155-154: The Inside Story of a Five-Overtime NBA Classic
In 1989, two unremarkable teams played a remarkable game. This is the story of one of the highest-scoring game in NBA history, told by those who played in and witnessed it.
On November 9, 1989, the Seattle Supersonics visited Milwaukee to take on the Bucks; it was the fifth game of the season for both squads. It was a Thursday night, with temperatures just above freezing as a reported 14,012 fans entered the Bradley Center to take in an early season basketball game that happened to be taking place as the Wall was crumbling and the world was changing. And while what happened between those two teams at the Bradley Center does not quite have the global importance of the reunification of Germany and the beginnings of the end of the Iron Curtain, there was history made that night all the same.
The Bucks beat the Sonics 155-154, a five-overtime classic in which 73 minutes of action played out over four-and-a-half hours. It's one of only two 5-OT games in NBA history, but the first—along with an unfathomable 6-OT game—came before the modern shot clock era began in 1954. (The 1951 6-OT final was Indianapolis Olympians 75, Rochester Royals 73, for Pistol Pete's sake.) Remarkably, the Bucks-Sonics tilt, arguably the greatest regular season game in NBA history, is all but lost to the record books, despite the fact that it happened in 1989, not 1959.
But I remember it, because I was there. My freshman year at Marquette University, the Bucks were offering an $89 10-pack of games that included both Magic Johnson's Lakers and Larry Bird's Celtics when they came to town. As someone who had come from Montana, where NBA basketball was only available on TV, this was more than a steal, it was heaven. Bucks-Sonics was the first game of the ticket package and, since my major was communications, I had no compelling academic reason not to stay until the end. I distinctly remember four things: The game was not sloppy or jagged, it was legit from start to finish; even unfamiliar journeyman were playing out of their minds; the people that stayed (maybe a third of the announced crowd?) got louder and loonier as each OT progressed. And I remember Dale Ellis, and what he did.
That's just me, though. There were plenty of others who went home that night knowing they'd witnessed something like the Haley's Comet of Hoops, and there were the Bucks and Sonics themselves. Here are remembrances of 5-OTs past—with annotations for accuracy because we are going back to Gorbachev and Poppy Bush here—from players, a coach, a current owner, and some random fans, all of them present for, and part of, NBA history.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FIRST 68:00
The score was 103-103 at the end of regulation and 110-110, 120-120, 127-127, and 138-138 after each of the first four overtimes.
Dale Ellis (guard, Seattle Supersonics): It was a fun game to play in. It reminded me of college basketball, because every possession in overtime was huge.
Sedale Threatt (backup guard, Seattle Supersonics): It definitely had a playoff atmosphere, especially as the game got deeper into the overtimes. An all-time classic because of the performance of the great players involved.
Ed Raue (Bucks fan): My two friends and I were walk-up buys. We went to the ticket office before the game and asked for the 'best tickets available.' The lady responded with, 'row CCC or S.' She showed us the seats on a map/diagram, and it was the third row behind Seattle's bench. I wanted to see Shawn Kemp play as a rookie because he essentially went straight from high school to the NBA. At the time, that was very rare. We were the almost the same age and I was amazed that Kemp could make that leap. My buddies and I still talk about our fortune that night.
Bernie Bickerstaff (head coach, Seattle Supersonics): I was never involved in a game that went that long, at any level. The main thing that sticks with me is Dale Ellis had a phenomenal night. His range was unlimited and it was working that night.
Ellis would finish with 53 points, pouring in 20 in the OTs.
Kevin T. (Bucks fan): I was only 11, so Mom was mad when Dad and I got home so late. She could see how excited I was, so she didn't get too upset. In front of me anyway, who knows if she was angrier at Dad behind my back. Funny thing is, my Dad didn't remember the game when I brought it back up. Obviously, it left a bigger impact on me than him. I remember being very tired at school the next day, but also being excited to tell all my friends what happened. Some kids didn't believe me. Back then, they had to wait to get home to watch the news.
Xavier McDaniel (forward, Seattle Supersonics): It was a very, very tiring game, grueling, hard-fought. One team would be in control, then the other...I thought it was never going to end.
Randy Breuer (backup center, Milwaukee Bucks): I don't remember much other than at the time thinking, 'Good grief. Somebody please make a shot, or not make a shot, and end this stupid game.'
Jeff Johnson (Bucks fan): Ricky Pierce tried his best to match Ellis, but the Bucks also had no answer for Xavier McDaniel. I recall Ben Coleman trying to guard him, without much luck. Yes, Ben Coleman.
Tom Martinka (Bucks fan): Our frontline wasn't very athletic, so the player that I thought had the biggest impact on the win was 6'9" power forward Ben Coleman. If you look at his stats, he was super-efficient and was a shot blocking/rebounding presence that you didn't usually didn't see with that year's roster. I remember our starting backcourt of Jay Humphries and Alvin Robertson played well, as did Jack Sikma. But to me, journeyman Ben Coleman was the key.
Xavier McDaniel would finish with 37/13/6. Off the bench, Ricky Pierce scored a then career-best 36. Ben Coleman had season highs in minutes at 40 and points with 17.
Raue: Five OTs and Kemp never saw the floor. He actually looked up at me and smiled when I yelled to put him in.
McDaniel: Shawn was raw at that time, so he didn't get a lot of minutes, but he would spell me or if Derrick McKey went to the three. That year, we ran a set offense and Shawn was an open court guy, but it is kind of strange he didn't play at all that night.
Rookie Shawn Kemp played in 81 of 82 games in 1989-90; this night was his only DNP.
Keith Mardak (Bucks minority owner): I've had season tickets since the Bucks inaugural season of 1968-69, I believe I'm the only individual who can make that claim. I had great seats with Dick Schulz, an original NBA player, back at the Bucks original compact home, the Milwaukee Arena. We had four seats at the top of the lower parquet across from the bench, which we took because they were right near the johns, the beer stands, and a side door that took you across the street to hit Major Goolsby afterward. The seats were $5.75 a game. I tell you this just so you understand how many games I've been to, maybe a couple thousand, but I remember staying until the end of that 5-OT game. I know we won. I think Jack Sikma missed his first free throw of the season and it could've been huge.
Sikma, who was 9-for-9 through the first three games of the season, missed his first free throw with five seconds left in the third overtime, which would've given the Bucks a three-point lead. Ellis tied it on a jumper with two seconds left to force a fourth overtime.
Breuer: In the NBA, if you give a guy an open shot, they don't miss. And if you're a well-coached team, which both the Bucks and the Sonics were, you play every game to win. Our former Bucks coach Don Nelson used to call the last two minutes of a game 'nut-cutting time' because that's serious business if you grow up on a farm. Especially if you're the steer, I guess. So, you want to be the one to make a shot, or get a stop. But you still want a game like that to end.
Ellis: It was so exhausting. Near the end of a later overtime, I stole the ball at halfcourt and had a clear path to the basket. I figured I had a layup to seal the game, but Alvin Robertson chased me down and blocked the shot from behind. His legs were a little fresher than mine, I was running in mud.
Mardak: Now that I think about it, Sikma redeemed himself by hitting a big three late.
Down five to the Sonics in the 4th-OT, Sikma hit a three and Tony Brown followed with a 20-footer to tie up the game at 136-136 with :59 left. Brown would hit a bank shot, but Ellis would counter with an 18-foot jumper, knotting it at 138.
THE FINAL 5:00
Fans started filing out after the Bucks opened a comfortable lead that nearly evaporated at the buzzer.
Breuer: Even as a rookie, I always got more playing time in overtime games because I was really good at winning jump balls. Possession is 9/10ths of the law, and I had that ability. I probably started play in all five overtimes.
Threatt: Considering the length of the game and the ability of Tony Brown to hit that three after logging all those minutes...
With 1:10 left in the 5th-OT, tied 146-146, the Bucks outscored the Sonics 9-0. Forward Tony Brown started it with a corner three, one of only five he'd make that season. Yet Seattle would end up with the ball and a chance to tie as the remaining fans held their collective breath.
McDaniel: I missed a lot of free throws that game. If I made them all, I would've had 50-some points. I think I missed a free throw right near the end.
McDaniel was 13-for-20 from the line. At the end of the fifth overtime, McDaniel was fouled on a three-pointer that hit the rim, but he only made two free throws and the game, mercifully ended.
By the time things wrapped up, it was Friday morning, November 10.
Ellis: We all grow up with playground ball where you just keep going all day trying not to lose because then you sit down and wait. In the NBA, your body generally knows what to expect, but that was like being a kid on the playground, just keep going until you drop.
McDaniel: I didn't even eat after that game. I went straight to my room and passed out. I was tired for seven days, it felt like we played for 24 hours straight.
Out of 73 total minutes, Dale Ellis played 69 and Xavier McDaniel had 68, giving them the top two slots in the record for most minutes ever played in an NBA game.
Tom Martinka: I ripped my jeans celebrating. By the time of the fifth OT, I'd moved down to right behind the hockey wall across from Bucks bench. It was a really good seat about six rows up, but the corner of the wall caught my jeans. It's the best regular season game I ever attended.
Jeff Johnson: Not really sure how the Bucks won. They had several key players foul out. Alvin Robertson and Pierce, from what I remember. Pretty sure Jeff Grayer, Randy Breuer, and Tony Brown were on the floor at the end of the game
Overall, six players would foul out: Derrick McKey, Michael Cage and Brad Sellers for the Sonics, Alvin Robertson, Fred Roberts and Ricky Pierce for the Bucks.
Bickerstaff: I feel like the next night we were in Chicago and we might have gone to OT again or something? We lost but played the Bulls tough.
Ellis: I remember we canceled shootaround and everybody slept all day, but I still had to get up and chase Michael Jordan around.
On November 11, the Bulls beat the Sonics 109-102 in regulation. Ellis had 30, Jordan 25.
Bickerstaff: Can you imagine the emotional level at the end of regulation and then as it built over each overtime? As a team, you go through it every possession. To lose by one point? It sticks with you. That's a game you probably want to forget.
THE SUPER SONIC
Ellis: In one of the first games after I got traded to Seattle, I was trying to play team ball, made a few passes and threw the ball away. In the huddle Coach Bickerstaff said, 'You're here to shoot the ball. Your teammates expect you to shoot the ball when they pass it to you. If you don't want to shoot the ball you can have a seat next to me.' He gave me the green light, so from then on, I looked to score first. I joke that I was in a shooting slump the night of the 5-OT game and if I had shot the ball well, I would've scored 70 and we never would've gone to overtime. I did shoot the ball more than thirty times, must have been the most attempts I ever put up.
Ellis was 18-for-39 overall, 3-for-7 from behind the arc, and 14-of-17 from the line.
Jeff Johnson: I would love to see this game again on NBA Hardwood Classics. So many clutch shots. Dale Ellis was such a stud that night, just unconscious. Herb Kohl must have been at the game, as he traded for Ellis a few years later. By then, he wasn't any good.
Threatt: I remember the shooting display Ellis put on that night. He was so hot that no one else was really looking to shoot, we just wanted to get him the ball. Dale actually got paranoid and passed up a couple of shots because he thought he was being too selfish. At one point I asked him 'Why didn't you take that one?' He replied 'I think I'm shooting too much.' I've never heard of a guy that hot thinking he was shooting too much, let alone telling it to someone else. That was one of the funniest moments of my career.
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
An unfortunate footnote is, of course, that one of the teams no longer exists.
Bickerstaff: I have a lot of nostalgia for Seattle. It started when I was with the Washington Bullets and we played the Sonics in back-to-back finals, '78 and '79. And then all those great teams we had in Key Arena...
McDaniel: It's a sad situation. It got very personal with David Stern and the people of Seattle. He had to show his power. Why would you move a thriving franchise that's been there forty years, knowing teams like Atlanta, Toronto, and Memphis don't gets fans that show up unless things are going well? We were packed every night. I love Seattle. It's a beautiful city.
Threatt: It's a black eye for the NBA that the Sonics are no more.
Bickerstaff: Seattle should have an NBA franchise.
Ellis: I kept a home in Seattle for 20 years, never thought I'd leave. I hope the city gets a team, the fans deserve it.
The Bucks-Sonics 5-OT classic isn't well-known, but more than a quarter century on, the game is still special to those who were in the building, even if the details get fuzzier by the year.
Bickerstaff: People just aren't cognizant of the 5-OT game. It was a weeknight in Milwaukee and ended so late, I have no idea what we had media-wise. There's been an explosion, every game is covered from all angles, so if it happened today, everyone would want a piece of it.
Raue: We realized we were watching history and were hoping it would never end. As the Bucks pulled away and went up big in the fifth OT, we were hoping for one more miracle from Seattle. They nearly pulled it off. I'm surprised the Bucks don't do more to celebrate winning the longest game in NBA history. Maybe with the new owners, the marketing department will be creative and do something to honor that amazing night.
Attempts to find footage of the game through NBA TV and the Bucks were unsuccessful at press time.
Kevin T: I'm still a huge Bucks fan, and unlike most people in Wisconsin, I don't follow the Packers or Brewers at all. Anytime an OT stat comes up on Bucks broadcast it includes that game, so I always tell people I was there. Still a cool thing to have been in the Bradley Center that night. Glad Dad let us stay until the end.
Bickerstaff: It was an entertaining game and guys were performing at a high level, the way it should be. Coach Del Harris and I still go at each other about that game, having fun with it. He gets the last laugh because the Bucks won. The bottom line is, there aren't many distinctions, as an NBA team, where you can say 'We're the only ones.' The Bucks and the Sonics can say it. They deserve to be recognized.
Ellis: I never thought about or watched games when I was playing. I performed on the court and didn't want to bring my job home with me. I'd rather watch a movie. Today, I do look back and reflect on my career. I'd love to show my four-year-old son that game. NBA Entertainment must have footage of it somewhere. People would still be on the edge of their seats. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth... Everyone was playing so hard, it was incredible.