FAYETTEVILLE — It was a June night 44 years ago.
Chris Bucknam’s friends from high school had finished their sophomore years in college and were back home in Beverly, Mass., a Boston suburb.
The Boston Celtics were playing the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals with the series tied 2-2 and Game 5 scheduled for the Boston Garden.
Bucknam, the men’s cross country and track and field coach at the University of Arkansas since 2008, figured he and his buddies would watch the game from Beverly’s Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 545.
“Back then, the VFW lodge was the closest thing we had to sports bar in Beverly, Mass.,” said Bucknam, who at the time was attending Norwich University in Vermont.
As it turned out, the friends didn’t get together for the game in the Beverly VFW Post. Instead they were in the Boston Garden as part of a crowd of 15,320 for what turned out to be the longest game in NBA Finals history.
The Celtics beat the Suns 128-126 in triple overtime and then won Game 6 in Phoenix to take the series.
In 1993 the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix also went to three overtimes in the Finals — in another Game 5 matchup — which the Suns won 129-121 at Chicago Stadium.
Those are the only two NBA Finals games that have gone more than two overtimes.
One of Bucknam’s friends — his first name was “Paul,” but he went by “Ski” because those were the last three letters of his last name — came up with nine tickets to the 1976 Finals Game 5.
The day before the game, Bucknam recalled, “Ski” went to the Garden to see if he could get some tickets.
“‘Ski’ was in this really long line, waiting, and then he looked over and a guy opened up another ticket window,” Bucknam said. “Nobody else noticed it but ‘Ski,’ and so he got out of the long line and went right up to this other window.
“The guy goes, ‘How many tickets you need?’ And ‘Ski’ went, ‘I need nine,’ and the guy went ‘OK, no problem.’”
“Ski” walked into the VFW Post holding up the tickets.
“‘Ski’ yelled, ‘Hey, look what I got!’” Bucknam said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
That’s how Bucknam and eight of his friends found themselves in the Boston Garden on June 4, 1976.
No one had a car to drive to the game, plus there were nine of them and parking around the Garden was a pain. So they took the commuter train from Beverly to downtown Boston’s North Station, which was right under the Garden.
The last train from the North Station to Beverly ran about 90 minutes after the game was expected to end, so getting back home didn’t figure to be a problem.
Not all nine tickets were together and Bucknam sat with four of his friends in the Garden’s upper deck while the other four sat somewhere else.
“We watched the most incredible basketball game you could ever imagine,” Bucknam said. “It was just one unbelievable play after another.
“Of course, it was so hot in there. It’s the Boston Garden in June with no air-conditioning. I remember we took our shirts off and were waving them around, just having a blast.”
The Suns overcame a 32-12 deficit early in the second quarter and tied the game 95-95 at the end of regulation.
After the first overtime the game was still tied 101-101.
It looked like the Celtics had won in the second overtime when John Havlicek hit a bank shot to give Boston a 111-110 lead. The clock ran out, fans stormed the court and the Celtics dashed for their locker room.
But referee Richie Powers — who was knocked over by a fan — ruled that there was still one second to play.
The Celtics came back onto the floor.
Phoenix was out of timeouts, but Paul Westphal called one on purpose to draw an automatic technical foul so the Suns could inbound the ball at half court rather than from under their basket.
After Jo Jo White hit the technical free throw to give the Celtics a 112-110 lead, Curtis Perry inbounded the ball to Gar Heard, who quickly turned and hit a jumper to tie the game 112-112 and send it into a third overtime.
“You think the game is going to end, then it just keeps going and going,” Bucknam said. “I remember thinking, ‘We’re going to miss the last train to go home.’
“But there was no way we were leaving the game.”
It finally ended in the third overtime.
White led the Celtics with 33 points, Dave Cowens scored 26 and Havlicek 25. Westphal and Ricky Sobers each scored 25 to lead the Suns. Heard, the Phoenix center, played a game-high 61 minutes and finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Bucknam’s group of five friends couldn’t find their other friends after the game as they headed to the North Station. Those guys already had gone home.
“We said, ‘Maybe the train will be running later since the game went so long,’” Bucknam said. “But when we went out to the train tracks to head back to Beverly, everything was quiet. It was over. It was done. There were no trains.
“We were like, ‘It’s 1 a.m. What are we going to do now? How are we going to get home?’
“We didn’t have any money to get a taxi. Then we remembered Jimmy Ard.”
Ard was the Celtics’ backup center.
“We knew Ard lived in a condo in Beverly,” Bucknam said. “It was kind of a thing that one of the Celtics lived in our town.
“We were so dumb we thought we were going to get a ride home with a Celtic. We figured we’d go up to him and say, ‘We’re from Beverly, can you give us a ride home?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah. Sure. Hop in my car.’”
Bucknam and his friends went to the back of the Garden where the players’ parking lot was located.
“There was a chain link fence and about 50 people were there waiting on the outside to see the players,” Bucknam said. “I remember Jo Jo White got in a Jaguar or some kind of fancy sports car. We saw John Havlicek and he was driving one of those new Jeep Wagoneers.
“Then Cowens come out —he used to drive a taxi — and he got in an old sedan of some kind.”
The group never found out what Ard drove.
“We all went, ‘Where’s Jimmy Ard? Where’s Jimmy Ard?’” Bucknam said. “And somebody said, ‘He already went home.’”
By then it was 2 a.m.
“So we’re sitting on the curb outside the Boston Garden and a car came by and it wasn’t going very fast,” Bucknam said. “It was a Ford Pinto station wagon.
“It stopped in front of us, and a guy rolled down his window and he said, ‘What are you guys doing here?’
“It was Mr. Batchelor, out math teacher at Beverly High. We didn’t know it, but he was some kind of statistician for the Celtics and he went to the games.
“We ran up to him and said, ‘We were here at the game, but we missed the last train and we don’t have any way to get home.’
“Mr. Batchelor said, ‘Get in the car. We’ll take you home.’ He had somebody else in the car with him up front, so we all packed into the back.”
One of the five friends who piled into the back seat was Bruce Nardella, an offensive lineman at Colgate.
“Bruce was a huge guy,” Bucknam said. “But somehow we all managed to get in.”
The car was so loaded down that on the drive on Route 128 from Boston to Beverly, it kept hitting the highway because it was riding so low.
“You could literally see sparks flying from the bottom of the car scrapping the pavement,” Bucknam said. “It was crazy.”
A Massachusetts state troop noticed the sparks and pulled over the car.
“I remember the trooper shining his flash light in the back of the car and seeing all of us crammed in there and asking, “What’s going on here?’” Bucknam said. “Mr. Batchelor said, ‘I’m just trying to get these guys home.’”
The trooper heard the story and let them go with a warning. Maybe he was in a good mood because the Celtics had won.