John Tomase

Yankees voice John Sterling holds memorable place in Celtics history

The legendary play-by-play man witnessed Celtics history earlier in his career.

NBC Universal, Inc.

John Sterling will forever be known as the voice of the Yankees, his Upper East Side baritone the soundtrack to five World Series championships, his home run calls ("All rise!") and signature celebration ("The Yankees win! Thuuuhhh Yankees! Win!") as iconic as Coney Island.

Here's what Boston fans might be surprised to hear: He holds an important place in Celtics history, too.

Fire up the highlights of Larry Bird's seminal 60-point game vs. the Atlanta Hawks in 1985, and that's Sterling, in his role as Atlanta's play-by-play man throughout most of the Dominique Wilkins era, on the mic.

His calls are as memorable as Bird's performance itself, so much so that it's hard to believe it was the work of an opposing play-by-play man. He captured the historic nature of the outburst in increasingly incredulous tones.

"I think it's the greatest shooting exhibition I've ever seen!" he marvels late in the broadcast. "Larry Bird! What more can you say? Larry Bird! Larry Bird!"

I asked Sterling about it a few years ago, and he lit up that people were rediscovering the game on ESPN Classic, not to mention YouTube. His part in that magical moment is worth revisiting with Monday's news that the 85-year-old has decided to retire after 35 years in the New York radio booth and 64 in broadcasting.

"Bird went crazy," he said. "You know what I remember the most? These were the good old days, when you broadcast right next to the bench. You were so into the game. You could hear everything going on – the good stuff, the bad stuff, the arguments, everything.

"Every great shot Bird hit, our bench went nuts. They went absolutely nuts. And I went nuts. It was one of those things, I've played basketball and tennis all my life, and I know what happens when you get quote-unquote 'in the zone.' Well, Larry Bird was in this phenomenal zone. He's falling into our bench. He's falling into our broadcasting table. That's really what I remember. It was a fabulous experience. I was so happy to be a part of it."

The day didn't start that way. Sterling and pretty much everyone associated with the Hawks silently cursed general manager Stan Kasten for scheduling so many games at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, Atlanta's second home in much the same way the Celtics used to trek down to Hartford a couple of times a year. The primary difference: Georgia to Louisiana is no bus ride.

"Stan Kasten took money from whomever in New Orleans, and we played nine or 10 of our games there," Sterling said. "We flew like crazy. We had 10 extra road games."

Only nine days earlier, Celtics forward Kevin McHale had set a franchise record with 56 points, and it is now part of franchise lore that Bird chided him for not scoring 60. This was Bird at the height of his powers, in the midst of winning three straight MVPs, and no one expected the record to last for long.

But no one expected him to get 60 quite like this, with each absurd bomb upping the degree of difficulty. By the end of the game, Hawks players were famously high-fiving each other on the bench. The best shot Bird made didn't even count, a waved-off fallaway 30-footer in front of the Atlanta bench that practically landed him in Sterling's lap.

On March 12, 1985, Larry Bird put on a performance for the ages, finishing with 60 points. The game came nine days after Kevin McHale scored 56, leading Bird to famously say of his teammate, he "should have gone for 60."

"The shots were so unbelievable, our players were applauding," Sterling said. "I couldn't believe the shots he was making. I used to call him the Great Inventor. He'd be covered and invent a shot."

The Celtics toyed with the Hawks that night, as they did for most of the decade. Sterling was still on the job three years later, however, when Atlanta's best team thought it had finally taken the Celtics down.

Atlanta won Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston and returned home with a chance to slam the casket shut, but McHale scored 26 and Cliff Levingston missed a running left-hander at the buzzer to send the series back to Boston for the second-most memorable call of Sterling's basketball career.

Game 7 featured Bird vs. Dominique in one of the NBA's great fourth-quarter duels. Wilkins finished with 47 points and only missed four of his 23 shots. Bird saved 20 of his 34 for the fourth quarter, when he made nine of 10 as the Celtics escaped with another two-point victory and a berth in the conference finals.

"The culmination was the seventh game in Boston in '88," Sterling said. "What a game. I did the Hawks nine years. That's the best game they ever played, and they lost. They had beaten them in the fifth game, Doc Rivers hit a big 3-pointer. Then they played lousy at home. We lost by a couple of points. That was their chance. And then that last game, Dominique and Bird.

"Larry was right – that was their chance, and they blew it. And then the Hawks played the best game they ever played in their lives and lost because Bird was phenomenal."

In this edition of Miller Lite Moments as we celebrate 75 years of Celtics basketball, Larry Bird outduels Dominique Wilkins as the Celtics outlast the Hawks in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Sterling thought he might stay on TBS forever, but when his hometown Yankees came calling in September of 1988, it wasn't even a question.

"I didn't want to be an old man and say I should've done the Yankees," he said. "I was leaving a sinecure in Atlanta, and I loved living there, but I think it worked out."

Thankfully for the Celtics, Sterling's path took him through New Orleans by way of Atlanta for one unforgettable evening. As much as any baseball call he ever made, that one will live forever.

"I never knew it would be recorded," he said. "I never knew there'd be a thing like ESPN Classic."

When I spoke to him, Sterling had never re-watched the broadcast. But he had one genuine question that no Celtics fan will ever answer in anything other than the affirmative: "So it sounds good?"

Contact Us