On this night, Suns’ Booker did something Jordan and Bird never did
With the sports world on hold, Cronkite News will take a daily look at this day in sports history and reflect on some of the biggest moments in Arizona sports.
PHOENIX – There is no sugar-coating it. History-making moments have been few and far between during the last decade of Phoenix Suns basketball. But three years ago today, a TD Garden crowd in Boston found itself cheering for a Suns player against their beloved Celtics.
Not that they wanted the Suns to win. The Celtics had the game well in hand. But the Garden fans were witnessing something rare. Phoenix guard Devin Booker was in pursuit of a 70-point game.
“They knew they were going to win the game,” said Jon Bloom, the longtime Suns’ pregame and postgame host. “But they were watching history, and whenever you’re in a sports venue and you get a chance to see history happen, even if it’s against your team, it’s exciting.”
— Jared Dudley (@JaredDudley619) March 25, 2017
Only five NBA players had scored 70 points or more in a game before that night. Wilt Chamberlain, then of the Philadelphia Warriors, once scored 100 points in a 1962 game hardly anybody saw. It was one of six times that Chamberlain scored 70 or more in a game.
Lakers great Kobe Bryant piled up 81 in 2006. Elgin Baylor, David Thompson and David Robinson each eclipsed 70 between 1960 and 1994.
LeBron James hasn’t done it. Michael Jordan never did it. Neither did Larry Bird or “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, who rank first and second on the all-time NBA career scoring list, never scored 70 or more, either.
But on that night in Boston, Booker did. And at the age of 20, he was the youngest ever to score 70 points in a game. Or even 60.
Bloom watched the game from his home with his wife and two daughters cheering as Booker inched closer to history with every basket.
“It’s one of those games that I’ll always remember,” Bloom said. “I remember some things growing up as a kid, watching with my dad. That’ll be one that they remember growing up with me.”
Booker had come close to the 40-point plateau a few times that season, but no one expected the feat that Booker reached on the Garden’s parquet floor that Friday night. And why would they?
Five months into the season, the Suns had only won 22 games. They were on a six-game losing streak that eventually ballooned to 13 straight losses.
“There just weren’t a whole lot of bright spots outside of Devin,” Bloom said.
The young squad was battered. The Suns were in the middle of a six-game road trip and playing the second of back-to-back games after falling to the Brooklyn Nets the night before. And only eight players suited up for the Suns that night with four players out because of injuries, including point guard Eric Bledsoe.
Meanwhile, the Celtics were enjoying their best season since the end of the era of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, which included an NBA title.
The Celtics finished the 2016-17 season 53-29, the best record in the Eastern Conference, and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Earl Watson, the Suns’ coach at the time, later recalled sensing Booker’s fatigue. So, he kept his pregame message to just two words: be legendary. They were the same words that Kobe Bryant inscribed on a pair of Kobe 11s shoes and gifted to Booker when Bryant played his last game against the Suns in Phoenix. After Bryant died in a helicopter crash, Booker had the words tattooed on the inside of his right forearm.
Legendary Booker would become that night on the parquet.
But at halftime, Booker was having a good night, but nothing spectacular. He had 19 points and the Suns found themselves trailing the Celtics by 23 points. But in the third quarter, Booker found a rhythm and poured in 23 points. For Bloom, the fact that Booker was kept in check for the first 24 minutes ultimately made the performance even more memorable.
“That’s why I have this distinct memory of sitting on my couch watching it with my kids and my wife and just going, ‘Is this for real? Is he doing this? Is he going to put up 51 in a half of basketball?’”
With two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Booker scored his 59th point with a 3-point shot from well beyond the arc. At that point, the Celtics crowd was into the moment as history unfolded before their eyes.
“I have the utmost respect for the Boston Celtics fans. That surprised me the most,” Booker told reporters after the game. “Knowing how hectic they are against some teams, that meant a lot.”
With less than a minute left in the game, Booker became the youngest player ever to score 70 points.
The moment wasn’t without controversy. The Suns were down by double-digit points late in the game, but Watson had his team commit intentional fouls to give Booker time to get to 70.
That aspect didn’t sit well with the Celtics, but Watson said it was about “letting our kids be great.”
Despite a 10 point loss, the Suns celebrated their teammate’s achievement. On Jared Dudley’s Twitter, Booker held a piece of paper with “70” written on it, an ode to Chamberlain, who held up a “100” on his historic night in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Some, including Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, found it “weird” that the Suns celebrated after a loss. But Booker’s remarkable achievement gave a team which had very little to cheer about that season something to get excited about.
“The way our season is going right now, we’re kind of looking for something to celebrate,” Booker said. “At the end of the day, history was made and I couldn’t do it without my team, so they’re gonna celebrate.”
It would be nearly three years before Suns fans celebrated a Booker All-Star appearance. But on that night in Boston Booker served notice to the NBA. A budding superstar had arrived.