For four seasons they had danced around each other in the NBA, meeting only twice each year in regular-season games. But Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were always aware of each other.
"Championship rings ... I live for them," Bird would say. Magic did, too. A showdown seemed inevitable -- and it was. On three glorious occasions in the mid-1980s, Magic and the Lakers met Bird and the Celtics in the Finals. Each battle was portrayed as a clash of many opposites. East versus West. Tradition versus New Wave. Hollywood versus Beantown. Showtime versus Shamrocks. Celtics Pride versus L.A. Cool.
Things had gone awry for the Boston Celtics after their 1981 title. They kept adding quality players and kept looking better and better on paper. But on court they still lacked something. In the fall of 1981 they obtained Danny Ainge, the former Brigham Young guard who had played professional baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Then the Celtics traded for backup point guard Quinn Buckner and a smooth-shooting former All-Star forward, Scott Wedman. The only problem with these acquisitions was the ensuing traffic jam. Where and when would they all play? It wasn't an easy question to answer. When Milwaukee swept Boston in the 1983 playoffs, Red Auerbach decided it was time for even more changes. Big ones.
Just weeks after the season ended, coach Bill Fitch resigned and was promptly replaced by assistant coach K.C. Jones. Jones was a players' coach. He had been one of them. He understood them. He treated them as adults and welcomed their opinions.
Auerbach made another big change heading into the 1983-84 season: the acquisition of guard Dennis Johnson from Phoenix for center Rick Robey. The Celtics needed a big defensive guard to match up against Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief and the Philadelphia 76ers' Andrew Toney, and the 6-foot-4 Johnson fit the bill.
With Ainge, Buckner and M. L. Carr coming off the bench, the Celtics had a deep, solid backcourt rotation. But Boston's real strength was its frontcourt. Cedric Maxwell started at power forward with Robert Parish at center and Bird at the other corner. Off the bench came Kevin McHale, Wedman and backup center Greg Kite. There were no thin spots.
The 1983-84 season would see a rise in the level of Bird's play. The loss to Milwaukee the previous spring had provided him with a new surge of motivation. After an offseason of nonstop work, several elements of his game showed noticeable improvement. The one move that came closest to emerging as his signature was the "step back," a quick movement away from the defender just before the shot to create shooting or driving room. He became just as well known for his improved ambidexterity and passing.
Despite his oft-mentioned lack of leaping ability, Bird's positioning, timing and strong hands made him a solid rebounder. And his offense had a lethal character to it, particularly when he made a play at a crucial moment to kill the spirit of an opponent. Around the league, Bird became known for his heartlessness. "Look in his eyes," the Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins said, "and you see a killer."
The Celtics brushed by the Washington Bullets in the first round, only to run into major problems with Bernard King and the Knicks in the semifinals. They finally vanquished New York in seven games and pasted Milwaukee, four games to one, in the conference finals.
Two nights later Los Angeles finished off the Phoenix Suns to claim the Western Conference title. Like the Celtics, the Lakers had been through some changes. The sweep by Philadelphia in the 1983 NBA Finals had left general manager Jerry West figuring ways for a quick reshuffle. During the 1983-84 preseason he sent popular starting guard Norm Nixon and reserve Eddie Jordan to the San Diego Clippers for backup center Swen Nater and the draft rights to rookie guard Byron Scott of Arizona State. The 6-foot-4 Scott would work right into the Lakers' backcourt, and Showtime would be off and running again.
Despite injuries and the adjustment to the Nixon-Scott switch, they had finished the regular season at 54-28. James Worthy had quietly come into his own as a forward. He had amazing quickness -- the fastest first step in the game for a big man -- and when Magic got him the ball in the low post, the result was usually a score. Worthy took delight in faking one way, then exploding another. And he continued to add range to his shot, building consistency from 15 feet out.
The Lakers also continued to get good frontcourt minutes and scoring from reserve Bob McAdoo. In the backcourt, Michael Cooper had found his niche as a defensive stopper and a three-point specialist, while third-year guard Mike McGee contributed 9.8 points per game.
The Lakers won 41 of their last 56 games, including a nice 11-3 roll through the first three rounds of the playoffs. As the Finals opened, there was a sense that Los Angeles was the better team. Even K.C. Jones said as much -- at least to anyone within earshot. "The Lakers are more talented than we are," he admitted.
There were two factors in Boston's favor: the rest factor and the home-court advantage. The Celtics had ended their conference final on May 23, while the Lakers didn't wrap things up until Friday night, May 25.
With the first game of the Finals set for that Sunday in Boston Garden, the Celtics' four-day rest looked to be a major factor. From the Lakers' perspective, the situation was laced with tension. It had been 15 years since Los Angeles had last faced Boston in the Finals, yet the numbers were on everyone's mind. Seven times the Lakers had met the Celtics for the championship, and seven times the Lakers had lost.
Just hours before Game 1, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was wracked by one of the migraine headaches that had troubled him throughout his career. Team trainer Jack Curran worked on the center's neck and back an hour before game time, at one point popping a vertebra into place. That seemed to do the trick on the 37-year-old captain. He walked out and treated the Garden crowd to 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal. He made 12 of his 17 shots from the floor and 8 of 9 free throws. He did all of that only when the Lakers slowed down. They spent most of the time running their break to a 115-109 win.
Game 2 was a James Worthy showcase, at least for the first 47 minutes or so. He hit 11 of 12 shots from the floor and scored 29 points. The Lakers had come from behind to take a 115-113 lead with 18 seconds left when McHale went to the free-throw line for two shots but missed both. With the series about to shift to Los Angeles, thoughts of a sweep were beginning to cross Boston minds. But the Lakers picked that particular moment for a snooze. Coach Pat Riley had told Magic to call a timeout if McHale made the shots. But Magic misunderstood and called a timeout after the misses, which gave Boston time to set up its defense.
Inbounding at midcourt, Magic tossed the ball to Worthy, who spied Scott across the court and attempted to get the ball to him. Lurking in the background praying for just such an opportunity was Gerald Henderson. He stepped in, snatched the pass and loped downcourt for an easy layup. The score was tied, and Magic allowed the clock to run out without getting off a final shot.
Late in overtime, Henderson found Wedman on the baseline and got him the ball. The reserve forward knocked down a key jumper that helped give Boston a 124-121 win and a tie in the series at one game apiece.
"I guess what I'll be remembered for in my career is that steal," Henderson said years later. "People mention it to me all the time. But in that same game, in overtime, I like the play where I set up Scott Wedman for the winning jumper. That goes unnoticed, but I appreciate that play more than the steal. Those were the two points that won the game."
Henderson may have treasured the assist, but Riley's attention was fixed on the steal. "What will I remember most from that series? Simple. Game 2. Worthy's pass to Scott. I could see the seams of the ball, like it was spinning in slow motion, but I couldn't do anything about it."
The Lakers quickly recovered back home in the Forum. Magic had a Finals-record 21 assists and Showtime rolled to a 137-104 win. Bird was outraged at Boston's flat performance. "We played like a bunch of sissies," he said afterward. "I know the heart and soul of this team, and today the heart wasn't there, that's for sure. I can't believe a team like this would let L.A. come out and push us around like they did. Today I didn't feel we played hard. We got beat bad, and it's very embarrassing."
The next day the Los Angeles papers began touting Worthy as the series MVP, a development that infuriated the Boston players. None was angrier than Dennis Johnson, who had scored only four points in Game 3. "I thought I was into the game," he said, "but Game 3 convinced me I wasn't. Even K.C. had to come over and ask what was wrong. I told him whatever it was, it wouldn't be there again. It was a case of getting mentally and physically aggressive."
The same was true for the entire team. Jones adjusted the team's defense, switching DJ to cover Magic in Game 4. The Lakers took an early lead and seemed ready to run off with another victory. From the bench, Carr screamed at his teammates to become more physical. McHale complied in the second quarter when he clotheslined Kurt Rambis on a breakaway layup, causing a ruckus under the basket. The incident awakened the Celtics and gave the Lakers reason to pause. Later, Riley would call the Celtics "a bunch of thugs."
Maxwell, on the other hand, was overjoyed with the development. "Before Kevin McHale hit Kurt Rambis, the Lakers were just running across the street whenever they wanted," he said. "Now they stop at the corner, push the button, wait for the light, and look both ways."
Los Angeles held a five-point lead with less than a minute to play. But Parish stole a bad pass from Magic, and the Lakers' point guard later missed two key free throws, allowing the Celtics to force an overtime. Late in the extra period Worthy faced a key free-throw attempt. Carr hooted loudly from the bench that he would miss and Worthy did; Maxwell stepped up and greeted him with the choke sign. The Celtics vaulted to a 129-125 win to tie the series again and regain the home-court edge.
The Celtics realized they were onto something. The Lakers could be intimidated. "We had to go out and make some things happen," Henderson recalled. "If being physical was gonna do it, then we had to do it. The fourth game, that was the turnaround. We had to have that game or we were gonna be down 3-1."
Dennis Johnson helped them get it. After struggling early in the series, he would score 22, 22, 20 and 22 points, respectively, in the last four games. Bird, too, came through in the clutch, particularly in Game 5 back in Boston.
In that crucial matchup Bird shot 15-for-20 from the floor for 34 points as Boston won 121-103. Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Abdul-Jabbar showed his age in the sweltering heat. How hot was it in the Garden? "I suggest," Kareem said, "that you go to a local steam bath, do 100 pushups with all your clothes on, then try to run back and forth for 48 minutes. The game was in slow motion. It was like we were running in mud."
The Lakers answered the Celtics' aggressiveness in Game 6 back in the air-conditioned Forum. In the first period Worthy shoved Maxwell into a basket support. From there the Lakers rode their new-found toughness and an old standby: Abdul-Jabbar scored 30, and Los Angeles pulled away down the stretch for a 119-108 win to tie the series at three games apiece.
The entire city of Boston was juiced up for the next game. The Lakers needed a police escort to get from their hotel to the Garden. Maxwell, meanwhile, told his teammates to put the load on his back because he was ready to carry them. And he did. He presented a high-action, low-post puzzle that the Lakers never solved. He demoralized them on the offensive boards. He drew fouls. By halftime, he had made 11 of 13 free throws. When they tried to double-team him, he passed them silly. He finished with 24 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. Bird had 20 points and 12 rebounds, Parish added 14 points and 16 rebounds, and DJ hit for 22 points.
Even against that barrage, the Lakers fought back from a 14-point deficit to trail by just three with little more than a minute left. Magic had the ball, but DJ knocked it loose. Michael Cooper recovered it for Los Angeles. Magic again went to work and spied Worthy open under the basket. But before he could make the pass, Maxwell knocked the ball away yet again, and the Celtics recovered. At the other end, DJ drew a foul and made both shots, cementing the Celtics' 111-102 win and their 15th championship.
Bird was named Finals MVP after averaging 27.4 points, 14 rebounds, 3.2 assists and two steals per game, but Maxwell's Game 7 performance had been incredible, and once again Dennis Johnson had delivered down the stretch. "We worked hard for this," Bird said in the din of the locker room. "Anybody gonna say we didn't earn it?"