Milwaukee Bucks: The greatest regular season game in NBA history

UNNOWN - CIRCA 1990: Dale Ellis
UNNOWN - CIRCA 1990: Dale Ellis /

On the day the Berlin Wall fell, the Milwaukee Bucks edged out the Seattle SuperSonics in a 5OT classic and the longest game of the shot-clock era.

The Milwaukee Bucks were the winners of arguably the greatest regular season game the NBA has ever seen, and yet in the context of the franchise and the league’s history, it’s an event that is generally only afforded the attention of a footnote.

On November 9, 1989, the Seattle SuperSonics were early season visitors to face the Bucks at the Bradley Center, and ultimately battled long into the night against Del Harris’ team in a game that has since taken on almost mythical qualities.

Milwaukee prevailed by a single point,155-154, in one of the top-20 highest scoring games in league history, the second longest game of all-time, and the longest game of the shot-clock era. In total, the game spanned five overtimes and very nearly managed to go beyond that into another extra period, which would have tied the 1951 game between the Indianapolis Olympians and Rochester Royals for the longest of all-time.

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All of those details and records should have ensured incredible publicity and acclaim at the time — and as a result commemorations of the game years later — but instead it may simply have been a case of the basketball history from that day being consigned to the back pages due to truly momentous and historical events taking place on a global scale.

While the Bucks and Sonics slugged it out in a grueling contest, across the Atlantic Ocean, the people of Berlin tore down the storied wall that had long divided their city. Five overtimes is pretty incredible, but it’s tough to compete with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It’s been a slow, gradual process, but thankfully detailed accounts of the game have surfaced over time.

In April of 2015, Patrick Sauer of Vice Sports put together an excellent article about the game, which was packed with eyewitness accounts from players, coaches and fans who were in the building for the duration of the classic encounter.

Sauer’s piece does an excellent job of capturing the freakish nature of the game, the endless swings that prolonged it for so long, and the quality of the performances that were on display on that night.

Dale Ellis, who would be traded to the Bucks in the season following this encounter, led the game in scoring as he dropped 53 points for Seattle. Ellis’ performance is perhaps the element of the game that has had the most success in permeating the NBA consciousness, and even all of these years later it’s a source of pride for the player, himself. As Ellis told Sauer:

"“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.”"

Backup Bucks big man Randy Breuer, who ended up playing a significant role in overtime provided Sauer with what was likely a much more pragmatic assessment of what it was like to play in such a game.

"“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.”"

All these years on, that “stupid” game is exactly the kind of matchup that you’d expect to be a staple of Hardwood Classics and NBA TV programming, but in fact there had been zero footage from the game available for many years. In a note included in that Vice Sports’ piece, it was explained that attempts to find footage of the game through NBA TV and the Bucks were unsuccessful.

Thankfully, that has changed. Reinis Lacis, perhaps better known as LamarMatic on YouTube and Twitter compiled footage of the game, which he made available to watch at the start of September 2017.

From his own memory of being at the game, Sauers wrote for Vice Sports:

"“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.”"

Now, with footage of much of the overtime play, that statement can be verified. As much as the game looks stretched and somewhat frenetic toward the end of each additional period, there’s little evidence of a drop-off in standards due to exhaustion. Instead, the video includes some unbelievable sequences of basketball from both teams.

While Ellis’ play in a remarkable 69 minutes of action remains a standout, perhaps more incredible from a Milwaukee perspective was the play of the team’s role players. Before the five overtimes had elapsed, key players such as Alvin Robertson, Ricky Pierce and Fred Roberts had all fouled out.

Ben Coleman, in particular, gave a monumental performance, as his 19 points on that night made for just under 20 percent of his total points in Milwaukee. Coleman also grabbed nine boards, made all of his field goal attempts, and came up with two rejections, including an unbelievable block from behind on Nate McMillan, to keep the Bucks tied with just seven seconds remaining in 2OT.

In spite of Milwaukee leading by nine points with just 34 seconds remaining in the final period of overtime, the game finished with drama as the Sonics had a three-point attempt to tie the game. The video shows the shot missing and the players leaving the court, but in reality a foul was called allowing Seattle to make two free throws to close out the game.

As Lacis noted in a blog post that accompanied his video of the game:

"“It was only the 1994-95 season from which an NBA player would be awarded three foul shots for being fouled while attempting a three-point field goal. So one illogical rule could have actually prevented the game from going on for longer (had [Xavier] McDaniel made the third free throw).”"

If modern rules had applied, allowing the game to go to a sixth overtime period, there really is no knowing how much longer the game could have stretched on for. As it was, the two teams proved almost impossible to separate.

Next: Milwaukee Bucks: Brandon Jennings’ 55-point masterpiece

With the Sonics no longer in existence, perhaps there isn’t the same obvious motivation to honor this all-time classic, but it’s a game that certainly needs to be remembered. The Bucks and Sonics had a very strange and interlinked history in terms of players and personnel over the years, and this game was just another example of the special connection and rivalry the two teams shared.