• Sal Maiorana

Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals remains one of the greatest in league history

BOSTON (June 4, 1976) – Jo Jo White thought the game was over. So did his Boston Celtic teammates and hundreds of their crazed fans who stormed the floor of the Boston Garden the instant John Havlicek’s running 17-foot bank shot splashed through the net. That shot – executed in typically cool Havlicek fashion – gave the Celtics an apparent 111-110 double overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals. “When John banked that one off the glass, everyone thought the game was over,’’ White said years later. “I looked up and saw two seconds on the clock, but the crowd had emerged and we went to the locker room. I remember Paul Silas pushing me through the runway, and then when I got to the locker room, I started cutting off my tape. I ran the rest of the game with no tape on.’’ That’s because Havlicek’s shot hadn’t ended the game. Apparently caught up in the hysteria that ensued after Havlicek scored, the Garden timekeeper didn’t bother to stop the clock. And alert referee Richie Powers knew it. “The ball entered the basket when I saw the clock hit two seconds,’’ Powers said. “Obviously the game was not over, even though the clock went to zero.’’ Powers – after battling with an enraged Celtic fan who punched him in a maniacal form of protest over a variety of perceived anti-Boston calls Powers had made earlier in the evening – ordered the clock re-set to one second. He then summoned the Celtics from their giddy locker room, and had the unruly mob – described by Sports Illustrated as people who would have cheered for the Boston Strangler – removed from the parquet floor so the game could continue. While all this was going on, the Suns were trying to figure out how they were going to go the length of the floor in one second. That’s when Phoenix guard Paul Westphal made the chore a whole lot easier. Because they were out of timeouts and the clock had only been stopped due to fan intervention, the Suns were going to have to inbound the ball from under their own basket. Realizing this, Westphal pulled coach John MacLeod aside and told him to call an illegal timeout. Under NBA rules at that time, calling an illegal timeout meant the opposing team would shoot one technical foul shot, but the team calling the timeout would retain possession of the ball and – here’s the key – could inbound from midcourt. “It was super thinking,’’ MacLeod said.

White made the technical, giving Boston a 112-110 advantage, but now the Suns were 47 feet closer to the basket and had a chance to tie the game. When order was restored after a 10-minute delay, Garfield Heard came off a screen, took the inbounds pass, turned, and launched a 20-foot jump shot over Don Nelson. The ball seemed to climb to the banner-filled rafters, then began a tantalizing descent as everyone in the building held their breath. “The play was for me all the way,’’ said Heard, who began the 1975-76 with the Buffalo Braves before being traded to the Suns. “And I knew if I got the ball I’d get a shot off. Honestly, the moment I shot it, I knew it was going in.’’ Sure enough, the ball swished through, and it was on to a third overtime, where Boston ultimately prevailed 128-126 in one of the greatest NBA games ever played. “It took a little wind out of our sails, but you still have five minutes to play, and we realized that,’’ White said of Boston’s ability to regroup and push on for the critical victory. Boston led throughout the final overtime and the raucous crowd was smelling victory again, but the gritty Suns refused to quit. Ricky Sobers drove for a layup, and after Boston’s Jim Ard made two free throws with 31 ticks remaining, Westphal came back with an eye-popping 360-degree bank shot, then stripped Glenn McDonald of the ball and laid it in to make it 128-126 with 12 seconds to go. Boston inbounded, and Westphal almost made another steal, but the ball ended up in White’s possession and he managed to dribble the rest of the time off the clock without getting fouled, bringing to an end this epic affair. “I’ve been in something like 1,750 games, and this was the most exciting one,’’ Powers said that night. “That’s the kind of game that you’d like to have to end a series,’’ said White. “It was playoff basketball, everybody contributing, everybody playing as hard as they can.’’ Two days later the Celtics did end the series with an 87-80 victory in Phoenix, earning their 13th NBA championship. White was named MVP of the playoffs, his Game 5 heroics weighing heavily in his favor.