The 40th anniversary of the greatest game ever played (Part 1)

Guest post by Abacus Reveals
June 4, 1976, Celtics-Suns Finals Game 5: Triple Excitement for the Bicentennial (Part 1: Setting the stage)

Back in Which Day?

It can be reasonably argued that the NBA’s most competitive decade was the 1970’s. No franchise laid claim to more than two championships; nobody won back-to-back titles. Eight different teams, two of them based in the remote outskirts of the Pacific Northwest, would hoist the Walter Brown Trophy.

While the Celtics were re-tooling from the Russell days, the Knicks and Lakers dominated the early years, meeting three times in the Finals. The era’s most consistent contender was Wes Unseld’s Bullets, who participated in the season’s final game four times between ’71 and ’79; courtesy of David Halberstam, its most renowned squad was the Bill Walton-led Blazers.

It was 40 years ago, on Friday June 4, 1976, in the North End of Boston, the NBA’s longest and likely wildest game en route to a title occurred. The decade’s most surprising Finalists from Phoenix were returning to the hallowed and haunted parquet for a – aren’t they all? – pivotal Game 5 dead even, having held serve in a pair of foul-filled affairs. (The refs had whistled 21 fouls in the first 10 minutes of Game 4. Sheesh!!)

The Worthy Opposition

These Suns, who were in but their eighth year of existence and second-ever post-season, were a cleverly crafted collection of hungry young vets. Two of their number had competed in an equally iconic multi-OT thriller on that very floor just two years earlier. Two more had picked up some savvy as members of a 69-win (33 of them in a row) title team that two seasons before that. The guy whose shot forced the unprecedented third extra session had learned the pro game in Buffalo from Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay.

The mad scientist who constructed this curious contingent, which also included two first-year players, was none-other-than current 76er savior Jerry Colangelo, Mr. USA Basketball himself. (In another ironic brush with nowadays, the Sunderellas dethroned a powerful Rick Barry-led Golden State Warrior outfit in the West Final.)

The unexpected match-up did offer some intriguing comparisons and contrasts. The teams had swapped backcourt men Charlie Scott and Paul Westphal the summer before, and Westy decided to attach an “I’ll Show You” attitude to his skill and athleticism on this particular stage. Charlie seemed to spend the whole series – maybe even his whole time wearing green – in foul trouble. (Scott committed 35 personals in six games.)

The coaching calculus would be done by an old school chip of the Auer-block and some hot-shot youngster who’d been hired straight off a college campus. The sentimental novice had even spent a first-round draft pick on one of his former players. (From a broader perspective, the real contrast in the coaches was that Tom Heinsohn’s tenure was soon to be over, while John MacLeod would remain in place for another decade.)

Celtic rebounder extraordinaire Paul Silas had been a Sun; Phoenix back-up center Dennis Awtrey would later sport Celtic green.

A traditional, Midwestern-bred versatility and discipline made Sun swing man Dick Van Arsdale a poor man’s John Havlicek.

And that parochial No. 1 pick proved wise, as Alvan Adams pocketed that season’s Rookie of the Year plaudits by bringing a Cowens-ian athleticism and finesse to the center position. (Just askin’, but … other than with Bogut and Mosgov last year, when else have the Finals featured two Caucasian starting centers, at least since Mr. Russell showed up on the scene?)

The “Old” Guard

Though heavy favorites to snatch a second championship in three years, the C’s were showing the classic signs of a team primed for regression. Four starters – Havlicek, White, Cowens and Silas – logged 40+ minutes per game in the Finals. The youngest of that group was the 27-year-old Cowens, whose all-out style never did bode for a long shelf-life. Boston’s nine-deep rotation included only one guy who’d played his college ball after 1970 – and that was Kevin Stacom, whose biggest contribution might have been a Game 3 set-to with feisty Suns’ rookie Ricky Sobers. (The team did manage to get back to the Conference Final the next year before the bottom fell out.)

The NBA’s 1976 Playoffs, which included only ten teams, were the first ever to extend into the month of June – no doubt a contingency from the sale of the broadcasting rights, which also must have accounted for the home games tipping off at damn nine o’clock local time.

The lull – five days for Boston, a full week for the Suns – proved beneficial to old legs coming off a stiffer-than-expected challenge from coach-to-be Bill Fitch’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Those legs harassed the rusty Suns into sub-40% shooting in Game 1 and put their younger foes on the wrong end of a 20-2 third-quarter run three nights later, sparking talk of a sweep.

But Phoenix found its sea legs (in the desert, of all places) and a better shooting eye while attempting 78 free throws over the next two games, and we had us a series.

So, the stage was set for the Main Event – Friday Night Fights at the Gahden.

Swing through these parts tomorrow – the actual anniversary – for an atypical account of that epic struggle from someone who was there.