Celtics (19-6) vs. Suns (17-11)
Friday, December 7, 1979
Today is a tragic day in the history of the United States as we remember those who lost their lives on Pearl Harbor, but today also marks the day of birth for Larry Bird. Bird and the Celtics began their next stretch of three-games-in-three-days with a Friday night game at the Garden against a highly competitive team in the Phoenix Suns. The Suns as an organization are the best franchise in NBA history never to win a championship, even though the team has been competitive through the years. The 1979-80 Suns team fit that model perfectly, as they advanced to the Western Conference Finals before submitting in five games to the Lakers.
After suffering a shellacking at home by the Hawks, the C’s looked to bounce back and pass a litmus test against one of the West’s stronger clubs. Bird drew upon the lessons learned from head coach Bill Fitch to drop 20 and 8 against the Suns, and he picked up an extra gift on his 23rd birthday with a 100-92 win over the Suns. The prior season, the Celtics did not reach 20 wins until February 7.
Jackie MacMullan’s fantastic book, Bird Watching, detailed Bird and Fitch’s first encounter:
I’d have to say Bill Fitch, my Celtics coach from 1979 to 1983, is the best coach I’ve ever played for. Bill was organized, he preached discipline, and he had us in the best shape of our lives… The truth is, I had never heard of Bill Fitch until the Celtics drafted me. I just didn’t follow pro basketball that closely. I knew of Red Auerbach, and Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, but that was about it. I remember the day they flew me into Boston for my press conference. They had it at the Boards and Blades Club, which is a big function room in Boston Garden, and I was standing around waiting for everything to start. There was a lot of press around, and this guy comes up and starts talking to me. I was a little nervous about everything that was going on that day, so I was polite to this guy, but I really wasn’t listening to him. Anyway, this guy was doing most of the talking, telling me how much the Celtics had a chance to contend for the title, and how I would really enjoy Boston, and then someone tapped me on the arm and said, “Okay, Larry, we’re ready.” I go up to the podium, and there is Red Auerbach sitting there, and then the guy I had just finished talking with sits down right next to him. That’s when I realized, “Holy smokes! That’s my coach!” I knew the name, Bill Fitch, but I had no idea what he looked like. He must have thought I was some kind of jerk. I mean, there he is, talking to me about my future, and I’m blowing him off. So now I’m sitting next to him, and I think it’s funny as hell. I had probably the best coach I could possibly have, sitting there talking to me, and I didn’t even know who he was. I’ve got so much respect for the man, but you would never have known it that day.
Former Celtic Paul Westphal, a teammate of Dave Cowens on the 1974 championship team, finished with 20 points of his own but was out-done by Cowens. Big Red led the C’s with 21 and 10, while Cedric Maxwell regained his touch to finish 7-for-10 from the field with 16 points and 8 boards. Tiny Archibald added 14 and 7 assists, while Chris Ford and M.L. Carr combined for 24 points, 8 boards, 5 assists, and 4 steals. In Boston’s eighth sellout win in 13 home games, one that saw Cowens get T’d up by the officiating crew of Darrell Garretson and Terry Durham for hanging on the rim in the fourth quarter, the Green followed their recipe for success out-rebounding and collecting more assists than the Suns. The C’s overcame an eight point halftime deficit to outscore the Suns by 16 points in the decisive second half.
The Celtics took to the road immediately after the game, ready to tip off with the Cavaliers the very next night in Cleveland.