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The NBA's Greatest Game

Of the thousands of nail-biting, artistic, dramatic, historic, bizarre and plain wonderful games played throughout the history of the NBA, we have chosen Game Five of the 1976 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns as the Greatest Game in league annals.

That NBA season began with the New York Nets and Denver Nuggets, the American Basketball Association's two strongest teams, applying for admission to the NBA. It was a clear signal that the NBA would only become more powerful and the ABA would soon become a footnote to pro basketball history.

A bombshell trade took place that season, as Milwaukee sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in return for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman and Dave Meyers.

Abdul-Jabbar averaged 27.7 points and a league-leading 16.9 rebounds per game. He won another Most Valuable Player award, but his Lakers went 40-42 and missed the playoffs.

The Boston's Celtics did not miss the playoffs - in those years they never did. With shooting guard Charlie Scott, acquired from Phoenix for Paul Westphal, as part of their cast, the Celtics won 54 games to top the Eastern Conference.

Bostonís competition in the NBA Finals was the Phoenix Suns. It was a match up between a tradition-steeped franchise and one that was not-quite-prime-time, the Suns (less than a decade old).

Boston went through Buffalo and Cleveland to reach the finals. Upstart Phoenix, with Rookie of the Year Alvan Adams, beat Seattle and defeated heavily-favored Golden State in seven games to reach the finals.

They may have been big-time underdogs, but the Suns gave the heavily favored Celtics all they could handle. The teams split the first four games of the finals.

The stage was set for a Friday night fifth game at Boston Garden on June 4, 1976.

It was a game that went through three overtimes - and produced all kinds of twists and turns, mistaken intentions, unlikely heroes, blown opportunities and likely and unlikely heroes.

At the end of the first overtime, there was a timeout that was not granted to Boston's Paul Silas. That was a lucky break for Boston for had it been granted it would have resulted in a technical foul and given the Suns a chance to win the game. For some strange reason, referee Richie Powers chose to ignore the signal of Silas and the teams played on.

In the second overtime, Phoenix grabbed a one-point lead with four seconds left. A victory for the Suns seemed a sure thing. But in the old Boston Garden, there were never sure things for the opposition.

Boston's John Havlicek raced the length of the floor and sank a miraculous, running 15-foot bank shot. Pandemonium prevailed as hundreds of Celtics fans came pouring out onto the court. When order was finally restored, the officials put one second back on the clock; Phoenix was prepared to get the ball.

In another of the crazy twists and turns - the Suns' Paul Westphal asked for, and received, a timeout he knew his team was not entitled to. It was good strategy, though. The Celtics were given a technical foul, whereupon Jo Jo White hit the free throw. The Celtic lead was moved up to two points, but the technical foul enabled the Suns to make the inbounds pass from midcourt.

Forward Gar Heard caught the pass to the right of the free-throw line, turned and hit a 20-foot jumper right at the buzzer. The noisy Garden faithful was stunned into silence for the moment.

The game moved into a third overtime.

Exhaustion was the theme - for players as well as spectators. Key players on both teams had fouled out. But seldom-used reserve Glenn McDonald rose to the occasion for the Celtics. He scored six points in the final overtime as Boston eked out a 128-126 victory to take a three games-to-two series lead.

Less than two days later and on the home court of Phoenix, the Celtics beat the Suns, 87-80, to wrap up their 13th NBA championship and second title in three years.

That NBA Finals is best remembered for the triple overtime game. Former Hall of Fame player Rick Barry, who served as broadcaster for the game, called it "the most exciting basketball game I've ever seen."

We call it the greatest game in NBA history.

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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

FROMMER SPORTSNET (syndicated) reaches a readership in the millions and is housed on Internet search engines for extended periods of time.
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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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