The strangeness of the moment cannot be exaggerated. A whistle cut through the din made
by 16,016 frenzied souls in the Summit, and everybody on the basketball floor flat-out stopped, characters frozen into cardboard cutouts.
Ten potentially guilty people waited for the decision of one traffic cop. Heads turned. Me? Was it me? Him? Who? Referee Jake O'Donnell, the referee who had blown the whistle, looked back and said . . . nothing.
"Never mind," was Jake O'Donnell's ruling with seven seconds left in what turned out to be the Houston Rockets' come-from-behind 106-104 victory in Game 3 of the NBA Finals yesterday afternoon.
"Sorry," was his only possible explanation as the Rockets climbed back in the best-of-seven series, now trailing, 2-1.
"Oops," was the best description of what happened.
"It was an inadvertent whistle," the referee said in his only quote on the subject, a mimeographed statement from the league. "When the ball is loose and there's a whistle, it becomes a jump ball in the center circle between any two players."
Why did he blow the whistle? What did he first see that he decided he -- in fact -- did not see? Who knows? There were seven seconds left and the Rockets had climbed to a 105-104 lead and the Celtics had the ball.
Most of the time on the 24-second clock had been washed away, so the Celtics were struggling to put up some kind of shot. Seven-foot center Robert Parish wound up as the man to do the job. He was taking the shot as the whistle sounded.
He thought he was fouled.
"I thought someone fouled me on the shot," he said. "I was bumped. I was standing on the foul line when I took the shot, so I just stood there waiting to take the foul shot. If I wasn't fouled, I thought someone underneath the basket was fouled. There was a lot of bumping going on there, guys going everywhere."
Larry Bird was part of the bumping for the Celtics. He was trying to create position for the rebound on Parish's shot when he heard the whistle. He said he stopped.
"The ball bounced off my head," Larry Bird said. "Then it went out of bounds."
Half of the Rockets thought this was the call, that the ball was out of bounds off Bird. Other Rockets thought that there was a call for three seconds, one of the Celtics standing inside the foul lane for too long. Still others thought the whistle signified a 24-second violation, the ball going to the Rockets.
Everyone was guessing. Everyone was wrong.
"I had my eyes on Jake for some reason when he made the call," reporter David Dupree of USA Today, seated under the basket, said. "As soon as he made the call, he waved his hand, like it didn't count."
"Who knows why he made the call?" Parish grumbled. "Maybe he was hyperventilating."
Everyone stood and waited, while O'Donnell conferred with fellow referee Joe Crawford. They walked to the scorer's table, O'Donnell with his arm around Crawford's shoulder. There was a conversation and then the decision that a jump ball should be held in the middle of the floor.
"He (O'Donnell) made a call, then he got amnesia when he got to the table," Parish grumbled again.
The decision for a jump ball made nobody happy. The Rockets were upset because they thought the call should have gone against the Celtics. The Celtics were upset because they thought the call should have gone the other way, plus the fact they probably could not win a center jump.
"What kind of chance did you have on that jump?" Parish was asked.
"Not much," he replied. "I was working against a taller man."
Parish is seven feet tall. Rockets center Ralph Sampson -- a standout all afternoon for the Rockets -- is 7 feet 4 inches. The referee throws the ball into the air between the two big men and the one of them who can jump, reach, touch the ball first can control it.
There was little doubt about who could control it. The words used in the strategy meetings the two teams held indicated that.
"Big man taps to big man," Rockets coach Bill Fitch decided. Easy as that. Sampson would tap to 6-10 Akeem Olajuwon.
"Foul immediately if we lose the jump," was K.C. Jones' message. Bird went onto the court ready to grab Olajuwon immediately.
All of this happened exactly as planned. If the rules of basketball hadn't been changed years ago -- every basket followed by a center jump in the early days of the sport -- the Houston Rockets would win every game. Bing. Bing. Bing. Sampson to Akeem. Foul.
"I was glad there was a center jump," Ralph Sampson said, "because I was the one doing the jumping."
The rest was the final unraveling of all thoughts of a four-game Celtics sweep. Akeem hit one of the two foul shots. The Celtics called timeout with five seconds left. The inbounds play was botched as Dennis Johnson was hurried into throwing the ball to Parish, who jumped for it and landed out of bounds. End of story. End of game.
The grand, invincible procession to an NBA title will not be. The Rockets made their stand. Jake O'Donnell blew his whistle. Something happened. Or something didn't happen. Or something did happen and then, for some reason, did not happen.
One whistle and the game became a jump ball. One jump ball and the game became a contest determined by the length of a man's inseam, the measurement of his sleeves. Ralph Sampson is 7 feet 4, and what are you going to do?
"The big fellow," Robert Parish said in his deepest voice, "had the reach on me."
So much for the possible sweep