[Time for another in the blog’s series of “The Game I’ll Never Forget.” This one comes from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones, as told to reporter Bert Rosenthal and published in the June 1980 issue of Basketball Digest. Since Jones didn’t hang up his sneakers until 1986, it’s possible that today he has some of his later contests as a Philadelphia 76er stuck more prominently in his memory. Maybe not. This one from his days with the ABA Denver Nuggets was a doozy.]
There have been two big baskets in my basketball career—one I made in college at North Carolina to win a game and one I made in my first year as a pro with the Denver Nuggets of the old American Basketball Association.
I will never forget that game with Denver. We scored five points in the final seconds—that’s right, five points in one second—to beat the San Antonio Spurs, 130-128! The game was played January 8, 1975. At that time, the Nuggets were playing their final season in the old Denver Auditorium Arena. It was really the start of big interest in professional basketball in Denver. The last half of that season we played to all sellouts at home.
And no wonder. We finished that season with a 40-2 record at home, and going into the game against the Spurs, we had won 21 in a row in our cozy arena. The Auditorium reminded me of Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., the home of Duke University. The crowd was very close, with the first row right at courtside and the upper level hanging over the court. In small places like that, the fans usually are very intense, and the excitement of the crowd really gets you going, really pumps you up, makes you play harder.
Our amazing homecourt success that season had helped us to a 33-5 record overall, including four victories without a loss against San Antonio and an 11 ½-game lead over the Spurs in the ABA’s West Division. Also, going into the game, we had won eight in a row overall.
In an effort to upset us, and in an attempt to control the tempo of the game, the Spurs used a one-guard set offense, in which one of their guards—James Silas or Donnie Freeman—worked the ball toward the middle. The strategy paid off in the first quarter, as the Spurs forged a 34-24 lead. They still led at halftime by 10 points, 62-52. We finally tied the score for the first time about midway in the third quarter, and the score was close the rest of the way.
Then, with about a half minute remaining in the game, Swen Nater sank two free throws for San Antonio, giving the Spurs a 126-121 lead—and it looked like we were dead. It certainly was desperation time for us.
We attempted a three-point field goal and missed, but I got the rebound and scored. That cut the deficit to three points. Quickly, it became only one point when Pat McFarland stole the inbounds pass and scored. There still were 19 seconds left.
San Antonio took a timeout—its last of the game. Afterward, the Spurs worked the ball to Coby Dietrick. He was fouled and converted two free throws, giving the Spurs a 128-125 advantage with 13 seconds to go.
Now, we needed a three-point field goal for a tie. Ralph Simpson tried one and missed, and the ball was heading out of bounds. But Simpson made a miraculous save and flipped it to Claude Terry, my roommate, as time was running out. Terry, one of the better three-point shooters in the league, faked Rich Jones and fired up a long jump shot. He made it, and with one second remaining, the score was tied at 128.
Many of the fans and some players figured that time had expired and started streaming onto the court, prior to what they thought would be an overtime period. But in the last two minutes of an ABA game, the clock was stopped automatically after a basket.
Meanwhile, Nater was trying to signal for a timeout. But the Spurs had none left. So with the fans going wild and virtually surrounding him under the basket, Nater attempted to put the ball inbounds. That was mistake. Spurs coach Bob Bass had told his players never to let Swen take the ball out in a situation like that because he always threw it in poorly. In fact, in our last game against the Spurs, in a similar situation, he had made a bad pass from out of bounds, and Fatty Taylor scored a key basket for us.
But with all the fans screaming and yelling, I guess this Spurs didn’t realize what was happening. We had a fullcourt press on, and I was standing by the foul line. All of a sudden, the ball came right to me. I don’t know whether he lobbed the ball or it slipped out of his hands or what. But I took it and shot it—and it went in at the buzzer!
I looked at the official in the corner, Ed Middleton, and he signaled that the shot counted. What a feeling. It was like we had won the ABA championship. It was a big thrill for me to have Claude and myself get the last five points—in one second—and for Denver to win the game, 130-128. I really couldn’t believe that last shot had gone in.
[And just for the record. Here’s a quick, mildly edited compilation of the AP and UPI wire stories of this miracle game.]
Got a second?
That’s all the Denver Nuggets needed Wednesday night to beat the San Antonio Spurs, 130-128, in a crazy final second that featured a crowded court, a stolen pass, and an 18-foot jumper by Bobby Jones. It was the 22nd straight victory for Denver and brought the Nuggets season record to 34-5, best by far in either league.
Jones’ heroics were set up when Claude Terry hit a three-pointer with a second left and pulled the Nuggets, who had trailed by five points with 29 seconds left in the game, into a tie. Spurs coach Bob Bass said he was going to protest the game because when Spurs center Swen Nater took the ball out of bounds with a second left, the arena floor was covered with fans and players. “We were denied the lower one-third of the court,” Bass said.
“They should have called a timeout and cleared the floor from both sides,” Bass continued, referring to the referees. “We did not have an opportunity to get the ball in.”
Bass said the timeclock, which had one second left when Nater took the ball out of bounds, did not start until after official Ed Middleton signaled that Jones’ basket was good. “None of your business,” Middleton said when questioned about the final play.