INDIANAPOLIS - The defending champion Boston Celtics opened the much-anticipated 1976-77 merger season at the Indiana Pacers, who were making their NBA debut after winning three ABA titles over the previous nine seasons.
Four ABA teams - Indiana, San Antonio, Denver and the New York Nets - were absorbed into the established older league in 1976 while the rest of the rival loop's franchises folded.
Pacer coach Bob "Slick" Leonard and Red Auerbach had a bit of a running feud going back to Slick's days as a struggling young head coach for Baltimore in the 1960's.
Red had denigrated Leonard's coaching abilities then, and the feisty former Laker guard never forgot it as he drove the Pacers to ABA crowns in 1970, 1972 and 1973. Auerbach also publicly disdained the overall quality of play in the red, white and blue league. The scars ran deep between the rival leagues, wounds that took years to heal after nearly a decade of escalating contract wars, lawsuits, players and referees jumping leagues, plus general bad blood.
A big crowd of 16,178 fans packed two-year old Market Square Arena in downtown Indianapolis to watch their "Celtics of the ABA", as the Pacers were sometimes called, take on the real Celtics. The basketball-crazy Hoosier fans were not disappointed as they saw a heated overtime battle.
The host Pacers raced to a 32-23 first period lead, but Boston cut the deficit to 63-57 by halftime. Indiana lengthened its lead to 90-81 after three periods. It appeared the Pacers were ready to take out the champs in their NBA lidlifter for coach Leonard, a native of Terre Haute, Indiana and a key member of the 1953 Indiana University NCAA championship squad.
Yet the experienced Celtics would not go down easily, and the younger Pacers were not poised enough to close out the veteran squad. Boston rallied within two points in the final minute when the always-clutch John Havlicek, starting his 15th and penultimate season, sank a basket to force overtime at 113-all.
In the extra session, the ageless Havlicek poured in eight of his game-high 32 points to lead Boston to a dramatic 129-122 victory.
Celtic guard Charlie Scott scored 28 points while backcourt mate JoJo White contributed 23 markers. New forward Sidney Wicks, the 1971-72 Rookie of the Year who was acquired to replace the controversially traded Paul Silas, scored 21 points in his Boston debut.
All-Star center Dave Cowens, the 1970-71 Rookie of the Year, fouled out and was held to seven points. But reserve Steve Kuberski contributed 12 big points off the pines.
Indiana was led in scoring by Billy Knight, with 29 points. Future NBA All-Star Dan Roundfield tallied 23 points. The Indiana native backcourt of All-Star playmaker Don Buse and Mike Flynn combined for 26 points. Defensive ace Buse led the ABA in assists and steals in 1975-76, and repeated as champion of both categories when Indiana joined the NBA in 1976-77.
Wil Jones, the brother of the recently-deceased former 76er Caldwell Jones, also netted 21 for Indiana.
The Pacers finished fifth in the Midwest Division of the NBA's Western Conference in the new 22-team league, posting a 36-46 record during their maiden campaign in the brown ball league. Indiana did not move to the Eastern Conference until the 1979-80 season.
Defending champion Boston, with Cowens taking a 68-day absence due to burnout from early November to mid-January, stumbled to a 44-38 record due to in large part to age and chemistry issues with Wicks and his former UCLA teammate Curtis Rowe.
The Celtics made the playoffs and swept San Antonio 2-0 to advance to the second round, where they faced the talented young 76ers of Dr. J, Doug Collins and former Pacer star George McGinnis.
Boston won game one 113-111 at the Spectrum on a baseline jumper by White at the buzzer. But Philadelphia regrouped to edge an aging Celtic club in a seven-game thriller.
The 83-77 game seven loss turned out to be the final of 172 playoff contests in Havlicek's incredible career. Hondo scored 13 points in the defeat and retired as the number three playoff scorer in NBA history.
The 76ers made it to the Finals but were defeated by future Celtic sixth man Bill Walton and the Portland TrailBlazers in a memorable series, 4-2.