I’m a young cat.
John Bapst Memorial, Class of 2002.
James Madison U., Class of 2006.
The first professional basketball game I distinctly remember watching with great interest was Game Five of the 1994 NBA Finals between the Knicks and the Rockets. The Bronco Game. I was only ten at the time, so I just expected exciting things like car chases to be part of every game. Did I mention I was/am also very dumb?
Being a reluctant member of Generation Y (or whatever the heck they call us) my Celtics history isn’t as … historical as my Dad’s and my Grampy’s recollections. I’ve got one title. They’ve got a baker’s dozen. Those greedy jerks, hoggin’ all the rings.
I vaguely remember the last couple years of Larry, before I really took an active interest in the league. I was raised on Dee Brown and Eric Montross; Dana Barros and Dino Radja; Eric Williams and Antoine Walker; Kenny Anderson and Walter McCarty. Guh.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen some incredible games. Paul Pierce’s 46-point Game Five against the Sixers in 2002. The 21-point comeback in Game Three of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals against the Nets. The Game Four double-overtime against the Nets a year later. A couple Antoine Walker game-winners, followed by shimmies. Everything that’s happened over the past two years.
But the greatest Celtics game I ever saw, I didn’t really see.
Game Five. NBA Finals. 1976. Celtics. Suns.
Every day after school, if a Chris Farley SNL or a Kids in the Hall episode weren’t on Comedy Central, I’d flip over to ESPN and one of those late-eighties/early-nineties “Ain’t the NBA Great?” shows would be on. My favorite episode and the one they seemed to air most often was Game Five: 1976.
I loved the setup of those shows, cutting from the grainy footage with corny, crackly, warped eighties elevator music to interviews with the players now (then) sitting in some sort of dark black netherworld recalling the glories of yesteryear.
Game Five had everything. Missed timeouts. Attacked refs. Tipped scorer’s tables. Pat Riley not getting on the court. You couldn’t ask for more. The Greatest Game Ever Played.
Even before it began, it had all the elements of a very special game. The fresh, young upstart Suns going up against the heavily-favored legendary Boston Celtics. Paul Westphal facing his former employers. John Havlicek in the twilight of his career. Alvan Adams in the daybreak of his. The smoky, hazy, dreamlike atmosphere of the packed-to-capacity-and-then-some Garden.
The Celtics got out early and were up by 22 at one point, looking set to take a three-two lead back to Phoenix, and hopefully a trophy back to Boston soon after that. But Westphal kept plugging away. The Suns stormed back to take the lead with 20 seconds left, but ol' Johnny hit one of two to send the game into its first overtime.
Late in the first overtime with the game tied, former Celtic and former really crappy coach Paul Silas stole the ball and tried to call a timeout Boston didn’t have. Referee Richie Powers – the same ref who would be attacked by a crazed Celtic fan a mere period later – supposedly saw the mistake but didn’t want the game to end on a technicality. God bless you, Richie Powers; wherever you are (probably buried deep somewhere in the Arizona desert).
Havlicek, running on fumes by the second overtime, hit a jumper with two seconds left to give Boston a one-point lead and – according to the fans in attendance – the win. Fanatical Irishmen stormed the court and hoisted Johnny onto their shoulders. The Celts headed for the locker room as CBS analyst and giant historical asshole Rick Barry yelled at anybody who could hear him (mostly the refs) that there was still time left on the clock. If only our boy Starbury had been around back then to shiv him into silence.
Referees were attacked. Gentlemen were arrested. The game went on.
Westphal had the ingenious idea to call a timeout Phoenix didn’t have in order to – as the rules stated at the time – give Boston one technical foul shot and the Suns the ball back at halfcourt; a rule that was deemed ridiculously stupid a year later by more intelligent men than I.
Jo Jo White hit his free throw, Gar Heard hit a crazy turnaround jumper, and the fans got five more minutes. Unfortunately for Phoenix, the third overtime was all Boston and they went on to win the title in six.
Now. To all the broadcasters, columnists, bloggers, and sign-languaging gorillas: Bulls-Celts is not Celts-Suns. These games have been incredible. This series has been incredible. Some of the most exciting basketball I’ve ever seen in my short life. But to even mention them in the same breath as The Greatest Game Ever Played is a bit much.
Rajon Rondo has been exceptional. Ben Gordon has been lights-out. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have been dependable. Derrick Rose has been unreal. Kendrick Perkins has been wildly underrated. Joakim Noah has been so bleeping annoying. But this isn’t 1976.
The talent pool has been diluted with more teams/more players. Champions aren’t stacked from one to 12 like they used to be. There are an overwhelming amount of talented superstars and superstars-in-the-making today. But the overall greatness has been thinned.
In order for a game with today’s players to even be considered in the pantheon of The Greatest Game Ever Played: They’d have to go six extra sessions instead of three; there would have to be two on-court riots instead of one; there would have to be a lot more arrests; a lot more turnaround buzzer-beaters; a lot more insane refereeing (of all these aspects, that one can be arranged). In order to be just as good, Game Six is going to have to be twice as good. But to be perfectly honest with you, there’s a very good chance it will be..