This is Part 6 of our The Worst of Celtics-Lakers series. This was the first Magic versus Bird Finals and the series in which the Lakers -- after a break that lasted almost two decades -- once again got to be the Celtics' bitch.
1984 NBA Finals
Short-shorts: Come on. Just look at that picture!
Sheer and utter ugliness: There's no way to put this bluntly, so I'll put it nerdly: The 1983-84 Boston Celtics looked like they belonged in the Star Wars Cantina moreso than the NBA Finals. Larry Bird (as Bill Simmons has pointed out many, many times) was rocking the world's premier blond afro-mullet and a mustache that looked like something from an out-of-the-bag Halloween costume. Dennis Johnson was a black man with freckles. Robert Parish had an "I'm about to choke a bitch" scowl permanently frozen on a face that looked like it was chiseled out of granite. Kevin McHale looked like the love child of Herman Munster and Plastic Man. M.L. Carr tried to camouflage his resemblance to a chipmunk with a porn-star mustache. Greg Kite -- bless his heart -- was a goofy white goon. Oh, and Danny Ainge, while not technically ugly, looked like that whining, bratty kid you hated in kindergarten.
M.L. Carr, quote machine: Carr saw the Lakers as "preppies" and "wimps" because they were based in southern California, which at that time was regarded as the preppie capitol of the world. And, prior to Game 1, he didn't think those pretty boys could hack the brutal conditions in Boston Garden. Said Carr: "Get the convertible out, put the top down, and don't be coming here with any Polos and Pierre Cardins. Make sure you don't mind getting wet, 'cause the Garden's gonna be a sweatbox."
Scheduling: The Lakers eliminated the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals on a Friday night (West Coast time). Game 1 of the NBA Finals was immediately scheduled for Sunday night in Boston (East Coast time). But then Game 2 wouldn't be until the following Thursday. Why? Network television, my friends. CBS refused to disrupt its prime-time lineup during May sweeps and David Stern -- then in his first year as league commissioner -- didn't want the Finals shown on tape delay (as they had been in the early 1980s). Therefore Game 1 had to be aired before sweeps started and Game 2 would be aired only after the sweeps ended. Because God knows that the American people needed to see what happened on the sweeps episodes of Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Knots Landing.
Fun fact: Ever wonder why the NBA regular season begins in November instead of October, as it did back in the 80s? Stern did that so the Finals would come after the May sweeps and therefore be "ready for prime-time." Seriously.
K.C. Jones: When the Finals began, K.C. decided to put the 6'2" Gerald Henderson on the 6'9" Magic Johnson. He made this decision despite the fact that the Celtics had acquired Dennis Johnson in the offseason for the express purpose of defending guards like Andrew Toney and Magic. The reason? Because Magic was guarding Henderson, and that way Henderson could stick with Magic when the Lakers chose to fastbreak (which was, you know, every possession). Basically, Jones was terrified that D.J. wouldn't be able to find Magic in transition, which was a woeful underestimation of D.J.'s skills as a defensive player. K.C. stuck with this ludicrous game plan until midway through Game 4.
The Celtics in Game 1: They were rested. They were at home, where they had been 33-8 during the regular season and were 9-0 in the playoffs. The Lakers, meanwhile, were exhausted from playing on Friday night and taking a cross-country commercial flight to Boston (they didn't even have time for a real practice; they simply sketched a court on the hotel floor and walked through plays). Nonetheless, L.A. jumped all over Boston, building a 20-6 lead in the first six minutes. They led by 13 at halftime (65-52) and by 19 midway through the third quarter (73-54). The Celtics made a valiant comeback attempt, but fell short and lost 115-109.
For the game, Boston shot 43 percent (compared to 57 percent for the Lakers) and committed 17 turnovers. Cedric Maxwell was 3-for-8 from the field. Larry Bird shot 7-for-17 and committed 6 turnovers. Robert Parish (13 points) got destroyed by the 37-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (32 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) before fouling out (and Kareem was suffering from a migraine headache at the time). Oh, and Danny Ainge had a two trillion.
Kevin McHale's missed freethrows: Having already lost Game 1 at home, the Celtics absolutely could not afford to lose Game 2. Despite that, they were facing a two-point deficit with 20 seconds left. But Kevin McHale had been fouled and had the chance to tie the game by converting a couple foul shots. But he didn't. He bonked both of them...and his knees were shaking.
Here's how Larry Legend remembered it: "I'll never forget it. He missed the first one and now he's worried, so now he's trying to guide the ball in. He didn't make that one either. What we didn't know until we saw the tape was that while he was lining up that second shot, Kevin's knees were clacking back and forth. They were really shaking. Oh, we got on him hard. Max was leading it, calling him 'Clacker' and 'Slacker' and 'Knee Shaker.' Everybody said, 'How would you like to have Kevin taking the last shot of the game?' It was so funny." Yeah. Funny. But only because the Celtics won the game. And that happened because of...
The tragic turnover, Part I: Thanks to McHale's blown freethrows, the Lakers were still leading 113-111 with 20 seconds. Coach Pat Riley had told Magic to call a timeout if McHale made his foul shots. Magic, however, misunderstood and called a timeout after the misses. This allowed the Celtics to set up their defense as opposed to forcing them to commit a quick foul. After the timeout, Magic inbounded the ball to James Worthy at midcourt, and Worthy tried to lob the ball over the Boston D to Byron Scott. But Gerald Henderson rondo'd the pass and took it in for a layup.
This is how Henderson remembered it: "We were pretty down after Kevin missed those fuckin' freethrows. M.L. and me had been coming in as a defensive tandem for a while, and we'd tell each other, 'Let's make somethin' happen. We gotta make it happen.' It wasn't hard to get pumped up with M.L. around. I think I had Byron Scott. Magic took the ball out. He passed it to Worthy, and I left my man anticipating because whoever went to double-team Worthy had left their man. You rotate and I rotated to the open man. I guess it was an instinctive thing. I was at full speed. After I got it, Worthy came over. He wanted the ball back, but at that point, it's two."
The tragic turnover, Part II: Henderson's steal and layup made it 113-all, but the Lakers had the ball and 13 seconds...which should have been all the time they needed to get a good shot. Particularly since they had Kareem (with his unblockable skyhook) and Worthy had been on fire all day (11-for-12). But Magic dribbled out the clock without attempting a shot or a pass. And it wasn't because of the Celtics defense. He just had a brainfart of legendary proportions. The Celtics went on to win in overtime, 124-121.
The Celtics in Game 3: This ass-kicking couldn't have been more complete if Larry Bird had strapped a self-operated ass-kicking machine to his back. The Lakers were already leading by 11 at halftime. But then...then they exploded for 47 points in the third quarter. During one particularly brutal five-minute run, the Lakers scored 18 consecutive points while the Celtics missed 10 shots and committed 5 turnovers. Boston shot 39 percent for the game, got outrebounded 63-44, and eventually lost 137-104. It was the worst loss in the Celtics playoff history.
Bird busts his teammates, Part I: After the game, Bird was pissed. And Larry did what many frustrated athletes have done in the same situation: He threw his team under the bus. Said Bird: "We played like a bunch of sissies. 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." Ye-ouch.
Bird's "Sissy Speech" is now the stuff of legends. Boston sportswriter Peter May called it a "Churchhillian 'We shall fight on the beaches' address," and many people credited it with turning the series around. That said, it would not go over well today. I mean, think about it. When Kobe Bryant went out shakin' trees, he got crucified. When Joakim Noah correctly accused his teammates of not being dedicated to winning, his coach told him to shut up. When Carmelo Anthony called his team out for quitting in the playoffs -- which they did -- he got blasted by the press. Times, they have 'a changed.
The "Finals MVP" announcement: The day after Game 3, the Los Angeles papers began a print campaign to have James Worthy named Finals MVP, despite the fact that the Lakers were still two games away from winning the title. This enraged the Celtics, and Cedric Maxwell noted that he had to play six games and win a championship before being named Finals MVP in 1981.
McHale's infamous clothesline: Game 4 was what Hubie Brown would call "chippy." Larry Bird ass-checked Michael Cooper into the stands. Kareem whacked Bird in the face with an elbow, and Larry responded by getting all up in Kareem's face. There was pushing. There was shoving. And all this came to a head in the second quarter when Kevin McHale almost killed Kurt Rambis.
This was one of the most violent plays in NBA history. In his book Who's Better, Who's Best In Basketball, Elliot Kalb claimed that this play opened the door for the hand-to-hand combat tactics of the Bad Boys Piston teams of the late 80s (and therefore those brutal Knicks and Heat teams from the 90s). But according to the man who committed the foul, it was kind of an accident.
Said McHale: "I didn't know what the hell was going on there. Sitting next to M.L. on the bench, he'd scream every time they got a layup. 'No more layups! Grab 'em, grab em!' I heard this for six minutes every game. (McHale was still the sixth man at this point.) So I got out there, and coming down on the break, they passed it one way, they got it back to Kurt, and I just...turned. It looked like I horsecollared him. I was trying to grab him. His momentum carried my left arm so far away I couldn't lock 'em. He just went down really hard, and I went, 'Oooooh.' At that point, it was such a physical series, I wasn't going to help him up. I felt bad, and I hoped he wasn't hurt. Hey, if I was trying to hurt somebody, I'd try to hurt Magic or somebody, not Kurt Rambis. It just happened. That kind of set the tone for our team, but I just wanted to grab the guy. I sure didn't want to get him like that."
The Lakers choke job: Most people believe that McHale's clothesline is what changed the series. As Cedric Maxwell put it: "Before Kevin McHale hit Kurt Rambis, the Lakers were just running across the street whenever they wanted. Now they stop at the corner, push the button, wait for the light, and look both ways."
But here's the thing: The Lakers were leading by six points when that happened, and they were still leading by five with less than a minute left in regulation. But Parish converted a three-point play after a sequence in which the Celtics got three straight offensive rebounds, and then Bird hit two freethrows with 16 seconds left. The Lakers had the ball and a chance to win it, but Parish stole a pass from Magic, who was trying to get it into Worthy in the post.
In overtime, Magic missed two huge freethrows. Then Worthy missed one and Maxwell gave him the choke sign. The score was tied with 16 seconds left when Magic was forced to pick up Bird (Michael Cooper had fallen down). Larry promptly sank a fallaway shot over Magic and the Celtics went on to win 129-125.
Bird's followup: After Game 4, the press was excited to find out how Bird felt about how his teammates had responded to his "sissy challenge." And this is what Larry said: "It was better. We just played like a bunch of women tonight." Ha, ha...that crazy Larry.
Fun fact: The Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend DVD uses this quote after the Celtics' Game 3 loss, presumably because they didn't have the "sissies" comment on film. But trust me: He said it after Game 4.
The Boston press: When the Lakers returned to Boston for Game 5, they had a surprise waiting for them. The Boston papers had printed the name of the hotel the Lakers were staying in. As a result, they were harassed all night by phone calls and false fire alarms. I'm guessing they didn't get much sleep.
The Game 5 heat wave: Ah, the greatness of Red Auerbach. He made a phone call to God and asked for a heat wave before Game 5. And he got it. It was 97 degrees and humid in Boston on that fateful day. And since the Garden -- which was built in 1928 -- had no air conditioning or windows, it felt more like 200 degrees. It was so bad that referee Hugh Evans had to leave at halftime and Kareem spent time on the bench desperately sucking air from an oxygen mask. This is how Kareem described the oppressive conditions: "I suggest that you go to a local steam bath, do one hundred pushups with all your clothes on, and then try to run back and forth for 48 minutes."
I'm not saying the heat is why the Lakers lost. But it sure didn't help their cause.
The Celtics in the final 16 minutes of Game 6: Boston was leading by 11 in the third quarter (84-73) and then everything came undone. L.A. outscored them 46-25 in the final 16 minutes to win 119-108. I guess you could have blamed Greg Kite and his one trillion, but Bird didn't...
Bird busts his teammates, Part II: Bird was great in Game 6: 28 points, 14 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 blocks. But he was very unhappy afterwards that he only got 11 shots (particularly when D.J. had 20 shots and Henderson had 17). Said Bird: "I wanted the ball in my hands, especially when the 11-point lead was going down. I was making things happen when I had it. I didn't get it enough when we needed it." But Bird wasn't only mad at his teammates.
Bird's conspiracy theory: I wrote about this last year, but Larry believed that Game 6 was rigged. Said Bird: "Stern told a fan that the NBA needed a seven-game series, that the league needed the money. When the commissioner makes a statement like that to a fan, you know it's going to be tough. When Stern makes a statement like that, things are going to happen. You just don't make statements like that and not expect anything out of it. He's the commissioner and he shouldn't be saying anything like that. The NBA wanted a seventh game because they wanted to make more money and they got their wish. There is no reason for me to lie. He said it. He's a man and he'll live up to it. He may say he said it in jest. But I'm out there trying to make a living and win a championship."
Stern chose not to respond to Bird directly, but NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre said: "David said Bird's comment is ridiculous. Like every fan in America, he has been looking forward to a seventh game. It's a dream matchup, and everybody has wanted to see a seven-game series since Day 1."
What I would have asked Bird is this: If the game was rigged for the Lakers to win, why did the Celtics have a 35-17 advantage in freethrow attempts?
Lakers fans: After Game 6, M.L. Carr was hit in the face and eyes by a beer cup full of an unidentified liquid. (Carr said "I don't know what it was, but it definitely wasn't beer.") Carr's eyes were so irritated by whatever it was that he had to wear goggles in Game 7. This act so enraged Maxwell that he told DJ: "Let's kill them on Tuesday. Let's kill those freaks." (Max had 24 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in Game 7.)
The climactic Game 7: The Celtics shot 39 percent from the field in the final game. So how'd they win? By raping the Lakers on the boards (52-33, including 20 offensive rebounds). Oh, and they also got 51 freethrow attempts (compared to 28 for the Lakers). Some of those came at the end of the game when the Lakers had to intentionally foul, but still...
Tragic Johnson: If you've made it this far, you'll notice that there was a disturbing trend throughout this series: Magic throwing the ball away and missing freethrows at critical moments. And it happened again in Game 7. The Lakers came back from a 14-point deficit to trail by only three with about a minute left. Magic had the ball, but D.J. knocked it loose. Michael Cooper recovered it and gave it back to Magic, who once again had it knocked away...this time by Maxwell. The Celtics recovered and the Lakers were forced to foul D.J., who put the game away with a couple freethrows.
Magic didn't take it well. After the game, he stayed in the showers for so long that Isiah Thomas, who had come to the game to support his longtime friend, went looking for him. This is how Magic put it just recently: "But when Larry beat us the first time in '84 I think it was, you know, I was devastated. I went into hiding for about a month, sat in the dark. I was so mad, upset, you know, because the Celtics beat the Lakers once again."
This fact wasn't lost on the press, who reported on Magic's depression for most of the summer. In response, McHale started referring to him as "Tragic Johnson."
Red Auerbach, the gracious winner: Red, never one to miss a chance to stick it to the Lakers or the press, had this to say after the game: "You guys (the media) were talking about a dynasty the Lakers had. But what dynasty? Here's the only dynasty right here. This team."
Kevin McHale: Most people think that Bird wouldn't have won a championship without McHale. But it should be noted that when the Celtics won it all in '81, McHale averaged 10 MPG in the Finals. And he didn't exactly light it up in '84, either. Here are Kevin's averages for the championship series: 13.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 44 percent shooting (33-73). Not exactly impressive, is it?
Dennis Johnson, quote machine: Per the usual custom, the Celtics were invited to the White House to be honored for winning the NBA title. President Ronald Reagan spoke to them in 90-degree heat on Rose Garden Lawn. Reagan said: "As the leaders of your organization changed, as one group of stars was replaced by another group, the Celtics not only survived, they maintained their championship form because the Celtics have been a team of champions, larger and greater than any one player, coach or manager." DJ, amazed at how unfazed Reagan was by the heat, took the microphone and said: "Mr. President, how do you stand out here and don't sweat?"
Sources: NBA.com, Wikipedia, Basketball-reference.com, Ever Green by Dan Shaughnessy, Drive: The Story of My Life by Larry Bird and Bob Ryan, The Big Three by Peter May, Larry Bird: The Making of an American Sports Legend by Lee Daniel Levine, and The Boston Celtics 1984 Championship Official Souvenir Book.