What Was the Strange Deja Vu Effect of the NBA’s “Phantom Buzzer” Game?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about basketball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the basketball urban legends featured so far.

BASKETBALL URBAN LEGEND: There was a strange piece of deja vu involved with one the first NBA games ever to be replayed – the so-called “Phantom Buzzer” game.

One of the rarest events in the history of the National Basketball Association is for the league to uphold an NBA team’s protest of a game. Earlier in the 2014-15 season, the Sacramento Kings protested the ending of their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies (a loss that turned out to be a rather big deal in the tightly fought Western Conference playoff race, as the Grizzlies ended up getting the #5 seed at the end of the season due to a tie-breaker over the #6 seeded San Antonio Spurs, a tie-breaker that would not have come into play had Memphis had one less win than San Antonio. Memphis, of course, won their series against the #4 Portland Trailblazers while the Spurs lost to the #3 Los Angeles Clippers) when they argued that Memphis guard Courtney Lee could not possibly have made a seemingly game-winning layup with 0.3 seconds left, since Sacramento center Ryan Hollins tipped the inbounds pass. No matter the official scorer’s time, time is supposed to start when the any player in the field of play touches the inbounded ball, so if Hollins did, in fact, touch the ball, then time should have started to count down at that point, in which case there’s no way that Lee could have made a layup in the remaining time, as the league rules state that with less than 0.3 seconds left, a player cannot do anything but tap the ball into the basket.

This protest was one of less than forty protests ever filed with the league. Like the vast majority of them, it was denied (the league ruled that it was within the referees’ judgment whether Hollins tipped the ball, and there was not enough evidence for them to overrule the referees. After all, they DID examine it at the time using instant replay). Less than ten games have ever been successfully protested in NBA history, and one of the first had a really strange twist to it. So let’s take a look at the second NBA game ever to be successfully protested and thus replayed – the legendary “Phantom Buzzer” Game!

The game was between the Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks. It was held in Chicago on November 9, 1969.

The Bulls were coached by Dick Motta…

And the Hawks were coached by Richie Guerin…

Late in the game, the Bulls were down 124-122. They took a desperation shot at the basket and it rimmed out. However, Bulls center Tom Boerwinkle managed to tip it in with 1 second left on the game clock.

To the shock of the Bulls, though, referee Bob Rakel waved the basket off, saying that the buzzer had sounded and the game was over.

Motta was a mixture of incensed and incredulous. No one else in the Stadium had heard the buzzer sound. The clock clearly showed 1 second left on it.

The timekeeper said he did not touch the clock. And in fact, to demonstrate, he showed that once he pressed the release on the clock (to let it go), it then buzzed after a second ran off of it. So clearly there was still a second left in the game.

Rakel was undeterred – the game was over and the Hawks had won (the second referee for the game deferred to Rakel).

Naturally, the Bulls protested the game, and in only the second time a protest ever actually WORKED, the league granted the Bulls’ protest.

The game was continued before the next time the Bulls and Hawks played. The score was tied and one second was left on the clock. The Hawks got the ball and, hilariously, after they inbounded the ball and the second ticked off the clock, the buzzer DIDN’T GO OFF!

Some mechanical screw-up made it so that the buzzer didn’t go off when time expired.

Guerin, of course, decided to play it up and pretend that he was outraged, but of course, once the timekeeper showed that yes, the second DID tick off, Guerin let it be.

The game went to overtime and the Hawks won the game, 142-137, but at least the Bulls lost fair and square!

But how hilarious is it that the buzzer didn’t work during the replay?!

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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