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Saturday marks 40 years since wild Game 5 Suns-Celtics NBA Finals

PHOENIX — Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of a historic moment in Phoenix sports.

On June 4, 1976, the Phoenix Suns took on the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the Boston Garden.

The Suns and Celtics were tied at 2 games apiece when they took the court that night.  Boston jumped out to a 22-point lead early, but the Suns came back.

The game was tied at 95-95 at the end of regulation and 101-101 after the first overtime.  Boston led 109-106 with 19 seconds left in the second overtime before baskets by Dick Van Arsdale and Curtis Perry gave the Suns a 1-point lead.

Boston’s John Havlicek banked a shot in to put the Celtics up 111-110.  Fans stormed the court thinking the Celtics had won, and one of them attacked referee Ritchie Powers.

Once the floor was cleared, Referees determined there was one second left.  The Suns called a timeout, but didn’t have one.  NBA rules at that time said that was a technical foul.  Jo Joe White hit a free throw to put Boston up 112-110, but Phoenix could then inbound the ball at midcourt, and Garfield Heard sank a shot that tied the game at 112-112 and sent it into a third overtime.

Suns broadcaster Al McCoy was calling the game from up in the stands.  The Celtics had sold the seats next to him to fans.  That caused a problem.

“When Garfield Heard hit that famous ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World, ‘the young man sitting next me leaped up into the air.  He was excited, of course, to see what was going on, and he literally passed out on my lap,” McCoy said.  “I had my first real challenge as an NBA broadcaster doing playoff games, because I was trying to get this guy off my lap while trying to find out what was going on down on the floor.”

In the third overtime, both teams had players who had fouled out of the game.  It was Boston’s seldom-used bench warmer, Glenn McDonald, who came through as the hero.  He scored six points in the quarter and the Celtics won 128-126.  They claimed the NBA championship by winning Game 6 at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix two days later.

Al Bianchi was the Suns Assistant Coach in 1976.  Both he and McCoy still believe that one of the referees played an important role in Phoenix losing in the NBA Finals that year.

With three seconds to go in regulation in Game 5, and the game tied at 95-95, Bianchi says that Referee Richie Powers should have awarded Phoenix a free throw when Boston tried to call a timeout that it didn’t have.

“They didn’t have any timeouts,” Bianchi said.  “If he calls a timeout against that team, we shoot a technical.  If we make that technical (foul shot), we’re one point up, and chances are we win that game.  But he refuses to call it.”  Bianchi said that Powers said at a golf tournament later that summer that he “just couldn’t see making that call” and having the game’s outcome be determined by it.

Bianchi is convinced that if Powers had made the call, the Suns would have made the foul shot, and the momentum from the Game 5 victory would have propelled them to win the NBA championship in Game 6 at home.  He is so convinced of that, after the Suns lost the series, Bianchi had a Philadelphia ring maker create a Phoenix Suns NBA championship ring for him.  He still wears it to this day.

“(On the outside the ring says) 1976 NBA Champions, Phoenix Suns.  On the inside it has a little inscription to Richie Powers,” Bianchi said.  That inscription to Powers is a derogatory comment.  “That ring is more famous than I am!,” said Bianchi.  He says that the ring is a constant reminder of the great 1976 season and the great memories that he has with the Phoenix Suns.

Even though the Suns didn’t win the 1976 NBA Finals, McCoy says that Game 5 changed professional sports in the Valley.  “That triple overtime game really turned Phoenix, the Valley of the Sun, and the state of Arizona into a big time NBA (area).  And certainly, that pattern has continued,” he said.

“That triple overtime game really turned Phoenix, the Valley of the Sun, and the state of Arizona into a big time NBA (area).  And certainly, that pattern has continued,” he said.

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