Editor’s Note: As a longtime fan of professional basketball and the Los Angeles Lakers (since the since the bygone days of Wilt and Jerry West), I’m still disappointed I was never able to get this nostalgia piece published anywhere.


The Game of the Decade


A sports season is sometimes summed up by a single game. The 1994–95 NFL season, for example, was epitomized by the NFC’s San Francisco 49ers’ anticlimactic bludgeoning of the vastly weaker AFC San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl. However, it’s rare when an entire decade in a given sport pivots on a single game. Such was the case on June 6, 1987, when the L.A. Lakers met the Boston Celtics in the Boston Garden for game four — one of the most exciting and decisive games in NBA finals history.

A Sense of History

In 1987, it was still a matter of debate as to whether the ’80s would be the decade of the Lakers or the Celtics — the Magic Johnson or the Larry Bird Era. The Lakers had won the championship in 1980, 1982 and 1985, while the Celtics had taken the title in 1981, 1984 and 1986. So dominant were these two teams that only two other squads — the Rockets and the 76ers — had even made it to the finals from 1980 to 1987, and only the 76ers (in 1983) had been able to bring home a championship.

Featuring what was arguably the greatest front line of all time, the 1985–1986 Celtics had gone 67-15 and looked very much like the team of the decade, especially after cruising through the playoffs and eliminating the Rockets 4-2 in the finals. They returned essentially the same team the following season and looked to be unbeatable again, with most experts predicting a repeat champion for the first time since the old Celtics ruled the league during the 1960s.

At this point, the trend in the NBA was toward bigger and stronger. The Celtic front line that had beaten the Rockets included the “twin towers, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, with seven-footer Bill Walton thrown in for good measure. The Rockets had Akeem Olajuwon at center and 7-4 Ralph Sampson at power forward. At the same time, the N.Y. Knicks were also operating with two centers playing at once, using the twin towers of Bill Cartwright and Patrick Ewing.

However, under Pat Riley, the Lakers seemed stubbornly attached to the notion of Showtime,” although their ability to outscore larger opponents using speed and quickness seemed to be an anachronism, particularly after the way the Rockets had dispatched them in the 1986 playoffs. An aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had looked completely overwhelmed by the size and youth of Houston’s twin sequoias. And the addition of the lithe 6-9 A.C. Green to the L.A. front line seemed unlikely to stem this tide.

Yet surprisingly, the Lakers roared into the 1987 playoffs with the best record in the league (65-17).  Green had given the team a boost at the power forward position, James Worthy had become a consistent NBA star and the addition of Mychal Thompson in a midseason trade gave the team much-needed depth upfront.

But by far the biggest factor was the continued development of Magic Johnson. This was the season the Lakers went from being Kareem’s team to Magic’s, as he led L.A. in both assists and scoring and became their go-to guy in clutch situations.

For the past three years, Bird had been the league MVP. In their personal duel, it was Bird who had acquired an almost mythic stature — the nickname Larry Legend” seemed practically an understatement. Meanwhile, although Magic had been touted as a superstar when he’d seemed to singlehandedly take the 1980 championship game from the Sixers, he quickly crashed to earth with the loss to the Rockets in the 1981 playoffs and his subsequent involvement in the firing of Laker coach Paul Westhead. And Johnson had needed a solid performance vs. the Celtics in the 1985 finals to repair the damage done to his reputation by several poor decisions he’d made in crucial situations during the 1984 finals against the Celtics. In contrast, Bird’s performance during the 1985–1986 season, and especially during the playoffs, had many people calling him the greatest ever.”

Johnson won the regular season MVP after a great 1986–1987 season. Still, it would be a hollow victory if the Lakers came up short again in the playoffs. With each team having won three rings in the decade and tied at one victory apiece in direct finals confrontations, it seemed almost inevitable that a Laker-Celtic matchup would occur in 1987, particularly since the Celtics were sporting the league’s second best record at 59-23.

While the Lakers were coasting toward the finals with easy 3-0, 4-1 and 4-0 series against Denver, Golden State and Seattle, respectively, the Celtics were finding the going quite a bit tougher than expected. Indeed, their whole season had been more difficult than had been predicted. First, the death of number one draft pick Len Bias robbed them of youth and athleticism in the front line. Then McHale broke his right foot in March and had to gut out the rest of the season on at least one bad wheel. Walton had foot problems so severe that he played only 10 games during the regular season and 12 in the playoffs. Parish hobbled through the entire playoffs on a severely sprained ankle. And, forced to carry a heavy burden throughout the year, Bird seemed to be wearing down as Boston headed toward the finals.

Despite their problems, however, the Celtics always found the will to win. They took a three-game playoff from Chicago in which Michael Jordan averaged 35.7 points per game. Then they dropped three games en route to beating Milwaukee in the second round. This was followed by a bruising 4-3 series with the bullies of basketball, the Detroit Pistons. This confrontation included Bill Laimbeer’s vicious body slam of Bird and Parish’s knockdown punch to Laimbeer’s face, which won him a suspension from the league and approval from players and fans in every NBA city outside Michigan.

In game five of the series, Bird stole Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass at the end of a game that the Pistons should have had salted away. You could almost hear the echoes of Boston announcer Johnny Most shouting, Havlicek stole the ball.” And Bird’s perfect pass to Dennis Johnson for the winning score merely added to his legend.” In game seven, the mythical Boston Garden leprechaun appeared to have entered the fray when Piston stars Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson smashed headfirst into each other, giving Dantley a game- and season-ending concussion. Whether it was Bird’s iron will or just the will of the Fates, the Celtics were on their way to the NBA finals for the fourth consecutive year.

Up and Down in the Garden

The finals began as a home court series, with the Lakers winning the first two games at the Forum by 13 and 19 points and the Celtics winning by six in Boston. Clearly, the Celtics chances to repeat as champions would be minimal if the Lakers took game four on the parquet floor. However, for most of this frantic evening, there appeared to be little danger of that happening.

The game opened with a Jabbar miss, an offensive rebound and a foul that led to two missed Jabbar free throws. On the other end, Dennis Johnson missed, but the Lakers threw away the outlet pass, and in the subsequent fast break, McHale missed two shots close in. Back the other way, Byron Scott threw up an air ball, which the Celtics turned into another blown layup by McHale. Clearly, both teams were sky high — maybe too fired up to play solid basketball.

The first points were scored at two minutes in, and at the 8:00 mark of the first quarter, the Celtics were shooting 2-9, while the Lakers were at an even less accurate 2-12. The first quarter ended with Boston leading 29-22. A sign of the Lakers’ nerves was that they’d shot 2-7 from the line in the first period.

The second quarter opened as sloppily as the first, with both teams committing one turnover after another. Too often, the L.A. fast break was a three-on-one affair that ended with the ball thrown away. The Celtics led from the early moments of the game and throughout the half.

Even by the end of the half, the frenetic pace had not abated. In one sequence, Jabbar took down a rebound and dribbled the length of the court before turning the ball over. In their next possession, Worthy went hard to the basket and Greg Kite sent him even harder to the floor. A fight nearly broke out, a double technical was called and emotions were still high as the teams headed for the locker room, with Boston leading 55-47. Only Magic Johnson’s 19 first half points had kept the Lakers in the game.

Opening the second half, Coach Riley must have been worried by the fact that his team was trailing by eight in a game in which Bird had thus far scored only two points on 0-3 shooting. And Bird confirmed his fears early in the quarter — by the time L.A. called timeout trailing 70-55, he’d dropped in nine points, including a deep three-pointer with the shot clock running out.

With under five minutes to go in the third, the Celtics went up 79-63, and it looked like this would be neither a memorable nor a pivotal game — just another win for the home team. However, at this point, Pat Riley made a crucial tactical move, putting his fastest team (and best defensive unit) on the floor — Thompson at center, Worthy and Green at forward, and Scott and Michael Cooper in the back court.

Suddenly, the pressing and traps started to have an effect. The Lakers began to run the break off turnovers, even without Magic on the floor. The intensity level went up another notch as a second double technical foul was assessed, this time to Scott and McHale. By the end of the third period, the score had closed to 85-78, and the game was up for grabs again.

Through the first few minutes of the final quarter, the Lakers crept inexorably closer. By the time Riley put most his starters back in, Boston’s lead was only three. And when Mychal Thompson tied the game at 93 with two free throws at the 6:14 mark, the overworked Celtic starters (Bill Walton hadn’t been able to play at all) looked to be in the midst of a slow fade.

But the Celtics suddenly got their second wind and scored six straight points, culminating in a breakaway layup by Danny Ainge that included one of the most blatant uncalled palming violations in finals history. Ainge carried the ball like a produce clerk displaying a melon for at least two full steps, but this official oversight probably just evened the score for an earlier bad call when McHale was hit with a goaltending call on a tip that the replay clearly showed belonged to Jabbar.

After a Laker timeout, Bird stuck another jumper, and the Lakers trailed by eight. At the next timeout, with 2:09 to play and the score at 103-96, it looked as if L.A.’s epic comeback was to be for naught. But this continued to be a game of streaks. A foul shot, a Cooper three-pointer, a Bird turnover and a Worthy jump shot in heavy traffic brought L.A. to within one with under a minute to go. Now the real excitement was ready to erupt.

With 29 seconds to go, the Lakers took advantage of some porous Celtic defense as Magic surprised everyone with an alley-oop to Kareem — probably not a play the Boston team was expecting from the 40-year-old center. This basket gave the Lakers a 104-103 lead, their first since they’d led 5-4 in the first quarter.

The Celtics needed a basket to take back the lead. What they didn’t necessarily need was a difficult three-point shot from Larry Bird, who had not been shooting particularly well up to that point to begin with. Gunning from the deep corner, practically falling out of bounds with plenty of time left on the shot clock in a life-or-death situation is something that might get the average college player banished to the far end of the bench forever, but of course, this is Larry Bird we’re talking about. With no hesitation and the chutzpah of a politician before a Congressional ethics committee, Bird calmly sank the three-pointer  ... nothing but net, and he didn’t even look surprised. Maybe Bird really was the magic” man.

With 12 seconds to go and the Celtics leading 106-104, the Lakers went in to Kareem, who was fouled in the act of shooting. All of a sudden, Bird’s decision to take the three-pointer looked prescient, as the best the Lakers could now do was tie. Jabbar swished the first free throw and inexplicably — considering how solid he’d always been at the line in the clutch — missed the tying shot. But at that moment, the Boston Garden leprechaun must have been standing in the beer line or in the men’s room, because, with both McHale and Parish in position for the rebound, neither was able to corral it, and the ball went out of bounds to L.A.

It was just the breath of life the Lakers needed. After a timeout, Magic took the inbounds pass, stutter-stepped past McHale and wheeled into the lane. As he rose up to take his junior sky hook,” the entire Celtic front court lifted off to meet him. This tableau would be splashed across sports pages and magazines all over the country. With the game on the line, Magic Johnson, not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was taking the make-or-break shot. And Magic dropped it in over the three outstretched hands of the greatest front line in NBA history. With that shot he had stolen back the magic ... except there were still two ticks left on the clock.

The Celtics called timeout. Everyone in the Boston Garden knew where the ball was going, and still Bird got open for one last shot. The game was in doubt even as the buzzer went off, but Bird’s difficult jumper was just barely off target and rattled off the rim. The magic could not be grabbed back one last time.

History Is Written by the Victors

Magic Johnson’s 29-point performance on 11-19 shooting (as compared to Bird’s 7-18) gave the Lakers what amounted to an insurmountable lead in the series. L.A. gave a perfunctory performance in losing game five, but the outcome of the series seemed a foregone conclusion when they returned to Los Angeles and won game six by 13 points. With their home court advantage, there was a good chance the Lakers would have won the series even if Magic’s hook shot had come up short. However, it was game four that secured the lid, so that the final nail could be driven into the Celtic’s coffin.

At the time, no one realized that the 1987 finals would decide who would be the dominant team of the decade. This series was the Celtics’ last hurrah. They would not return to the finals again, as age, injuries to Bird and McHale, and the ascension of the Pistons would hasten a steady descent toward mediocrity. Meanwhile, the Lakers made good on Coach Riley’s promise to repeat in 1988 as they beat Detroit in a grueling seven-game series that brought their number of championships in the 80s to five. And, in 1989, they cruised through the playoffs without a loss before debilitating hamstring injuries to Johnson and Scott in the finals with Detroit wiped out their back court, ruining their chances for a three-peat.”

The 1987 series had its share of personal milestones as well. It provided a sad farewell to the talents of Bill Walton. In game six, his feet were so painful that, at one point, the Celtics had to call a timeout because he was simply unable to walk from one end of the court to the other. After contributing mightily to the team’s 1986 championship, the 1987 series would mark a disappointing end to a noteworthy career.

And 1987 was the beginning of the end of a nearly two-decade era for another old warrior. In winning game six, Jabbar blocked four shots and led his team in scoring with 32 points on 13-18 shooting. During an up-and-down first half, it was the oldest player on the floor who kept his team close, with 19 points in the half (going 9 of 11 from the floor). But this would be the last championship round game in which he would carry his teammates to victory. In contrast, when the Lakers took game seven from the Pistons in 1988, Jabbar had only four points on 2-7 shooting. Over his long career, the former Lew Alcindor had lifted many sets of teammates on his shoulders for titles; in 1988, his teammates, particularly Johnson and Worthy, would return the favor.

Finally, Magic Johnson began to be referred to as the game’s best player. To his 1986-87 regular season MVP was added the MVP award for the finals, his third in four championship series. In game six, his 19 assists would be a key to the victory. Over the course of the series, the game’s best passer averaged 13 assists per game. He outscored Bird 26.2 ppg to 24.2 ppg, and, more significantly, Johnson shot 54 percent, as compared with the exhausted and suddenly human Bird’s 44 percent.

Although Bird will always remain Larry Legend, it was not long before the sportswriters were using the same words to describe Magic as they’d earlier used for Bird — the greatest player ever to lace on a pair of sneakers. True or not, Magic had established himself as the best player of his era ... until the next decade and Michael Jordan.


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