Forty years, and a lifetime later, Kiki VanDeWeghe is still pissed.
“Oh, yeah. Very much so,” VanDeWeghe said, calmly but firmly. “It still bugs me today. People say, ‘Well you scored a lot of points.’ OK … but, so?
“We lost the game.”
VanDeWeghe was a classic small forward in the 1980s, a quick midrange shooter able to score with either hand. He did so in abundance the night of Dec. 13, 1983 — as did nearly everyone who played that night. It was a night when his Denver Nuggets and the visiting Detroit Pistons shredded the NBA’s record book, combining for 370 points during a 186-184 Pistons victory in triple overtime — and it’s still the highest-scoring game in the league’s 78 seasons.
Considering the NBA’s history of prolific individual scorers and high-octane teams, the fact that this game has remained the high-water mark in the subsequent four decades is remarkable. The realignment of NBA basketball around the 3-pointer could put the mark in the scoring crosshairs soon; the Kings and Clippers combined for 351 points last season in Sacramento’s 176-175 double-overtime victory.
For now, though, Dec. 13, 1983, is still king, with only two 3-pointers made the entire night.
“The 3-point line had come in (in the 1979-80 season), but it was still a weird thing,” recalls Earl Cureton, a veteran center for the Pistons who played 34 minutes that night. “Coaches weren’t really going for you shooting the ball that far away from the basket. Also, guys hadn’t mastered it back then. They didn’t really work on it. They worked on their midrange game.”
VanDeWeghe led all scorers with 51 points. Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas paced Detroit with 47, including an incredible put-back off a deliberately missed free throw by Bill Laimbeer in the final seconds of regulation to send the game into its first overtime.
“That was our fourth game in (six) nights,” said Thomas. “That was the getaway game. And we were flying commercial, flying Northwest (Airlines, back to Detroit). You knew some guys had it going, but you weren’t thinking, ‘We’re about to set a record.’ ”
Hall of Famer Alex English scored 47 for the Nuggets to go with 12 rebounds and seven assists. Detroit guard John Long, a scorer who is not front of mind today to all but is well known to hoop historians, scored 41. Pistons forward Kelly Tripucka, then one of the best-scoring wings in the league, added 35. Dan Issel scored 28 for Denver.
“Me and T.R. Dunn were the defenders on the team,” said Bill Hanzlik, a Nuggets guard. “But we couldn’t really stop anyone that night.”
The game was tied at 74 at the half, 145 at the end of regulation and 159 after the first overtime. The second OT ended tied at 171.
The ball, no matter who shot that night, almost always wound up going through the net.
“One thing I remember is that there were no rebounds,” said Cureton. “Every time I’d come down the floor, all I could see was the ball going in. I was just running end to end with the ball going through the net. I think I only had like seven rebounds.”
“Somewhere in the second overtime,” said Mike Evans, the Nuggets starting point guard that night, “we thought that we had a chance to get to 200 points.”
Today in 1983, the Pistons beat the Nuggets 186-184 in the highest-scoring game in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/RD2UqYEfHy
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) December 13, 2016
The Nuggets, playing in coach Doug Moe’s frenetic system, led the league in scoring that season, averaging 123.7 points per game. The Pistons were third, averaging 117.1. Denver was first in the NBA in pace at 110.5; Detroit fifth at 103.8 — seemingly ironic, given how future Piston teams coached by Chuck Daly, then in his first season with Detroit, would be synonymous with stifling defense.
Also in the air on that December night: the last games played with replacement referees. The NBA had locked out its officials before the start of the season after the league and the referees union couldn’t reach an agreement on numerous issues. The lockout ended the first week of December, but the regular refs needed a few days to get back to speed before returning to the court.
VanDeWeghe: “As I look back on that game, sort of the misnomer was there was absolutely no defense, nobody guarding anybody. You had some pretty potent offensive players that, on any given night, you couldn’t guard them anyway. Everybody sort of had one of those nights.”
Hanzlik: “We were like the pickup basketball team that played in men’s leagues that had been playing together for five years. We all knew where the other would be. We just played off each other. We would just get out and run and create advantages. That’s one of the reasons I played center. If I can sprint out and make a guard have to guard me, someone is going to be open. Big men don’t like to run, so make or miss, I was running down the court as fast as I could.”
VanDeWeghe: “Alex English, I mean, he was incredible. And Dan Issel was incredible. We had some other good guys, and we had a coach. But really, I mean, we didn’t truly run plays. People don’t believe it, but it’s true and, you know, (Moe) really believed in the passing game and, you know, don’t stand still, just keep running and go ahead and shoot when you got a good one. … It was really simple. But it ended up a real patterned offense. It was just difficult for people, mainly because it was unpredictable and it was something that they didn’t see every night.”
Also, Denver had true home-court advantage at McNichols Arena, playing at altitude, and where the goal for the home team under Moe was to cross midcourt with the ball in three seconds or fewer.
English described it to ESPN.com in 2005 as “basketball at its purest, free-flowing, with no pressure on the players.” The Nuggets dared opposing teams to run with them for 48 minutes. More often than not, the visitors collapsed after a quarter or so of sucking the lighter air.
VanDeWeghe: “You get used to it, and people aren’t used to that … I remember Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) used to bring an oxygen thing to the bench. He was the first guy I saw do that.”
Thomas: “I have never admitted this. But when people were talking about altitude, I didn’t know what the f— altitude was. Back then, I didn’t know. We were going to Denver. They would say ‘altitude,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, man, that altitude will get you.’ They were like ‘altitude,’ and I was like, ‘All right, where he at?’ ”
Cureton: “With the altitude, it was hard to breathe. You need time to get used to it. That was an advantage for the Nuggets because they were already used to it. If you come into town, you need a day or two to adjust to it. I had just got back to Detroit. I was in Italy. I think I was with the team for about a month, maybe three or four weeks. I was still getting myself back in playing shape.”
Tripucka: “You were tired in warmups. But the second wind always came.”
Issel scored the game’s first points, almost immediately after the Nuggets won the opening tip. Long, seconds later, hit an elbow jumper at the other end. Denver made six of its first seven shots; Detroit, five of its first seven.
“I hope these nets can last through this game, I tell you. They’re burning them up right now,” said Hall of Fame guard Dave Bing, who was the Pistons’ color analyst that night on the team’s game broadcast, alongside play-by-play man George Blaha.
What was noteworthy about the opening period as much as the scoring was the frenetic pace. Both teams pushed the ball up the floor quickly, even after the opposition made a basket.
That was a little unusual for the visiting team to hang with the Nuggets on the cardiovascular scoreboard.
“We liked to get up and down like a lot of teams did at that time. We wanted to get fast-break points off turnovers, rebounding, and then get up and down the floor,” Tripucka said. “That’s what we did — and, certainly, what the Nuggets did, as well. As the game went on, both teams were shooting it at a high percentage.
“There were talented guys. It’s not like we weren’t playing defense and giving up layups. If you saw the tape and saw the game, guys were making shots … difficult shots.”
The first quarter ended with Detroit up 38-34. “The pace has slowed down just a little,” Bing said on the broadcast. “Still a lot of points, but the way we started out those first five minutes, I tell you, I thought it was going to be a 150-point game. Still might be.”
Not much changed in the second quarter, no matter who was on the floor. Richard Anderson, Denver’s backup forward, scored 10 quick points off the bench. Issel made his first eight shots of the game. Long never stopped shooting and made 18 of 25 from the floor that night. Thomas was amazing; he may have scored the quietest 47 points in NBA history because he also had 17 assists.
Neither team managed to pull away. Long hit a baseline turnaround just before the halftime buzzer to tie the game at 74.
Cureton: “I think John Long hit his first 10 shots.”
Thomas: “John made his first two shots, and I was like, ‘Oh, that (expletive) is on one tonight.’ I was thinking of who to get the ball to. I was getting mine, too, but I was like, John is in a zone. But we couldn’t stop Kiki and Alex. All I was trying to do that first quarter, first half, I was just trying not to get blown out.”
Tripucka: “If I recall, I never felt like anyone was down and had to make a big comeback. Obviously, we both had to make a small comeback here and there. We both hung in the game and no one could seem to get command of the game. Certainly, there were team runs, there were individual runs. At different times, certain players took over.”
Laimbeer, then just in his third pro season, already was well on his way to being one of the game’s great provocateurs, yelling at the replacement referees for calls on almost every possession. This was catnip for Hanzlik, who’d been Laimbeer’s teammate at Notre Dame.
Hanzlik was a designated stopper on the floor until he fouled out after logging 38 minutes. In all, he had seven rebounds and seven assists. He had countless dives on the floor and countless sprints in transition to create gravity needed to get teammates open on the perimeter. And who better to trash talk to Laimbeer than Hanzlik?
“Doug Moe was one of the first coaches to play small. So, I played center for a lot of that game, and what I remember was guarding Bill and talking a lot of trash to him,” Hanzlik said. “The funny thing is that I almost never talked on the floor, but when it was Bill, I would talk because Bill talked a lot. I told him, ‘I know you can’t score down here in the paint, so I’m not even worried about your post game.’”
The torrid scoring continued in the third. This time it was Detroit reserve Terry Tyler who couldn’t miss, helping with the scoring load after starter Cliff Levingston got into foul trouble. Both teams blew through the century mark late in the third quarter, which ended with Denver up 113-108.
“I’m sure Doug and Chuck were thinking, ‘Man, one of us might get embarrassed. We might give up 200,’ ” Thomas said.
VanDeWeghe added: “Towards the beginning of the game, I didn’t look at the scoreboard a lot. But I know we were either tied or right there at halftime. It was back and forth, and, like, nobody was missing a shot, and I’m sure we did. The one thing I remember, though, is them missing a lot of free throws. (The Pistons were an abysmal 37 of 60 from the line that night.) So, I knew they’d have killed us if they made free throws.”
Denver led by seven early in the fourth quarter, but Thomas began to impose his will. He was just in his second pro season after being the second pick of the 1981 NBA Draft, but he was as unstoppable with the ball as any other guard in the league. He scored nine quick points in the first half of the fourth to bring the Pistons back — even though he, too, was subject to free-throw woes, missing four straight from the line early in the quarter.
Thomas: “I just didn’t want to lose. We were going back and forth. I was just thinking, ‘How can I beat them? What do we need to do to win?’ Every time we did something good, they came back and did something better. We’ve got 90 (points in the third quarter), and we’re down four?”
Evans: “Isiah was a nightmare to play against that night. He could do everything, so that made him really difficult to guard. He could shoot it, he could handle the ball and pass it … and he had that killer attitude. He would step on your neck. He was the best small point guard in the league at that time.”
VanDeWeghe: “Isiah, obviously, was new on the scene. Everyone had seen him play and knew how good he was, but not everybody had played against him. I don’t think people realized how good he was.”
The Nuggets went back up by six with four minutes left in regulation, but Detroit cut it to 145-143 with 20 seconds left. Coming out of a timeout, the Pistons ran an isolation for Thomas, who went up for a baseline jumper. The shot missed. Laimbeer, though, grabbed the weakside rebound and was fouled by English with six seconds on the clock.
With a chance to tie the game from the foul line, though, Laimbeer shot an airball on his first free-throw attempt. After Detroit called timeout, Laimbeer missed the second free throw on purpose, banging the ball off the back rim.
But Thomas jumped over his teammate, 6-foot-10 center Kent Benson, grabbed the miss, then went up and scored over the 6-foot-9 Issel to tie the game with four seconds left. Issel missed an open jumper at the top of the key at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime.
“I was on the runway before (Michael) Jordan got on the runway,” said Thomas, who scored 15 points in the fourth quarter. “It was just, throw the ball off hard, and whoever gets it, try to get the layup. You get to that point where you don’t want to lose. We’re here, so let’s try to get the win.”
The scoring barrage continued in overtime. Denver took a 157-152 lead in the first OT on an Evans jumper with 1:24 left, but the Pistons rallied to tie the game at 159, and Thomas just missed winning the game when his end-to-end driving layup came just after the final buzzer.
Tripucka’s two free throws in the second OT tied the game at 169, making it the highest-scoring game in NBA history, breaking the mark that had just been set a year earlier by the San Antonio Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks, who’d combined for 337 points in a 171-166 triple overtime win by the Spurs. Tripucka put Detroit up by two a few seconds later, but Hanzlik’s free throws with 17 seconds left in the period tied things up yet again, at 171. The Pistons held for the final shot, but Thomas missed a jumper at the top of the key as time expired.
“George, I don’t mind working, but this is ridiculous,” Bing said as the third overtime began.
Detroit, though, controlled the final five minutes. Long’s fast-break dunk with a minute left broke the 180-point milestone, putting Detroit up 181-179. Thomas then stripped Hanzlik and went in for a breakaway layup to put the Pistons up four with 54 seconds left. Thomas, by himself, came to a dead stop under the basket, gathered himself, and jumped off of both feet to make the layup.
At first glance, people may have thought Thomas’ legs had given out. They had not.
“I stopped because I wanted to make sure the damn clock ran out,” Thomas said. “I thought, the way they’re playing, if we leave one or two seconds on the clock, they’ll make a shot. You know, like in football when they get to the goal line and don’t go into the end zone so they run out the clock?
“I did not want to hear that announcer go, ‘Kiki. Kiki VanDeWeghe.’ ”
After a timeout, English sealed Cureton deep in the paint, but Laimbeer came over to block the shot, and Thomas’ two free throws put the game away.
And how did the Pistons celebrate? They went to the hotel, then got up early to catch their commercial flight back to Detroit.
“Some guys might have grabbed a beer. We had beer in the locker room back then,” Thomas said.
VanDeWeghe added: “We lost the game. It sounds a little cliché, but that’s the one thing about it. … I bet if you ask Alex or Dan, Mike Evans, anybody else on the team, I bet it bugs them. Anytime I think about it, what I think about is two things: One, we lost the game, and two, how tired (we were), and we lost a whole bunch of games right after that.”
Moe gave the Nuggets the next day off. Two days later, he told The Washington Post: “I woke up this morning, and I couldn’t read the papers. I didn’t want to be reminded of the whole thing.”
VanDeWeghe, who was in great shape, wasn’t right for a few days. Neither was his team. The Nuggets lost six of their next seven.
Denver finished the season 38-44 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Utah. Meanwhile, behind the prolific Thomas, Detroit caught fire, winning 12 of its next 17. By season’s end, the Pistons were 49-33, and it took a legendary performance by the Knicks’ Bernard King in Game 5 of the first-round series between New York and Detroit to knock out the emerging Pistons.
December 13, 1983.
Pistons – 186
Nuggets – 184
The highest scoring game IN NBA HISTORY.
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) December 13, 2018
That season was the real start of Detroit’s turnaround. Two years later, the Pistons drafted guard Joe Dumars out of McNeese State in the first round. He played behind Long and Johnson for most of the first half of his rookie season. But a Long injury gave Dumars an opening. With their Hall of Fame backcourt leading the way, Detroit went on to win back-to-back NBA titles, the first in 1989.
The Nuggets, though, were subject to what many athletes and teams deal with: Absorbing the tough losses more than celebrating the epic wins.
“(You remember) your losses and the shots you missed, or the dumb things you did. And then, you’re supposed to learn from your mistakes,” VanDeWeghe said. “But, all in all, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. A chance to play in a game like that, it’s something that doesn’t come along every day.
“I don’t say this in any other way than, truly, it was an honor and a privilege to play in a game like that, and to have the chance to do it.”
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(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Dick Raphael / NBAE via Getty Images,
Rich Clarkson / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)