On the evening of June 4, 1976 the Boston Celtics defeated the Phoenix Suns 128-126 in triple overtime, to take 3 games to 2 lead in an NBA Final series that they would ultimately win in 6 games. The Celtics were coached by franchise fixture Tommy Heinsohn and led by Hall of Famers John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, and Jo Jo White who led the team that night with 33 points. The Suns by virtue of a surprising playoff run were in the Finals for the first time in franchise history thanks to Rookie of the Year Alvan Adams and other dynamic young talents like Paul Westphal and Ricky Sobers.
This week’s Celtics Beat, hosted by CLNS Radio founder Nick Gelso, featured interviews with two guests that were both present for that watershed moment in NBA History; former Phoenix Suns announcer Al McCoy and former Boston Celtic, and hero of that moment, Glenn McDonald.
The game is almost unanimously considered the greatest game in NBA history, even nearly 40 years later. It earned that designation, not just because of the three overtimes and the drama that inherently comes with that territory, but because of the emotion, the environment, the frenetic pace, the improbable twists and turns and unheralded heroes.
Personally, it represents even more than the signature game in the professional sport I am most passionate about. It is the very birth of that passion.
As Spring slowly turned to Summer in 1976, I was an average pre-teen living south of Boston; getting ready to end my Elementary School run, watching Happy Days every Tuesday night and still smarting a little from the Red Sox dropping Game 7 of the 1975 World Series the previous fall. My friends and I were obviously aware of the NBA and the Boston Celtics’ illustrious place in the league’s history.
We played once in a while, but there weren’t many hoops in our neighborhood. The closest was in a neighbor’s driveway, on top of their garage. This particular neighbor didn’t have children but we’d sneak into the driveway to play a little when he wasn’t home. That is, until I broke his garage door window with an errant hook shot. Had I been a more devout Celtics fan at that point, I suppose I may have had the opportunity emulate Tommy Heinsohn, develop a better hook shot, and avoid the embarrassing incident altogether. However, none of us followed the Celtics, or the NBA, that closely back then.
Like most significant moments, there was some degree of happenstance involved in the impact that game had on me. NBA Finals games are often aired at night and prior to 1976, I simply wasn’t old enough to even consider staying up to watch a game. The Celtics reached the NBA Finals two seasons prior and it’s possible that championship, had I been able to watch, might have sparked my love of the game. By 1976 I was old enough to watch and heading into my teen years and thus predisposed to feel strongly and sometimes irrationally about the things I decided mattered to me.
What was it about that series, and that game in particular that led me to decide that NBA Basketball and the Boston Celtics should matter to me so fervently?
Some of it was the backdrop, the stage, the environment the game took place in. In his Celtics Beat interview with my friend and mentor Ty Ray, former Suns Broadcaster Al McCoy brought some treasured memories back to life for me. He describes the proximity of the fans, the roiling emotion, and the heat inside the fabled Boston Garden that night. There was a palpable pent-up pressure that you don’t get in an outdoor football stadium or baseball park. I remember feeling it through the glow of the TV screen as Brent Musburger and Rick Barry droned on leading up to tip-off. That pressure finally exploded towards the end of the 2nd overtime when a melee broke out.
Some of it was the game was played in those days and in that series especially. Celtics fans are well versed in Tommy Heinsohn’s allegiance to the fast break style of basketball. His team was the ultimate manifestation of those principles and the young legs of the Suns were all too eager to indulge.
It wasn’t just the pace of play though, it was the unselfishness and creativity that inevitably arises when basketball is played at its highest level. The movement and the sheer number of decisions and actions that occur when the game is played that way present almost innumerable opportunity for unexpected and even astonishing demonstrations of skill and athleticism. It can sometime seem as if an entire Olympiad of athletic endeavor has been condensed into a 48-minute game.
In addition to the unexpected and astonishing, that game featured the improbable. Havlicek’s seeming game-winning shot at the end of the second overtime was supplanted by a Gar Heard buzzer-beater that prompted McCoy to exclaim, “someone up there is on our side.”
Even more improbable was the strange turn of events at the end of regulation and then end of the second overtime whereby the same rule both cost the Suns a win in regulation when it wasn’t enforced and then later gave them another chance at victory when it was.
At the end of regulation, Celtic forward Paul Silas attempted to call a timeout but the Celtics had none left. Referee Richie Powers ignored Silas’ requests instead of assessing a technical foul as the rule book calls for. Had Powers assessed the technical, the Suns would have sent dead-eye free throw shooter Westphal to the line for a chance to the win the game.
Later, near the end of the 2nd overtime and the Suns trailing by a point with the ball, but needing to go the length of the court. Westphal smartly called for a timeout knowing that the Suns had none left. This time, the refs assessed the technical foul. Havlicek hit the free throw to extend the lead to 2 points, but the violation stopped the clock for the Suns and essentially gave them a free timeout to draw up the play that resulted in Heard’s shot that sent the game into the 3rd overtime.
Most improbable of all though was little-used reserve forward and defensive specialist Glenn McDonald ending up as hero of the greatest game ever played.
McDonald was a 6-6 second year swing man. He was the Celtics first round pick (#17 overall) out of Long Beach State in the 1974 NBA Draft. He finished his NBA career playing 146 games over 3 seasons and averaging 10mpg, 4.2ppg and 1.5rpg.
He shared his experience in that game in his Celtics Beat interview, but after playing a few minutes in the first half, he sat the entire second half. He was eventually pressed into duty in overtime thanks to foul trouble when Cowens, guard Charlie Scott (who ironically had been traded for Westphal the previous offseason) and later Silas, all fouled out.
Despite a short NBA career, McDonald left an indelible mark on NBA and Celtics history in those overtime periods. He scored all of his 8 points after regulation and helped the Celtics gain separation in the 3rd overtime with 2 baskets and a couple of free throws.
My long career as a Celtics fan has seen more than a fair share of great players; Havlicek, Cowens, White, Bird, Maxwell, McHale, DJ, Parish, Ainge, Pierce, and Garnett. While McDonald is nowhere near that class and probably merely a very curious footnote in Celtics history, he played a huge role in the game that inspired my love of the franchise and the game itself.
Thank you Glenn McDonald.