Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 40 vs. the Spurs

Celtics (30-9) vs. Spurs (20-21)
January 5, 1980
The HemisFair Arena

The Celtics fell to 0-2 in the HemisFair Arena with a loss to the San Antonio Spurs, falling 119-111.  In front of the largest Spurs home crowd in the team’s history, the C’s squandered an 11-point fourth quarter lead, finishing 3-3 on their six game road trip.  The Spurs scored 18 consecutive fourth quarter points to surge past a tired Celtics squad clearly ready to return home.  Even worse, the Celtics were involved in a post-game scuffle that was resolved with Larry Bird and his gym bag.

Bob Ryan’s coverage in the January 6, 1980 edition of the Globe helped put the loss — and ensuing mayhem — in perspective:

It was like sitting in Honolulu and hearing that a tidal wave had just started gathering in Okinawa and was heading your way. You could only hope it would do its crash bit before it hit your front door. But this time it did not.

Here were the Celtics, having four times led by 15 points, and now in possession of a 107-99 lead with 4:47 left. A team could certainly be in a worse position some 1500 miles from home. But at this point the wave began to swell, and it didn’t stop until it had creasted with a spectacular 18-point San Antonio run. By that time, the game had been torn apart and, with it, the dreams of a 4-1 holiday trip. The suddenly-aroused San Antonio Spurs had somehow managed a crowd-pleasing 119-111 victory over the Celtics.

During the awful 4:05 in which Boston was unable to score, its offense, which had forced the action during the first 43 minutes of this wild game, just plain died. Expired. Croaked. “We had no action whatsoever,” lamented M. L. Carr, whose first-half heroics included sinking his first six shots. “There was nothing,” sighed Chris Ford. “Absolutely nothing.”

About all there was in this stretch were passes hung out, the better for opportunistic Spurs such as Larry Kenon to pick off. There were also bad shots. What there were none of, and they definitely would have been nice to have hand, were offensive rebounds. Only on one possession in the key run from 107-99, Boston, to 108-107, San Antonio, did the home team fail to score.

Along with a sprained ankle in the fourth quarter, Larry Bird dealt with problems all evening.  The officiating duo of Ed Middleton and Hue Hollins whistled five fouls on the rookie, and though he delivered 18 points off 8-of-12 shooting, he did not make an appearance at the free throw line and only finished with three rebounds and two assists.  After the game, however, Bird finally delivered the knockout blow.  Bob Ryan delivered the coverage of a news story that would run on an endless loop if it were to happen in today’s National Basketball Association:

The Boston Celtics literally fought their way out of the parking lot at the HemisFair last night, and, by the time the bus had departed this downtown arena, a Spur fan named John Merla was lying on the ground, courtesy of Larry Bird and his gym bag.

Bird, whose problems began when he sprained his right ankle in the fourth quarter, reportedly struck Merla with his gym bag after the latter spat in Bird’s face. Merla was one of approximately 100 fans who were pouring verbal abuse at the losing Celtics following the game. Their primary target was Dave Cowens, whom Merla claimed had spat in his face during the halftime intermission.

Mike Boudreaux of San Antonio described the scene this way: “The dude (Merla) was hollering stuff right in Cowens’ face when Bird came over and cold-cocked him with that bag. Larry hit him all right, and it was just what the guy deserved.”

Said Dave Benoy, also of San Antonio: “This guy spat in Bird’s face.”

Added Boudreaux, “Boston didn’t start it.”

San Antonio police officer Walter Sharf was another witness. “I was right in the middle of it. People were directing all kinds of obscenities toward Cowens. Bird, if that’s who it was, reached right over me and hit the guy with his bag.”

Long after the bus had departed, Merla was lying in the parking lot, covered by a jacket. “They’re going to check him out,” said Sharf, “but I think he’s just play-acting.”

[Bird and Cowens were cleared of all charges when Merla sought damages]

George Gervin led the Spurs with 24 points, and he and the Spurs’ starting five combined for 93 points.  Tiny Archibald remained a highlight for the Celtics, collecting 13 assists and adding 15 points.  While Bird’s assist numbers were down this particular game, Bill Fitch still admired his ability — like Archibald — to move the ball, and the differences in how they approached passing.

“Tiny will create off a freelance move,” Fitch told Sports Illustrated, “but at this level a lot of players can do that. Larry can create off a set play, and in the context of that play he can invent something that’s never been done.”

 

Tiny Archibald

 

Houston’s Rick Barry told the Globe, “Archibald is finally playing the way he should have four or five years ago, when he’d score 30 points and they’d lose. He’s probably having a lot more fun, too. I’m happy about it, and I hope kids out there are taking notice.”

M.L. Carr had another strong game off the bench, contributing 15 points and four steals.  SI’s Newman explained that Carr’s success helped allow Fitch to build more trust for his bench:

When Fitch arrived in Boston, he decided it was important to make Carr happy about becoming the Celtics’ sixth man. If he mentioned the names of other great Celtics sixth men of the past—names like Frank Ramsey, Havlicek, and Paul Silas—it didn’t have much of an effect on Carr. “I don’t want to get caught up in that sixth-man syndrome,” Carr says. “I have a role to play, and it doesn’t matter if I’m the sixth or the seventh or the eighth man, I’ll still play just as hard. This is the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m one of the most fortunate people in the world. I think I have the best job in the country, a better job than President Carter, and I’ll probably keep mine longer.”

For those keeping track, Carr did keep his job with the Celtics longer than President Carter remained in office.

In other NBA news, Ryan kept basketball fans informed in his Sunday NBA Notes:

We may live in Taxachusetts, but at least we have some dignity. A San Antonio newspaper is actually running a contest to name the mechanical Armadillo – Hell, yes, I’m sober – which runs all over the HemisFair court during time outs. First prize will be “two season tickets to all 1980-81 Spurs’ home games, a deep-sea fishing trip (is the Armadillo invited?) and an overnight stay following the trip in a plush Corpus Cristi hotel” … 

Jeff Judkins has been answering to the name “Hollywood” ever since Julius Erving picked up a relatively innocuous Judkins quote following the Dec. 19 Celtic triumph over Philly to use as a means of rousing himself for the game on Dec. 22. Judkins, of course, is a much of a rabble rouser as Miss Ellie…

Fitch says he wouldn’t mind going to war with a starting team of Bill Cartwright, Larry Bird, Calvin Natt, Sidney Moncrief and Magic Johnson, even if they are all rookies. “And that group would really play well together,” Fitch points out…

It has been a marvelously satisfying experience to observe the quiet professionalism of Don Chaney at work. The Duck has become a big contributor to the cause …

Jo Jo White on Bird and the Celtics: “Bird’s a player. You can just tell a player. And the Celtics are again playing together. That’s all it takes”…

Bird, incidently, is talking about going to see Indiana State play during the All- Star break. The only problem is that he will be in the game. “Naw, not this year,” he says. “I don’t belong, but I will next year.” Wrong, kid. You do belong, and the coaches aren’t silly enough to leave you off the East squad…

The Celtics would very much like to make Fitch the All-Star coach, and a look at the schedule indicates that it won’t be a piece of cake to do so. While ’tis true that the Celtics should benefit from the six home games they play between now and the cut-off date to determine the coach (the man at the helm of the best conference team after games of Jan. 20), so, too, should Philadelphia milk a schedule which includes five home games and two winnable road games (New York and New Jersey). And who’s to say that Boston couldn’t lose to such upcoming Garden foes as New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles or Seattle?

The Celtics returned to Boston for some home cooking, as the next seven games were to be played at the Garden.  The next tip-off was Wednesday night against the Knicks, with the Lakers making their only trip to Causeway Street the following Sunday.

 

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About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.

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