Live from Phoenix, it’s Saturday Night (Basketball)!
Game five of the NBA Finals was played last night in Phoenix. Milwaukee won 123-119. More on that in the next post.
Oddly, it was the first NBA championship series game contested on a Saturday since game three in 1981, when the finals were known as the world championship series. Hard to believe 40 years passed between Saturday games, considering MLB and the NHL consistently hold games in their championship series on Saturdays.
In 1979-80 and 1980-81, the NBA started its season three weeks earlier than usual and ended on the last Sunday of March. Since only 12 teams made the playoffs in those seasons, and the first round was a best-of-three, the playoffs were shorter.
In 1980, only one series in the conference semifinals and finals went longer than five games, Seattle’s seven-game triumph over Milwaukee in the western semifinals. Both conference finals lasted five, with the Lakers blowing away the reigning champion SuperSonics and the 76ers steamrolling the Celtics in the first of three consecutive eastern finals between the ancient rivals.
This allowed the NBA to schedule the first two games of the finals in Inglewood for Sunday, May 4 and Wednesday, May 7, very reasonable. The first game was televised live coast-to-coast, but the second, which started at 8:30 Pacific (11:30 Eastern) was tape-delayed in the Mountain and Pacific time zones in order to not pre-empt CBS’ primetime schedule.
Following two days off, the series moved to Philadelphia. CBS gave the NBA an ultimatum with two bad choices: (a) play the third and fourth games Saturday and Sunday of Mother’s Day weekend, and we’ll televise both live, or (b) play Saturday/Sunday and Monday/Tuesday, and the weekday game will be tape-delayed everywhere except Philly, LA and any western market (i.e. NBA cities in those time zones) that will televise it live.
CBS chose a, so for the first time in 12 years, a game in the NBA’s final round was played on a Saturday.
The decisive sixth game, the one where Magic Johnson went off for 42 points while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sat injured back in LA, was only televised live in Philly, LA, Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, and oddly enough, Atlanta, where an independent station picked it up after the CBS affiliate, WAGA, refused to show it, even on tape-delay.
The same situation happened in 1981, with a more compressed schedule.
Since Boston needed the full seven games to oust Philadelphia in what has been considered by many the greatest playoff series in NBA history, the Rockets had to cool their jets in Houston. This pushed the first game back to Tuesday, May 5, with the second game only 48 hours after that.
For the third and fourth games at Houston, the NBA was faced with the same ultimatum from CBS, and again picked the back-to-back on Mother’s Day weekend for two live games, the only live games outside of Boston and Houston The other four were on tape-delay. The series took a mere ten days to complete, with the Celtics prevailing in six.
It could have been worse. In 1967, the 76ers and Warriors played a Sunday afternoon game in Philly, then flew across the country for a game the next night in San Francisco.
NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien, legal counsel David Stern and NBA owners were fed up after the 1981 debacle. They sat down with CBS and figured out how to get all NBA championship games back on live television, moving the season back to its traditional late October start date, meaning the final series would begin after the primetime shows had wrapped their seasons.
By 1987, CBS was televising conference finals games in primetime, and they became a staple of late May/early June programming on CBS, NBC and ABC until all weeknight NBA playoff games except the finals moved to ESPN and TNT in the mid-2000s.
The NBA’s Memorex Moment
Forty years ago tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers were in Philadelphia, looking to defeat the 76ers in the sixth game of the NBA World Championship Series and bring the Walter Brown Trophy back to southern California.
If the Lakers wanted to avoid a seventh game at ingelwood less than 48 hours later, they would have to do so without the 1979-80 Most Valuable Player.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won his record sixth MVP as the Lakers went 60-22, one game behind the Celtics for the NBA’s best record, suffered a high ankle sprain on his left ankle during the third quarter of the Lakers’ 108-103 victory two nights prior.
Abdul-Jabbar played the fourth quarter on the injured ankle and scored 14 points in the stanza, giving him 40 for the night. The 76ers’ woefully weak center combination of Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones helped Kareem’s cause. When Philadelphia finally upgraded its center situation three years later, the results were much different. I’ll get to that later.
On the advice of Lakers team doctor Robert Kerlan and trainer Jack Curran, coach Paul Westhead and the rest of the Lakers, including 20-year old rookie Earvin Johnson, made the cross-country flight to Philadelphia without the 33-year old legend, who was seeking his second NBA championship, but first since winning it all with Milwaukee in 1971.
Philadelphia was quite fortunate to be in a game six to be honest. They nearly blew a 23-point lead at Ingelwood in game two, and it took a late flurry in game four, highlighted by spectacular baseline up-and-under by Julius Erving, to pull out a three-point win. The Lakers won easily in games one and three, then won a tight game five.
Most national pundits believed Philadelphia would exploit Los Angeles’ hole in the midlde and sent the series back to California. The simplest option would be to move Jim Chones, the former Cavaliers All-Star, to center and insert Mark Landsberger at power forward.
However, Landsberger had been overpowered by Dawkins and Jones when giving Abdul-Jabbar a rest earlier in the series, and he forever became a highlight film staple after Dr. J drove around him in the fourth game.
Westhead and assistant coach Pat Riley made a bold move.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson wold start at center, allowing defensive ace and long-range shooting specialist Michael Cooper into the backcourt with Norm Nixon.
Magic was only 14 months removed from leading Michigan State to a 75-64 victory over Indiana State and its superstar, Larry Bird, in the NCAA championship game at Salt Lake City, the highest rated college basketball game ever, a distinction it still holds 41 years later.
Though not old enough to consume alcohol in most jurisdictions, Magic played well beyond his years the evening of 16 May 1980.
Johnson turned in the greatest individual performance in an NBA championship game, before or after, with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers routed the 76ers 123-107 in front of 17,000 shocked patrons at The Spectrum. The game was tied 60-60 at halftime, but after Los Angeles scored the first 14 points of the third quarter, Kareem could celebrate at home, and mayor Tom Bradley could announce the exact date and time for the first victory parade in the City of Angels in eight years.
Too bad most of the United States could not watch Magic’s scintillating performance in real time.
CBS, which televised the NBA from 1973 through 1990, inexplicably chose to air game six of the 1980 championship series on tape delay.
The NBA’s television ratings were in the toilet, and CBS did not want to preempt prime time programming for a basketball game which might draw a third to a quarter of the ratings of one of its primetime powerhouses.
When games were played in the Pacific Time Zone, CBS aired them live at 23:30 Eastern/22:30 Central after the late news. The Mountain Time Zone was delayed by an hour, but the Pacific zone was delayed by three hours unless the local affiliate preempted the prime time schedule and showed the game live.
Los Angeles obviously aired the games live. So did Portland and Seattle, where enthusiasm for the NBA was unbridled. The Trail Blazers were Oregon’s first major professional sports team, and remained that way until the Timbers joined Major League Soccer. The Super Sonics were THE thing in Seattle, even with the Seahawks and Mariners both starting play in the late 1970s.
The other market in the west to air all games live? Las Vegas, for obvious reasons.
Games two and five started at 20:30 Pacific. Yes, they were live in Philadelphia, but how many people stayed up until 01:45 the next morning to watch them to conclusion?
Meanwhile, weeknight games in the other three time zones were tape delayed to air at 23:30 Eastern and Pacific/22:30 Central and Mountain. CBS pulled the stunt during game two of the 1979 championship series from Washington, but it DID air game five live nationwide.
In the 1980 championship series, games three and four in Philadelphia were played Mother’s Day weekend, Saturday at 15:30 Eastern and Sunday at 13:00 Eastern. CBS would not be as fortunate for game six.
On the surface, CBS’ choice was logical. Do not preempt two of your highest rated shows, The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas, the latter ranking number one for all television shows in 1979-80.
There was one flaw in CBS’ logic the evening of 16 May 1980.
Dukes and Dallas were already airing reruns.
J.R. Ewing was shot on 21 March 1980, seven weeks before Earvin Johnson became truly Magic.
All three networks ended their 1979-80 seasons in late March or early April, fearing the Screen Actors Guild would go on strike in the spring or early summer. That came to pass in June, and it delayed the opening of the 1980-81 season until November (America didn’t find out Kristin Shepard shot J.R. until 21 November, two months later than CBS had hoped), December, or even January (NBC did not air the first episode of Hill Street Blues until 15 January, 10 days before it broadcast Super Bowl XV).
With reruns already airing, it would have hurt nothing to air the game from Philadelphia live at 21:00, but CBS figured old episodes were better than new basketball.
Again, if you were living in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Las Vegas, you were in luck.
The other place to air the game live? Atlanta, where the CBS affiliate refused to show NBA games not involving the Hawks. However, an independent station figured the sports fans of north Georgia needed something other to watch than the pitiful Braves on WTBS, so it aired game six live.
Therefore, large markets like New York, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Dallas/Fort Worth, San Francisco, Washington, Baltimore, Phoenix and Miami were all out of luck. San Francisco and Phoenix, of course, could have aired the game live and only would have had to adjust the regular Friday night programming back at most 30 minutes for game overrun.
It was well past bedtime for myself and my brother. Then again, I doubt there were very many NBA fans in New Orleans in the spring of 1980, since the 1979-80 season was the first for the Jazz in Utah after five seasons in the Crescent City. Utah probably should have let the new team in New Orleans reacquire the Jazz nickname when they moved in 2002, but that’s too confusing to go into right now.
There were a lot of negative articles written about CBS tape delaying the deciding game of the NBA championship series, but it didn’t change anything, at least in the short term.
The 1981 championship series featured the Celtics for the first time since 1976, and the Rockets for the first time ever. Houston won the Western Conference at 40-42, defeating the 40-42 Kansas City Kings in the conference finals.
With a team from the Eastern Time Zone taking on a team from the Central Time Zone, it meant tape delay at least twice, and possibly four times if the series reached a game six.
The first two games in Boston tipped at 19:35 Eastern, meaning a four hour for those not in Boston or Houston. Games three and four from Houston were live on Mother’s Day weekend. Game three was the last Saturday game in an NBA championship series, and game four started at 12:05 Central so CBS could televise golf afterwards.
Game five tipped at 21:00 Eastern and aired at the standard 23:35 Eastern/22:35 Central.
The sixth and deciding game started at 21:05 Central, the latest start to an NBA championship game in the Central Time Zone. Boston won in six, the first of their three championships with Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.
Philadelphia and Los Angeles met again for the NBA championship with one major difference: all games were televised live on CBS.
The NBA agreed to start its regular season later beginning in 1981-82, allowing the championship series to be played after the network prime time seasons ended in mid-May. There were four weeknight games, including the clinching game six on 8 June, where the Lakers prevailed and left the 76ers as the NBA’s bridesmaids for the third time in six seasons.
The 76ers finally realized they needed a big change at center in order to stymie Kareem. Billy Cunningham made the biggest change he could by acquiring Moses Malone from the Rockets, and on 31 May 1983, Philadelphia had its first NBA championship in 16 years, sweeping Los Angeles.
The NFL and Major League Baseball would never dare to air any playoff game, let alone a championship contest, on tape delay. The NHL has aired just about every Stanley Cup Finals game live in Canada since the 1950s, but in America, its coverage has been far worse. Many cities had no NHL on television from 1976-79, and from 1989-92, most couldn’t see any NHL games because of an asinine deal with SportsChannel America, which thankfully no longer exists.
The German Bundesliga returned today, albeit without fans. But it’s LIVE SPORTS. NASCAR races tomorrow at Darlington.
Let’s hope there’s light at the end of the tunnel, although the alarmists hope we’re sitting at home twiddling our thumbs without anything to watch until 2021 or later.