Since its inception in 1946, NBA action has been fantastic and has included fantastic finishes, improbable performances and more than a few magical moments.. Athletes’ gravity-defying athleticism has made arenas around the league places where amazing happens on a nightly basis. Their feats have moved legions of fans – ranging from celebrity types such as Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and Jack Nicholson to the Average Joe down the street – have at some point said, “I love this game.’’
These are 10 of the top moments in the NBA’s 66-year history listed in chronological order.
Wilt Chamberlain scores 100 points: Wilt Chamberlain was the NBA’s version of Paul Bunyan, John Henry and every other larger than life figure – real or imagined. Chamberlain, who averaged 30.1 points a game during his 14-year, secured his place in NBA lore during 1961-1962 season by averaging an unthinkable 50.4 points a game and scoring a league-record 100 points as his Philadelphia Warriors defeated the New York Knicks 1. Chamberlain’s feat came on March 2 in Hershey, Pa., and it came less than three months after he set the previous league record with 78 points against the Los Angeles Lakers. Chamberlain had 41 points at the half, but that was no big deal to him or his teammates since he had scored 60 or more points 15 in his three-year career. After pouring in 28 points in the third quarter, Chamberlain realized he could break his scoring records of 73 points for a 48-minute game and 78 points, which was set in triple overtime. Public address announcer Dave Zinkoff began announcing Chamberlain’s point total each time he scored. With eight minutes left in the game, Chamberlain needed 25 points to reach the mark and his teammates were intent on getting the record for him. They fed him the ball on each possession, and instead of cutting and moving without the ball, they stood and watched him do his thing. The Knicks were equally intent on denying Chamberlain a spot in history. They quintruple-teamed him, and with and six minutes remaining they started to foul him intentionally. That didn’t work either. A notoriously poor free throw shooter, Chamberlain was 32-for-36 from the foul line, and he was 36-for-63 from the field. His 100th point came on a lob pass from backup guard Joe Rucklick with 46 seconds left in the game. Chamberlain’s 100-point effort is even more remarkable considering he spent the previous night partying in New York, his base of operation. He caught an 8 a.m. train to Philadelphia and rode the bus with the team Hershey and played after getting little or no sleep.
End of An Era: The Boston Celtics enjoyed one of the most successful runs in professional sports, winning 11 NBA Championships in 13 years from 1956-69. It’s no coincidence that their string of titles started when they drafted center Bill Russell after acquiring his rights in a trade with the St. Louis Hawks and ended when he retired as player/coach. The Celtics’ final championship of the Russell era was also their most unlikely. They were considered too old. Five of the players on their 12-man roster were 30 or older, including starters Russell, Sam Jones and Tom “Satch’’ Sanders. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Lakers, their opponent in the 1969 NBA Finals, were loaded. They had obtained Wilt Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers and teamed him with All-Stars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor to form the most formidable threesome in the league. All the signs pointed to the Lakers beating their long-time nemesis after losing to them in the Finals in each of their six previous meetings. The series came down to Game 7 in Los Angeles. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so confident that his team would win that he scripted their postgame celebration down to the final details, including the in order in which play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn would interview Baylor and West and when the USC band would play Happy Days Are Here Again. The celebration was to begin with hundreds of balloons being released from the rafters, where they were stored prior to the game. The celebration was put on hold, however, when Celtics forward Don Nelson’s jumper hit the back of the rim, bounced several feet into the air came down through the nets to give the Lakers a 108-106 victory.
Captain Courageous: New York Knicks captain Willis Reed did what captain’s do in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals – he rallied his troops to victory with one of the most stirring performances in professional sports history. Even though Game 7 was at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were in a bad place. Reed, their leading scorer, suffered a torn right thigh muscle in Game, and he sat out Game 6. Without Reed in the lineup, Wilt Chamberlain scored 45 points and grabbed 27 rebounds as the Lakers tied the series 3-3 with a 135-113 victory. Hardly anyone expected Reed to play in Game 7 either, and as the teams warmed up itwas a foregone conclusion that the Knicks, one of the league’s charter members, would have to wait yet another season to win their first championship. Moments before tipoff, a buzz spread through the Garden and the sellout crowd erupted into cheers as Reed, limping badly and dragging his right leg, joined his teammates. He lined up against Chamberlain for the opening tip, and then proceeded to score the Knicks first two baskets on a pair of jumpers. Those were his only two points of the night, but they jump-started the Knicks to a 113-99 victory. Reed’s dramatic last-minute appearance overshadowed one of the great performances in playoff history as Walt Frazier 36-points and handed out 19 assists performance.
A Game For The Ages: The Boston Celtics are the NBA’s most storied franchise with 17 championships, so it is only fitting that they would be involved in what is generally considered the best game in league history, and that the fabled Boston Garden would be the site. It was Game 5 of 1976 NBA Finals, and the Celtics series with the underdog Phoenix Suns – an expansion team that was less than a decade old – was tied 2-2. The teams played three overtimes, making it the first Finals game to last that long. The game had enough controversial plays an entire series. In the first overtime, Celtics forward Paul Silas signaled for a timeout even though his team had none. Referee Richie Powers ignored Silas. Had Powers given the Celtics the timeout, they would have been assessed a technical foul, and the Suns would have had an opportunity to win the game with a free throw. In the second overtime, the Suns were ahead by a point with four seconds left when John Havlicek went the length of the court sank a 15-foot bank shot for Boston. Fans poured onto the court thinking the Celtics had won. The officials cleared the court, put one second on the clock and gave the Suns the ball. What happened next defies reality. Suns guard Paul Westphal asked for a timeout that he knew his team didn’t have. The move meant a free throw for Boston, which the Celtics converted for a two-point lead. However, it also enabled the Suns to inbound the ball from halfcourt. Gar Heard took the inbound pass, turned and fired a jumper that silenced the crowd as it found its mark and sent the game into yet another overtime period. With a number of starters for both teams having fouled out, little-used reserve Glen McDonald emerged as the hero for the Celtics. McDonald scored six points in the third overtime period, and the Celtics escaped with a 128-126 victory. They also won Game 6 in Phoenix for their 13th NBA title.
A Magical Performance: The Los Angeles Lakers desperately needed rookie Magic Johnson to pull something out his bag of tricks when they faced the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals. The Lakers were without their captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who stayed in behind in Los Angeles after spraining an ankle in their 108-103 Game 5 victory. The win gave the Lakers a 3-2 series lead after the teams split the first four games. However, the Lakers’ prospects for winning the series were not good with Abdul-Jabbar out for Game 6 and his status for the seventh and deciding game, if necessary, uncertain status. Abdul-Jabbar had averaged 33.4 points and 13.6 rebounds against Sixers 7-footers Caldwell Jones and Daryl Dawkins. Journeyman Jim Chones, Abdul-Jabbar’s backup, was in the twilight of a mediocre career and wasn’t much of a presence in the middle. Johnson mesmerized the 76ers with a 42-point, 14-rebound, 7-assist performance that began with him jumping center against Jones, Philadelphia’s 7-foot pivot man, and the Lakers cruised to a 123-107 victory to clinch the first of five NBA championships of Johnson’s career. Johnson was literally a one-man wrecking crew as he played all five positions at one time or another. He was named the series MVP after averaging 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists winning the first of his five championship rings.
Hobbling Hero: Point guard Isiah Thomas, generously listed at 6-1, was the smallest of the Detroit Pistons Bad Boys of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was also arguably the toughest, and he proved that with a heroic performance in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. With the Pistons trailing 56-48 early in the third quarter, Thomas got hot. He scored 14 straight points in every way imaginable. Two came on foul shots; two on a five-footer following an offensive rebound; another pair resulted from a bank shot; two more on a layup, he got an additional six on jump shots. But with just over four minutes remaining in the period, Thomas went up for a shot and landed on the foot of Lakers swingman Michael Cooper, who had been hounding all game long, and had to be helped off the court. However, his offensive wasn’t over; it was merely on hold. Thomas returned 35 seconds later despite a severely sprained ankle continued to torch the Lakers. When the quarter ended, he had made 11 of 13 field goals and scored 25 points – an NBA Finals record for points in a quarter – and put the Pistons ahead 81-79. Thomas ended the game with 43 points, eight assists and six steals. But that wasn’t enough to prevent the Lakers from emerging with a victory to tie the series. They went on to win Game 7 also and claim their second consecutive NBA title.
Miller Time: Indiana Pacers was the quintessential double threat. He could beat opponents verbally and with his clutch shooting, and it’s not clear which he enjoyed more – especially when the opponent was the New York Knicks. Miller seemed to save his most scintillating performances for them during the playoffs. The first time Miller tormented the Knicks in the postseason was in Game 1 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Playoffs. He scored 32 points while going 17-for-17 from the free throw line. That was only a warm up. He topped the 30-point mark two more times in the series with 36 in Game 3 and 33 in Game 4 as the Pacers won the best-of-five series 3-1. The next year, Miller was 17-for-19 from the free throw line and scored 31 point in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks. For an encore, he scored 25 of his game-high 39 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5. Miller was at his explosive best in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals when he scored eight of his 31 points in the final 8.9 seconds of the fourth quarter. With Knicks leading 105-99, Miller nailed three-pointer three with 16.4 seconds left. Miller then stole the inbounds pass after Greg Anthony slipped – or Miller pushed him down, depending whose version of the play you believe – retreated behind the three-point line and nailed another triple to tie the score with 13.3 seconds left. Knicks guard John Starks then missed a pair of free throws with 13.2 seconds left after Sam Mitchell inexplicably fouled him intentionally on the inbound pass. The Knicks rebounded the second but Patrick Ewing missed a put back. Miller grabbed the rebound and Anthony Mason fouled him. Miller made both free throws with 7.5 still on the clock.
Jordan Jolts Jazz: Michael Jordan’s flair for the dramatic was a major part of his mystique during his 15-year career, and he saved his most dramatic moment for when it mattered most – Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz in what would be his final game as a member of the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls, who trying to Three-Peat for the second time and win their sixth championship of the ’90s, were behind by three points in the final minute. That’s when Jordan, with side kick Scottie Pippen hampered by a back injury that he suffered on a first-half dunk, took center stage. First he scored on a driving layup, and then he stripped the ball from Jazz All-Star forward Karl Malone on the defensive end. The moment Jordan stole the ball everyone in the sellout crowd at the Delta Center knew what was coming. He dribbled up court, hounded by Jazz defensive ace Bryon Russell. Jordan made a hard move to his right that threw Russell off balance – with an assist from a subtle Jordan push off with his left hand – and then he pulled up and swished a 20-foot jumper with 5.2 seconds remaining. Jordan held his follow through for a couple of seconds to savor the moment. Jordan scored the Bulls’ final eight points. He finished the game with 45 points and earned his sixth Finals MVP.
Bryant’s Scoring Binge: Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is a tough cover under any circumstance. But when he’s angry, it’s impossible guard him. The Toronto Raptors learned that the hard way during the 2005-06 season when he torched them for 81 points, the second-high single-game total in league history. The Raptors led the Lakers 63-49 at halftime of their game at Staples Center, and they increased their advantage to 18 points, 71-53, early in the third period, a situation Bryant didn’t like one little bit. First Bryant, who had 30 points at that juncture, got angry. Then he took action. He scored 51 points after the Raptors built their 18-point lead, and he had 55 in the second half. Only Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 59 points in the second half of his 100-point performance against the New York Knicks in 1962, has scored more points in a game or half than Bryant. Bryant scored all but 15 of his team’s 42 points in the third quarter and all but three of their 31 in the fourth period. He was 28-for-46 from the field, including 7-for-13 from three-point range, and 18-for-20 from the free throw line.
King James Rules: LeBron James has been widely and roundly criticized for coming up small in clutch situations. But that certainly wasn’t the case in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals that pitted the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Detroit Pistons. James, fifth in the MVP voting that season, had failed to come through in crunch time in Games 1 and 2, and Cleveland lost each by identical 79-76 scores. In Game 1, he passed to a wide open Donyel Marshall, who missed the potential winning shot. In Game 2, James drove to the basket and forced a shot, hoping for a foul that wasn’t called. It was a different story in Game 5, however. James scored Cleveland’s last 25 points and 29 of its last 30 as the Cavs hung on to beat the Piston 109-107 in double-overtime and took a 3-2 series lead. He threw down a game-tying dunk, made a game-tying three-pointer and scored the winning points on a layup. He finished with a game-high 48 points and made the Pistons’ vaunted defense look ordinary. The Cavs went on to win Game 6 by 16 points – even though James only scored 20 – and advanced to the NBA Finals where they lost to San Antonio in four games.