Memories, by Joe Girard: June 4, 1976
Besides being hairless, Curly’s head was big and round, just like the rest of him. Really big. Except for his ears and mandatory facial features, it looked rather like an oversized cue ball.
What the National Basketball Association lacks is March Madness. Contrast the anti-climactic NBA tournament with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament and it feels like a dud. The NCAA has a championship tournament that has tens of millions of people betting on filled-out brackets – with quintillions (ok, let’s say zillions) – of possible outcomes. And it’s over in a couple of exciting weeks. Most of them are pulling for at least one of small, even tiny, schools like Butler, Gonzaga, Villanova or Marquette.
No, instead the NBA’s championship tournament dawdles into June – trying to milk as much money as it can from TV and markets where teams have not been eliminated. Instead of March Madness they have June Jive. By then, the thrill is already gone for everyone but the die hard fans. It’s baseball season. It’s golf season. It’s camping and hiking and climbing and rafting and canoeing season. The kids are out of school. It’s travel season.
June, 1976. I had recently finished my sophomore year of college at Arkansas State University. My buddy Jim Price and I had already sworn off the NBA in general. However, we were fans of underdogs like the Phoenix Suns – who were an almost brand new franchise – that had made an unlikely and unexpected run to the NBA finals that year. We shared a dislike of perennial dominant teams – like the Boston Celtics, who were the Suns’ competition in the championship best of seven series. The Celtics had won the NBA championship something like twelve of the previous sixteen years. Oh, puke.
Now it’s the fifth game of the finals, and the under-powered Suns have somehow managed a 2-2 split. Jim and I are hoping they can make something happen in Boston – in “the G-ah-den” – in front of what seemed like a zillion crazy, frantic, yelling Celtic fans. We watched on TV at my family’s house.
It was a miserable first half for the Suns. I think they were down 20 points somewhere around halftime. Discouraged, Jim and I turned off the tube and headed out to get something to eat, then go down across the county line to get some beer. (Jonesboro, Arkansas, where we lived, was a “dry” county – Craighead county).
The closest liquor depot to us was in Truman, with several establishments just south of County Line Road. Probably an hour after we turned off the tube, we ambled into Curly’s, a simple, low-cost, Quonset hut looking sort of place.
As expected, there was big round Curly, behind the counter. Besides being hairless, Curly’s head was big and round, just like the rest of him. Really big. Except for his ears and mandatory facial features, it looked rather like an oversized cue ball.
Curly’s back was toward a small crowd of customers, maybe four or five. They are all watching the TV. Jim and I grabbed a case of cheap, cold beer and sidled up to the counter.
Curly still is turned away from the counter, and he’s still looking at the TV.
On the TV the Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtic are playing basketball – on the G-ah-den’s distinctive parquet floor.
We elbowed in (since no one seems to be buying anything) and I said to Curly rather meekly (I’m only 19 … I’m not supposed to be in there): “Are they showing the game’s highlights? There couldn’t be many highlights. Phoenix got smoked.”
Curly turned slightly. The twist of his head and the tone of his voice implied anger and frustration: “Overtime. Double Overtime.”
Boston is clinging to a small lead with about one minute left in the second overtime.
Wow. Jim and I have missed a tremendous Phoenix comeback. Led by Paul Westphal, whom they had ironically acquired by trade from Boston in mid-season, they are still in the game, although trailing, 109-106.
But Boston cannot get it done. At every turn that goes for Phoenix and against Boston, big, round ol’ Curly either grunts, yells a profanity, or swings at the air. This is Curly’s joint, and the small crowd seems to be populated by Boston fans.
Clearly I am in the wrong place.
Somehow Phoenix manages two unlikely buckets, and, with about 5 seconds remaining, they take a one point lead. 110 to 109.
Curly is furious. Boston takes a time out. The “G-ah-den” crowd is quiet. Jim and I are smugly grinning away, wordlessly sighing our approval. Curly takes notice.
The crucial moments:
The Boston Celtic’s aging superstar, John Havlicek, now 36 years old, takes a pass and finds a seam to his left; he tries a leaning runner from the left side of the lane while awkwardly lunging off the wrong foot – and it goes in! The buzzer sounds and everyone except the Suns goes CRAZY in the G-ah-den. Boston wins, 111-110.
Except … something is wrong. The referees are getting all the fans off the floor to re-start the game. They’ve decided that there is one (that’s “1”) second left in the game, and Phoenix had called a time out. “Mr. Clueless” Brent Musberger is mystified (no surprise).
That’s when Curly said it. This is exactly what he said, in a smug, defiant, slow, jowly, Arkansas drawl: “Well, no matter what, I’d bet 100-to-1 that Boston wins this game.”
Hmmm. I thought. I shuffled a bit. Then I consciously poked Jim in the ribs with my right elbow while conspicuously pulling out my wallet and extracting a single George Washington adorned piece of cabbage. With Jim’s and the crowd’s attention on me, I slowly, yet flamboyantly, laid one dollar on the counter right next to Curly, with a loud “AHEM.”
Curly noticed almost immediately. He didn’t carry a wallet. He pulled out a huge neatly rolled-up wad of bills that he kept in the front pocket of his overalls. Then he slowly counted out five Andy Jacksons and laid them on top of my one-spot Washington.
$101 is on the counter for all to see.
At that point it’s announced that Phoenix called a Time Out; that’s how the clock stopped. But they had no Time Outs remaining. That’s a Technical Foul. The Celtics’ JoJo White sinks the free throw, and Boston is now ahead 112-110. If possible, Curly’s cueball face and demeanor look even more smug.
But Phoenix still has one second left.
Near the “top of the key”, the Suns’ Garfield Heard caught the inbounds pass as he turned, and jumped, and tossed an unlikely high arcing shot toward the basket in one continuous motion. The ball kissed off the back of the rim and slithered through the net as the buzzer sounded.
Tied at 112!
This would be Triple Overtime. And through the rest of the game, at least five more minutes of overtime, there was a neat stack of cash on the counter as we all stood there at Curly’s Liquor Barn, eyes fixed on the little 12-inch black-and-white television.
Heard’s buzzer-beater shot has been called “the shot heard ‘round the world.” (“heard”, get it?). That’s saying too much and shows disrespect to the opening of the American Revolution at Concord’s Old North Bridge. However, it’s not exaggerating when that game is called “the greatest game ever played in NBA history.”
Even though two of Boston’s stars had already fouled out – Paul Silas and “cry-baby” Dave Cowens – Phoenix lacked the firepower to finish the upset. They made it close, but Boston won in Triple Overtime, 128-126.
We paid for the beer. It was good.
I lost one dollar, had a lot of fun, and will forever have a fun story to tell.
Joe Girard © 2015
 US Highway 63 between Jonesboro and Truman now by-passes the center of Truman. It looks like most of those little liquor establishments like “The Cotton Club” and Curly’s are out of business. Curly’s building still stands … abandoned. See photo below (courtesy of Google streetview).
 In 1992-93 the Phoenix Suns had their best season ever, led by new coach Paul Westphal – his first season as a head coach. After an impressive 62-20 regular season record, they made it to the finals again, only to lose (4 games to 2), to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls (the Bulls’ first “Three-peat”). Since entering the league in 1968, the Suns have only made it to the NBA finals these two times, and have never won a championship.
 After writing the essay, I found this YouTube video of the last 19 seconds of the second overtime. My memory is pretty good, although I’d forgotten about a fan attacking head referee Richie Powers. I was also wrong about how the clock stopped; it stops when the ball goes through the hoop. The timeout (in exchange for a technical foul) was a clever tactic sometimes used to get the ball to mid-court for the in bounds pass.