Changing game rhythms make for unforgettable NBA Game 7s
Celtics- Hawks double-OT Game 7 in '57 championship perhaps best ever
Changing momentum in basketball games make NBA Game 7s unique in sports
Celtics win in '57 launched Boston dynasty that won 10 titles in 12 years
Any Game 7 in any sport is worth watching, of course, so it's ridiculous to compare the relative worth of Game 7s between sports. But ridiculous is what we do, right? So I offer -- predictably -- that the NBA's championship-deciding battles are the best.
I've only covered two in person -- the Lakers beating the Pistons in 1988 and the Spurs beating the Pistons in 2005. When the Lakers finished out-grinding the Pistons in that '88 game, they had finally begun to erase a history of Game 7 futility, having lost five of them (four to the Celtics, one to the Knicks) in the preceding years.
Long before that, though, the NBA had already given us the best Game 7 in history -- the largely-forgotten '57 double-overtime classic at Boston Garden in which the Celtics beat the St. Louis Hawks 125-124. (The game, incidentally, is a snapshot of how things have changed in sport. It was played on April 13 -- if there's a Game 7 in the '09 Finals it will be contested on June 18.)
The lead changed hands dozens of times (which doesn't happen in hockey, nor in baseball for that matter) and all manner of unusual stuff happened. The Celtics' ace backcourt of Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, for example, combined to make only five of 40 shots. But two rookies named Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn combined to grab 55 rebounds.
The game also featured one of the most bizarre last plays in sports history. With the Hawks trailing by that final margin in the second overtime and needing to go the length-of-the-court for a game-winning basket, Alex Hannum, the team's player-coach and the last guy left on the bench, checked into the game and took the ball out-of-bounds. With Hawks star Bob Pettit stationed near the basket at the other end, Hannum threw the ball the length of the court and off the backboard, a 94-foot strike. It bounced perfectly into Pettit's hands.
Pettit, perhaps the best all-around player in the league that season, went up for a short jumper. And so there was that second when the ball was in the air. For a longer shot, it takes maybe two seconds. The eyes of every player and every fan are on that ball, spinning toward the basket, the grandest caesura in all of sports, tales told in the climax. This one missed.
And so the Celtics had their first championship, one, in fact, that launched a dynasty that won 10 titles over the next 12 seasons.
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