Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 49 vs. the Bullets

Celtics (36-12) vs. Washington (20-27)
January 25, 1980
Boston Garden

The Celtics are always connected with history.

In addition to drafting the first African American player (Chuck Cooper), employing the first African American starting five, and hiring the first African American head coach, the Celtics are in many ways to the sport of professional basketball the complete opposite to what the Red Sox were to diversity in baseball.  This particular night held a little history, as the Bullets ended a six-game losing streak — their longest since 1966 — with a road victory, 118-107, over the Celtics in the Garden.

 

Washington Bullets

 

This was only the Celtics’ fourth home loss in 25 games, yet the C’s were only 3-3 in the friendly confines of the Garden in their last half dozen games.  A sellout crowd watched this two-hour game, but were disappointed to see Rick Robey — after dominating the Pistons — struggle to control the paint in lieu of the injured Dave Cowens.  Robey pulled his groin warming up for the game, and Wes Unseld then used his burly frame to dominate him with 17 points and 19 rebounds.  Bobby Dandrige and Elvin Hayes combined for 50 points, while current Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak played three minutes for Washington.

 

Mitch Kupchak

 

The immortal Roger Phegley shot 8-9 and chipped in 16 points in only 15 minutes off the bench.  Phegley hit some key jumpers to thwart a late run by the Celtics.  On January 26, 1980, Bob Ryan detailed the loss in the Boston Globe:

This was a bizarre game whose highlight came during a span of 5:24, extending from the 3:24 mark of the third period until the 10 minute juncture of the fourth quarter. It was during this time that Fitch, unhappy with the atrocious defensive play of his starting unit, replaced them with a second unit consisting of Eric Fernsten, M.L. Carr, Don Chaney, Gerald Henderson and Jeff Judkins. The Celtics, who had trailed by as many as 18 (59-41) and who had pulled within four (71-67) earlier in the period, then were down by 12 (82- 70) and were suffering from an advanced case of Detroit Piston disease.

Fitch’s obvious instructions to his new unit were to press, press and press. They fell behind by 16 (88-72), but in the final 1:14 they got their little act together, forcing the suddenly jittery Bullets into no fewer than four turnovers in that brief period of time, two of them coming on five-second inbounds violations. A Judkins drive following his own midcourt theft of an outlet pass sent the Celtics into the final period trailing by a manageable eight points at 88-80.

Fitch left the unit out there to start the final period and they sent the crowd into delirium by causing a third five-second inbounds violation before turning a 92-84 deficit over to the starters two minutes into the period. They exited to a standing ovation and the respect of their opponents.

“Nobody has been able to full-court man-to-man press us all year,” admitted Washington mentor Dick Motta. “I thought the first violation was called a little quick, and after that we may have started to panic a bit.”

“There was no place I could go,” admired Kevin Grevey. “They cut off the first pass and it seemed like we would cut once and then stand around.”

The first team did manage to come within two at 92-90 on a pair of Nate Archibald fast-break free throws, but after reaching that state at 7:57 they died once again, failing to score a field goal for the next 5:32 while being outscored, 15-2. The chief assassin was Roger Phegley (16 points on 8-for-9 shooting), who scored eight quickies after those Tiny foul shots, sandwiching two pairs of hoops around a killing three-point inbounds shot by troublesome Bob Dandridge (25).

The Celtics returned to action on Sunday, January 27 with a home game against Swen Nater and the Bill Walton-less San Diego Clippers.

 

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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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