The proud Boston Celtic franchise suffered a rarity in 1978—they missed the playoffs, only the second time that had happened since Red Auerbach arrived in the Hub in 1951. Auerbach made a big move in the draft to help the aging roster—he used the sixth overall pick on Indiana State’s star forward Larry Bird. But Bird still had to play his senior year in French Lick and Auerbach simply used what was then a loophole in NBA draft rules to lock up the player a year early. The 1979 Boston Celtics were essentially a team-in-waiting and they played like it.
The ’79 Celts did have some notable pieces. Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell was a second-year player and averaged 19 points/10 rebounds. But the rest of the team was getting older. Dave Cowens up front, along with Tiny Archibald and Chris Ford in the backcourt were all 30-years-old. All were productive players on the offensive end, but the age problem could be seen on defense. The Celtics ranked 19th in defensive efficiency in a league that only had 23 teams. And they certainly didn’t score enough to cover for that.
The Celtics lost twelve times in their first 14 games. A 128-123 home loss to a bad Detroit Pistons team that was coached by Dick Vitale was the last straw. Head coach Tom Sanders was shown the door. His replacement? Cowens was player-coach the rest of the way, the last time in NBA history that anyone has pulled double-duty.
It would be a stretch to say that Coach Cowens got things turned around, but at the least the bleeding stopped. Boston knocked off the eventual NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics on December 1, 87-80. The record stabilized at 12-20 by Christmas.
Back-to-back games with the Philadelphia 76ers of Julius Erving were the highlight in January. The Celtics and Sixers played on Saturday in Philly, then turned around to play again on Sunday in Boston. The Celts took the road game 108-102 behind a 29/14 performance from Cornbread. But even though Maxwell and Cowens both rebounded well on Sunday, some poor shooting undid the Celtics in a 91-87 loss.
That split was still the high point of a tough month and Boston was 18-31 going into February, six games off the playoff pace.
Seattle made another visit to the old Boston Garden on February 7. Cowens and Maxwell each went for 24/10 and Boston again knocked off the eventual champs. But they couldn’t get closer than six games of the playoffs. But with a 25-36 record going into March, they weren’t quite dead.
March would be the cruelest month. The Celtics lost 9 of 11 to begin the month and finished off whatever meager hopes they had. The local fan base knew they could cheer on Bird and his Indiana State team made the NCAA final, but lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
A 103-94 win over Philly on a Sunday afternoon at the end of March was the last real high point in a season of lows. The Celts got 20 from Maxwell, 27 from another young forward in Rick Robey and 25 from center Bob McAdoo. After that they lost eight in a row before concluding the season with one last win over the New Jersey Nets.
The final record was 29-53. Cowens returned to simply being a player and Bill Fitch came on as the next head coach. But more important was that Larry Legend was finally on the way. And spending the year in waiting would be well worth the price.
The 1979 Seattle Supersonics were both a franchise on the rise, as well as one that had a bitter taste in their mouths over the end of the previous season. Those two elements combined to make them NBA champions.
Seattle got its pro basketball team in 1968 and first made the playoffs in 1974 with the legendary Bill Russell as head coach. After Russell retired, the Supersonics began to slide backwards and after a 5-17 start in the 1977-78 season, a coaching change to Lenny Wilkens was made. Seattle closed with a fury, winning 42 of 60, and reaching the NBA Finals.
That team has a place in history, but not the one the fans or the organization were hoping for—the 1978 NBA Finals marks the last time a home team lost a Game 7 in the Finals. Seattle fell to the Washington Bullets and lost the championship. But there were still a team with a lot of young talent, and every reason to think the best was still ahead.
The good things started with a backcourt of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson, ages 25 and 24 respectively. Williams was an explosive scorer, while D.J. a good one, along with being a good passer, a good rebounder and an exceptional defender. The third guard in the mix was Fred Brown, another player renowned for his ability to fill it up in a hurry.
In 1979, Williams averaged 19 points/4 assists per game, while Johnson averaged 16 points/5 rebounds/4 assists and was 1st-team All-NBA on defense.
Jack Sikma, age 23, was the cornerstone of the frontcourt and the center averaged 16 points a game, while his 12 boards a night ranked fifth in the league. He was a supported by strong depth up front, starting with newly acquired 23-year-old Lonnie Shelton, who averaged a 14/6.
More frontline depth came in the way of yet another 23-year-old Tom LaGarde, who posted an 11/8 average, and a proud veteran in 35-year-old Paul Silas who grabbed seven boards a night. And the versatile John Johnson played the small forward spot, chipping in 11 points per game.
Wilkens put it all together to lead Seattle to a 52-30 record, narrowly edging the Phoenix Suns for the Pacific Division title and the #1 seed in the Western Conference.
The structure of the NBA at the time split each conference into two divisions, and the playoff format was six teams per conference. The division winners got byes into the conference semis, while the other four teams played a best-of-three “mini-series.” Seattle took its brief rest and then drew a matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Los Angeles had the brighter stars. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had won the MVP award the previous two seasons and was only second-team All-NBA this season because Houston’s Moses Malone had an MVP year at center. The Lakers had great scorers in Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes and Adrian Dantley.
But they were missing some Magic—an element that wouldn’t come until a year later, and the superior Supersonic guards began to set the tone for their dominant postseason.
Williams and D.J. combined for 53 points in a 112-101 win to open the series, as Seattle took over in the third quarter after falling behind early. Another strong third quarter, along with 38 points from Williams produced a 108-103 overtime win in Game 2, as the Supersonics held serve at home.
Another overtime game was at hand in Game 3 in the old Los Angeles Forum. Sikma, Silas and Shelton all fouled out and the Lakers hit nine free throws in the final 1:21 of OT. Seattle lost 118-112 to heighten the stakes for Game 4.
Williams and D.J. again stepped up with a combined 53 points and John Johnson added 20 of his own. The third quarter was Seattle’s friend again, as they shot 71 percent in the period. The Supersonics still led by ten points with 3:20 left when the Lakers made a furious rally to cut the lead to 117-115. They got one final shot, but Nixon missed at the buzzer and Seattle was in complete control of the series.
Another 30-point explosion from Williams, his fourth of the series, came in Game 5. Another strong third quarter came, when Williams scored 16 of his points. Shelton had 22, D.J. had 21 and the Supersonics won 106-100 to advance to the conference finals.
The Western Conference Finals would be against Phoenix, and it would be another series where Seattle would rely on superior depth to trump brighter stars. In this case, the stars were Paul Westphal and Walter Davis, each 24ppg scorers, and the Suns had strong interior personnel in Alvan Adams and the aptly named Truck Robinson.
Williams dropped 27 in Game 1 and Seattle completely dominated in a 108-93 win. They didn’t dominate Game 2, but they still won it and again defended their home floor. Even though Westphal and Davis got rolling, this game would prove to the definitive statement about Supersonic depth.
When your best three players shoot 11-for-56, as Williams, Sikma and DJ did, it’s quite an accomplishment to win a conference finals game. That’s what Seattle did, thanks to everyone else stepping up, led by John Johnson with 21. And the Supersonics crashed the boards, winning the rebound battle 59-38.
The depth failed Seattle when they hit the road for Phoenix in Game 3. Williams hit 35 points, but he was a one-man show in a 113-103 loss. This time, the Supersonics couldn’t steal one on the road, dropping Game 4 by 100-91 count. And it got even worse when they came back to the Seattle Kingdome. Williams played poorly, fouling out with just ten points and the Supersonics lost at home, 99-93, being outplayed in the fourth quarter.
To say Seattle was in trouble going on the road for Game 6 is an understatement, especially when they trailed by eight after three quarters and Williams again struggled, this time to a 16-point night. But somehow the Supersonics dug in, and with 23 from D.J. and 21 from Sikma, they pulled out a 106-105 win.
It’s not too much to say that the fourth quarter of Game 6 was the most important 12 minutes of basketball in the history of the city of Seattle. Because the Supersonics took advantage of their reprieve back home in Game 7. Williams and D.J. were back in the groove, combining for 55 points. And no one was better than Sikma, who scored 33, grabbed 11 rebounds and hit the clinching free throws in a 114-110 win.
Seattle was back in the NBA Finals and they had a rematch with Washington. The Bullets had homecourt advantage this time, with a 54-28 record, although they had been pushed seven games in both of their Eastern Conference playoff series. What they still held was solid, veteran big people, with Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, along with a quality scorer in Bob Dandridge and further depth with Kevin Grevey and Mitch Kupchak.
The Bullets had beaten the Supersonics the last two games in the ’78 NBA Finals and picked up where they left off, jumping out to an 18-point lead with a little over nine minutes left in Game 1. The Supersonics made a furious rally and tied the game. The Bullets had the last shot, and D.J. went up for the block against Larry Wright.
He got it, but he also got some of the body with one second left. Wright hit two free throws to win it, 99-97. Even though Seattle had lost, the rally shifted momentum and the Supersonics began to take over the NBA Finals.
Seattle defense was suffocating in Game 2, with a 92-82 win that got them their road win. Williams popped in 31 points to deliver a 105-95 win Game 3. The two guards, the Williams and D.J. combo, had their most explosive game of the playoffs in Game 4. They combined for 68 points and the Supersonics needed all of them in a 114-112 overtime win.
Sikma was dominating the inside, and he would finish the Finals with a 16/15 nightly average, outplaying both Hayes and Unseld. John Johnson and Shelton were combining for 14 more rebounds a night. This is even more significant than it looks, because if Washington couldn’t dominate up front, they weren’t going to win. The Supersonic guards were just too good.
Williams and D.J. were good one more time in the Beltway for Game 5. Even though the Bullets came out fired up, leading by eleven after the first quarter, the lead was down to three when the fourth quarter began. Williams finished with 23 points, D.J. had 21 and Seattle took over and won 97-93. They were NBA champs.
The Finals MVP award went to D.J, with his 23 ppg, even though Williams had a higher scoring average at 29. D.J. had more rebounds and assists (6-4 in each category) and his defense was vital in forcing the Washington backcourt into a tough series. Either player would have been a great choice. Collectively, they had been too much for the entire NBA.
Given the youth of the team, it’s surprising and disappointing that the 1979 Seattle Supersonics were the last hurrah. By the next season, Magic Johnson came to the Lakers and it was they who defined basketball in the Western Conference, while the Supersonics struggled to even stay on the map as a prime competitor.
Not until 1996, with Gary Payton, did the franchise return to the NBA Finals and they’ve since relocated to Oklahoma City. The city of Seattle didn’t experience another championship until the Seahawks won the Super Bowl following the 2013 NFL season.
Seattle should be an NBA town, and in 1979, they were a special one, combining all elements of basketball to produce a championship team.
The year in 1979 sports carries a special place in basketball lore, as Michigan State’s Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird met in the NCAA final that drew the highest TV ratings in the history of that event and set the stage for a new era in the NBA. That’s fair enough as the prime story of the year. There are a few things that we shouldn’t lose sight of though.
The first is that the 1979 Final Four provided some other good storylines, with DePaul’s longtime head coach Ray Meyer making his first and only trip to college basketball’s showcase and Penn became the most recent team to reach the Final Four, winning the NCAA Tournament’s first-ever “gutted bracket.”
We also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Michigan State was far and away the best team. The Magic-Bird storyline works when we take the broader historical view, but the Spartans were decisively college basketball’s best.
And finally, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there was another great champion in college sports, and one that deserves a place in sports history. Bear Bryant’s 1979 Alabama football team dominated its schedule, won the Sugar Bowl going away and won their second straight national title.
Read more about the 1979 Final Four Read more about the 1979 college football season
Two great dynasties of the 1970s had their final ride in 1979. The Montreal Canadiens won their fourth straight Stanley Cup, and the Pittsburgh Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl title in six years. Each team got stiffer tests than normal this season, and each benefitted from significant upsets that eliminated their most potent threat.
Montreal was not the NHL’s best in the regular season for the first time in their dynastic run, but the New York Islanders proved to be not-quite-ready for prime time. The Islanders were on the doorstep of a dynasty of their own and it would have been great to watch them battle Montreal in 1979. But the New York Rangers got in the way, and upset their crosstown rival in the semifinals, opening the path for another Canadien championship.
Pittsburgh saw the Houston Oilers close the gap on them in the AFC, and if we looked ahead to the Super Bowl, there was the potential for a Steelers-Cowboys battle.
It would have been a rematch and the third time in five years the two franchises had met in the NFL’s biggest game. The fact this was the last year for legendary Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach would have only added to the drama. But the Cowboys were stunned by the Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs and it eased Pittsburgh’s path. Read more about the 1979 Montreal Canadiens Read more about the 1979 NFL season
The Steelers weren’t the only team the city of Pittsburgh had to cheer. The Steel City enjoyed a rare Super Bowl-World Series Parlay, as the Pittsburgh Pirates were baseball’s best, making an exciting run to win the NL East title, and then winning three straight elimination games to take the World Series. Read more about the 1979 MLB season
In the NBA, a standard reading of sports history tells us that the league desperately needed the impending arrival of Magic and Bird. From a marquee standpoint, there’s no disputing that, but from a standpoint of competitive balance, the979 NBA postseason was exciting. The semifinals and finals of the Eastern Conference went the full seven games, as did the finals in the Western Conference. The 1979 NBA Finals were anticlimactic, with the Seattle Supersonics winning the championship in five games, but the playoff ride was an interesting one. Read more about the 1979 NBA playoffs