The Los Angeles Lakers couldn't get out of town immediately after the 1984 Finals. They had to spend one more night in their Boston hotel, saddled with the Celtics blues again. Needless to say, it was a sleepless night.
Magic Johnson was joined by his two close friends, Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons and Mark Aguirre of the Dallas Mavericks. They talked the night away. About music. Cars. Old times. Anything but the Finals. Occasionally the conversation would drift that way, but they'd steer it away. It was too tender a subject.
The pain would remain for months. Everywhere he turned, there seemed to be something to read about it. The Celtics were having fun with their victory. Kevin McHale even dubbed him "Tragic Johnson." Asked about the 1984-85 season, Larry Bird said of the Lakers, "I'd like to give them the opportunity to redeem themselves. I'm sure they have guys who feel they didn't play up to their capabilities." Everyone knew who he meant.
Despite the sauciness between Bird and Magic, their relationship warmed that summer when they made a sneaker commercial together. They became friends, but their competition remained as intense as ever. At age 28, Bird flexed his talent during the regular season, averaging 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists. As a team, the Celtics were not as strong. Gerald Henderson had held out for more money over the summer, so Boston had traded him to Seattle.
The Celtics' brass figured Danny Ainge had progressed enough to carry the starting load. Yet there was no doubt the trade left the Celtics thin in the backcourt. Additionally, Cedric Maxwell was troubled by chronic knee problems that eventually required exploratory surgery. In his absence, McHale moved from sixth man to starter.
The Lakers, on the other hand, bounced back with a vengeance, and were once again a deep, talented team. By playoff time the frontcourt was bolstered by the return of Mitch Kupchak and Jamaal Wilkes to go with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kurt Rambis, Bob McAdoo and Larry Spriggs. In the backcourt were Magic, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper and Mike McGee. As a group, the Lakers were driven by their 1984 defeat.
"Those wounds from last June stayed open all summer," coach Pat Riley said as the playoffs neared. "Now the misery has subsided, but it never leaves your mind completely. Magic is very sensitive to what people think about him, and in his own mind I think he heard those questions over and over again to the point where he began to rationalize and say, 'Maybe I do have to concentrate more.' I think the whole experience has made him grow up in a lot of ways."
After all, Johnson was a mere 25, and he already owned two championship rings. Throughout the season he played like a man intent on adding to his jewelry collection. The Celtics, however, were conceding nothing. With a 63-19 regular-season record -- one win better than the Lakers -- they had again claimed the home-court advantage. And neither team dallied in the playoffs. Boston dismissed the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers in quick succession, while the Lakers rolled past the Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets, setting up the rematch.
For the first time in years, the Finals returned to a 2-3-2 format, with the first two games in Boston, the middle three in Los Angeles, and the last two, if necessary, back in Boston. The situation set up an opportunity for the Lakers to steal one in the Garden, then pressure the Celtics back in Los Angeles. In whatever fashion, they figured on rectifying their humiliation from 1984.
Little did they know they would have to suffer one final, profound embarrassment. Game 1 fell on Memorial Day, May 27, with both teams cruising on five days' rest. The Lakers, however, quickly took on the appearance of guys who had just come off two weeks on the graveyard shift.
The 38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar, in particular, slogged up and down the court, while his counterpart in the pivot, Robert Parish, seemed to motor effortlessly from one baseline to another. The Lakers' old warhorse seemed to be not one but many steps behind. He finished the day with 12 points and three rebounds, while Magic pulled down only one board. The famed "Showtime" running game had been slowed to a crawl.
And the Celtics? They raised a huge red welt on the Lakers' scar from the previous year with an overwhelming 148-114 win that became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. Scott Wedman hit all 11 of his shots from the floor, including four three-pointers. But it was Ainge who lashed the whip hardest, lacing in six straight buckets at the end of the first quarter to finish the period with 15 points.
"It was one of those days," Celtics coach K.C. Jones said, "where if you turn around and close your eyes, the ball's gonna go in."
In the Lakers' film sessions the next morning, Abdul-Jabbar moved to the front row, rather than reclining near the back as he usually did. He didn't blink when Riley ran and reran the gruesome evidence of his terrible performance. In fact, the captain later went to each of his teammates and personally apologized for his effort.
"He made a contract with us that it would never happen again -- ever," Riley said. "That game was a blessing in disguise. It strengthened the fiber of this team. After that, Kareem had this look, this air about him."
As the second game approached, the Lakers knew exactly what they had to do. "Our break starts with good tough defense," Kurt Rambis said. "That forces teams out of their offense. Then we must control the boards. That's where the work comes in. If we do those two things, the fast break is the easiest part."
It was time, Riley said in his pregame talk, to make a stand. And they did. Kareem, in particular, reasserted himself with 30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks. Cooper hit 8 of 9 shots from the floor to finish with 22 points as the Lakers evened the series, 109-102. Best of all, they had stolen a game in the Garden and now returned to the Forum for three straight.
The Lakers hosted the Celtics on Sunday afternoon and whacked them again with a 136-111 blowout. Worthy was the man of the hour with 29 points. But Abdul-Jabbar made his presence felt again with 26 points and 14 rebounds. At one point, Boston had led 48-38, but Worthy dominated the second quarter and led Los Angeles to a 65-59 edge at intermission. The Lakers ran away in the second half, during which Abdul-Jabbar became the league's all-time leading playoff scorer.
Bird, meanwhile, had extended his shooting slump to two games, going 17-for-42 from the field. He had been troubled by a chronically sore right elbow and bad back, although some speculated his real trouble was Cooper's defense. Bird offered no excuses.
The close Game 4 came down to one final Celtics possession. With only seconds left and the game tied, Bird had the ball but faced a double-team, so he dumped it off to Dennis Johnson above the foul line. DJ drilled the winning basket with two seconds left, and Boston's 107-105 win evened the series.
Boston always seemed to win the one- and two-point games, Cooper said afterward. "Those are the games where you see the heart of a good ball team. We've just gotta buckle down and win one of these."
Game 5 two nights later in the Forum was the critical showdown. Kevin McHale answered the call for Boston, scoring 16 early points and forcing Riley to make a defensive switch in the second period. The Lakers' coach put Abdul-Jabbar on McHale and left the shorter Rambis to contend with Parish. It worked immediately. Los Angeles went on a 14-3 run at the close of the half to take a 64-51 lead.
Los Angeles stretched its advantage to 89-72 after intermission, but the Celtics closed to within four at 101-97 with six minutes left. Then Magic hit three buckets and Abdul-Jabbar added four more, giving him 36 points on the day, as the Lakers walked away with a 120-111 victory and a 3-2 series lead.
Jerry West, the Lakers' general manager, elected not to make the trip back to Boston for fear of spooking the proceedings. Across the country old Lakers held their breath and watched the tube. After eight painful losses, this seemed to be their best chance yet to end Boston's domination. The Celtics would have to win the final two games. With a mere 38 hours rest between games, that didn't seem likely for the boys from Beantown. Especially when Abdul-Jabbar showed up to play again, this time with 29 points -- 18 of them in the second half of Game 6, when it mattered.
The score was tied at 55 at intermission. Abdul-Jabbar had sat out much of the second period in foul trouble while Kupchak did admirable work at backup. The Celtics had rotated only seven players in the first half, and Magic could see that they were tired. It was written on their faces. Riley told him to keep pushing it at them, not to worry about turnovers. Just keep up the pressure. Keep pushing. He did.
And the Celtics did something they had never ever done before. They gave up a championship on their home floor, on the hallowed parquet, 111-100. McHale kept them alive with 36 points, but he fouled out with more than five minutes left. And, thanks in part to Cooper's defense, Bird was closing out a 12-for-29 afternoon.
In the end, the Lakers' victory was signaled by the squeaking of sneakers in the deathly quiet Garden as the crowd slipped away. It was the same crowd that had riotously jostled the Lakers the year before.
Abdul-Jabbar was named the Finals MVP. "He defies logic," Riley said of the ageless Lakers center. "He's the most unique and durable athlete of our time, the best you'll ever see. You better enjoy him while he's here."
"We made 'em lose it," Magic said with satisfaction. For him the championship was sweet redemption, although he had said earlier that he didn't need any. "You wait so long to get back," he admitted. "A whole year. That's the hard part. But that's what makes this game interesting. It's made me stronger."