obviously learned something from its mistakes. In Game 6 the Celtics used their feet instead of their hands on defense, and Heinsohn restrained himself on the sidelines. After all, he was a coach who had taken a team that lacked the old Celtic depth and put it on the road to the championship.
And the road that ended in Phoenix had sometimes seemed endless.