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One-hit wonders

Bold McDonald

In triple OT, a Celtic reserve had his day against the Suns

By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / January 28, 2010

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Another in an occasional series on memorable Boston sports figures who had their 15 minutes of fame.
LOS ANGELES - Glenn McDonald sits near courtside at the Staples Center as an advance scout for the Utah Jazz and immediately starts charting plays. It’s a mundane Monday night contest between two cellar dwellers, the Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves. The announced attendance is 13,614, but the Clippers must be counting fingers and toes, not just people. Spectators sneak glimpses at the 6-foot-6-inch McDonald while he charts the game. Sporting a world championship ring, he’s somebody. But who?

McDonald is the unlikely hero of the Celtics’ triple-overtime victory in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns. Regarded as one of the greatest games ever played, the win led to the last championship banner for the old-guard Celtics of Havlicek, Nelson, Cowens, and White. Their uniform numbers now hang from the Garden rafters, but it was McDonald - a seldom-used swingman - who came off the bench to score 6 points in 63 seconds and spark the Celtics to victory.

It would be the last time he played for the Celtics on the fabled parquet before vanishing into obscurity. He would be out of the NBA by the time he was 24.

“My wife and daughter told me to wear it tonight,’’ he says, spinning the ring on his finger. “It’s an old-school, traditional championship ring. No bling-bling, which I really appreciate.

“I’m proud to have it. But I don’t go around saying, ‘Hey, I played for the Celtics.’ That’s just not me.’’

For the last 14 years, McDonald has also served as director of intramurals at Long Beach State, where he was an All-America guard before the Celtics drafted him in the first round in 1974. He deliberately keeps a low profile, but with ESPN Classic and YouTube, he is now known to a new generation of students.

“They see the triple-OT game and say, ‘Oh, Mr. McDonald, I didn’t know you played for the Celtics.’ ’’

McDonald never brings up the game; He believes that what’s done is done. He was surprised he even played.

“It was an amazing game,’’ recalls McDonald. “I played a few minutes earlier in the game in regulation in the first half, then nothing after that. I sat and watched and watched.’’

Pressed into service
The series was tied at two games apiece. The Celtics had a 9-point lead with 3:49 to go. But the underdog Suns, who had finished the regular season just two games over .500, never gave up,

“I thought we were going to knock ’em out, but they came storming back,’’ McDonald says.

At the end of the second overtime, John Havlicek banked in an off-balance, 15-foot jumper for the apparent game-winner. The clock read “0:00.’’

“We all went into the locker room,’’ McDonald says. “We think it’s over, we’re excited as hell. Everybody was starting to get undressed and all of a sudden somebody comes back into the locker room and says we’ve got to go back on to the court.’’

The Garden crowd was celebrating on the floor and a fan punched referee Richie Powers, who was trying to get one second put back on the clock.

When order was restored, the Suns’ Paul Westphal cleverly called a timeout his team didn’t have. Jo Jo White made the technical, putting the Celtics up by 2, but giving the ball to Phoenix at midcourt.

“Then Gar Heard hit that shot,’’ says McDonald, recalling the top-of-the-key turnaround jumper over an outstretched Don Nelson that sent the game into triple overtime.

“I’m glad it was those times,’’ says McDonald, “because if it was these times, it would’ve been a 3-point shot and we would’ve lost.’’

Celtics starters Dave Cowens and Charlie Scott had already fouled out by the start of the third overtime.

“I remember Paul Silas fouling out in the third overtime,’’ McDonald says. “I’m thinking there’s no way I’m going in the game ’cause I haven’t played power forward the whole game. [Steve] Kuberski played power forward. So I told Steve, ‘Get ready, you’re going in.’ Then [coach Tommy] Heinsohn goes, ‘Mac, get in there.’ And I just jumped up.’’

On the way to the scorer’s table, Heinsohn stopped McDonald.

“He said, ‘Run ’em,’ because he knows I’m fresh, that I can run,’’ says McDonald. “I was sort of the same mold as Havlicek anyway. I liked to run, run, run, run. I wasn’t thinking about scoring points. I didn’t think of the significance at all.’’

And while the CBS announcers were telling a nationwide audience that McDonald had been “a disappointment,’’ he was proving them wrong.

“I know I got a couple of rebounds and putbacks,’’ he says.

With the score tied at 118, Nelson won a jump ball and McDonald hustled his way in for a layup. Then on a fast break, he made a difficult 12-foot baseline fallaway jumper to give the Celtics a 4-point lead.

“Red [Auerbach] later told me, ‘I can’t believe you took that shot,’ but that was a good shot,’’ says McDonald. “You’ve got to take that shot.’’

With 36 seconds to go, McDonald ripped down a rebound and was fouled in the backcourt. The score was 124-120. An exhausted White, who played 60 minutes and scored 33 points, sat down in the backcourt. McDonald never saw him. He was focused on the rim.

“One thing I do remember, I didn’t hear nothing,’’ McDonald says. “I mean, I saw people moving. I saw people’s mouths moving, but the whole arena was completely silent. All I kept saying to myself was, ‘I don’t miss free throws. I don’t miss free throws.’

“It was an amazing situation. I just felt like I was out there by myself.’’

He made both, and the Celtics held on to win, 128-126.

“Those two foul shots gave us the cushion we needed,’’ says McDonald.

That night he couldn’t sleep. His heart was racing.

“I finally realized what I had done,’’ he says. “I’m honored to have played in that game.’’

No regrets, just burnout
The Celtics won the next game in Phoenix for their 13th championship, the last one until the Bird Era. McDonald was cut in the next preseason to help make room for the underachieving Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks. Celtic Pride became Celtic Slide.

He says he holds no grudge.

“We won a championship,’’ he says. “I can’t be mad at that man [Heinsohn]. He still gave me a chance.’’

McDonald says his laid-back attitude probably hurt him.

“I felt I was a hard worker, but I wasn’t sure I knew my role, whether I should be a scorer or a defensive guy,’’ he says. “I did perform in a clutch situation that should have warranted me being on the team another year.’’

After a nine-game stint in Milwaukee, he went to Sweden for a year, then the Philippines for six years.

He would go on to coach both men’s and women’s basketball at Long Beach State. He also won two WNBA championships with the Los Angeles Sparks (2001-02) as an assistant to Michael Cooper before resigning.

His son, Michael McDonald, was a point guard for Stanford (1997-2001) and his daughter, Alexis, played volleyball at the University of Washington.

He admits to being burned out.

“I was tired of travel,’’ he says. “I didn’t have the same passion, the same energy, so I had to let it go. If you can’t give 100 percent, then it’s not fair.’’

He wanted to spend more time with his wife, Renee.

“She’s like my left hip,’’ he says with a laugh. “And one of us always went to every road game Michael had.’’

McDonald says family is the most important thing.

“My father wasn’t around growing up,’’ he says. “Sometimes you get paid a whole lot of money and it’s not worth it.’’

He says the Celtics also taught him about togetherness.

“They are truly a family,’’ he says. “They always invite me to everything. You don’t see that with other organizations. There really is Celtic Pride.’’

He also says that the greatest game gave him a life lesson for his children.

“I always told my kids, ‘Just be ready when the coaches call you. Be focused when they call your name.’ ’’

Family reunions
A few years ago, McDonald tracked down his father, whom he had never met. It was difficult because his father had a different last name. He called a nursing home in Topeka, Kan. The phone call was awkward.

“I said, ‘I think you are my father,’ ’’ says McDonald.

After comparing notes, the elderly man agreed.

“He said, ‘I think I’m your father.’ Then I got quiet. I said, ‘I don’t want anything from you, but with me getting older and you getting older, we needed to be in contact.’

“I asked him if he liked sports. He said he loved college basketball. I said, ‘Have you ever watched Stanford play? My son played for Stanford. Your grandson played for Stanford.’

“He said, ‘Michael McDonald is your son?’ and I said, ‘Michael McDonald is your grandson’ and he said, ‘Oh my God!’

“I said, ‘Did you watch the NBA? Did you ever see the triple-overtime game?’

“And he said, ‘Boston-Phoenix, the greatest game ever?’

“And I said, ‘Do you remember the guy who came off the bench, and he says, ‘Glenn McDonald?’ And I said, ‘That was me, Dad.’ ’’

There’s a tear in his eye at this point, but the story only gets better.

Recently, McDonald’s son called him. Michael is in Boston now, working for a medical company, and he had good news.

“He says he’s getting married on Valentine’s Day, the same day as the All-Star Game, which I go to every year,’’ says McDonald. “So I told him, ‘Let’s see, cold Boston in February, or nice and warm Dallas. Hmmmm.’

“He said, ‘Dad, you have to go to the wedding.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And he said, ‘Dad, you’re my best man.’ ’’

McDonald still looks shocked.

“I said, ‘What about your boys?’ He said, ‘My boys will always be my boys. I want you to be my best man.’ I got choked up. I was shocked on that one.’’

He turns away, because there is a tear coming. “That’s better than this ring,’’ he says. “Way better.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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