It’s been so well documented, and remains such a touchstone (it is still the most widely watched NCAA final ever, which–considering the inconceivably successful hype college and pro sports have promulgated in the last three decades–is genuinely astounding), yet it endures mostly as the introduction of Bird/Magic. Only two words, two names, have ever been necessary to sum up an entire rivalry. Michael Wilbon wrote a wonderful remembrance of this the other week; the piece is well worth reading, but here is the heart of the matter:
Michigan State cruised, more or less. Bird narrowly avoided losing to both Sidney Moncrief and Arkansas and Aguirre and DePaul. The most memorable scene from the title game is Bird, having lost for the first time as a senior, sitting with the white towel over his head, sobbing underneath it. That and Magic’s smile while he hugged Heathcote after the 75-64 Spartans win.
More than 35 percent of all TV sets turned on that night were tuned to Magic and Bird. It was like a Christmas present in March, and it’s something that could never happen today. We’d know everything about an undefeated team featuring any player as talented as Bird. A 6-foot-9 white kid from small-town Indiana who had driven a garbage truck and who had run from Bob Knight during a freshman year spent briefly at Indiana? Are you kidding?
And then it was on. On to the pros. East vs. West. Celtics vs. Lakers. The Green vs. The Gold.
How often do two players, particularly ones so indelibly linked from the start of their careers, have the opportunity not only to revive their respective franchises, but an entire professional sport? Approximately never. It’s never happened before and it will never happen again. I’m not inclined to recap the entire Bird & Magic saga because everyone is already familiar with it (those that are not simply don’t like sports). What a difference a year made: the Celtics went from worst to almost-first, with Bird taking Rookie of the Year honors, and Magic bookended his NCAA championship with the first of his five NBA titles. To say these guys took things to another level is like saying The Beatles made some pretty good albums. Simply put, nothing was ever the same once Bird and Magic made the NBA their personal playground.
So all of this ancient sports history is ambrosia for stat dorks obsessed with the great old days. But imagine if you actually loved one of those teams? I don’t have to imagine; I was there. Learning to be a Red Sox and Celtics fan from my Boston-bred father (which is ironic because at the time the local Washington Bullets were coming off back-to-back appearances in the NBA finals and the Celtics were the joke of the league; following the Red Sox would be a masochistic family ritual countless souls from New England endured for another few decades), I remember being on board with Bird from the second he suited up. If you ever want to find out who actually followed the Celtics back in the day, wait until they finish name dropping McHale, Parrish, Dennis Johnson (R.I.P.) and Danny Ainge (the most hated athlete in the world in his day), and see if they have any idea who Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and Nate “Tiny” Archibald are. Then drop Quinn Buckner and Gerald Henderson (whose nifty hands secured the third most famous steal in Celtics history, after Havlicek and Bird–of which more, shortly).
So I loved Bird and the Celtics. And I loathed Magic and the Lakers.
As has been adequately documented elsewhere (and incessantly), it was a clash of two styles, two coasts, two philosophies. The Lakers were Hollywood (Showtime!), quick, flashy and their coach wore Armani suits. The Celtics were blue collar, methodical, stoic and crucially, quite possibly the most ugly assortment of atheltes ever assembled on one team.
So when the Celtics edged out the Lakers in the seventh game of their epic 1984 championship series, it was the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil. Redemption for Bird! East coast over West coast! Substance over Style! Rocky vs. Apollo. You get the picture.
Did I mention that I detested Magic? The intensity of the disdain escalated exponentially in 1985 when Magic’s Lakers got their revenge, on the sacred parquet floor no less, taking back the crown on the Celtics’ home court. That hurt. What a bunch of punks the Lakers were: Michael Cooper with his rolled up socks, James Worthy with his Kareem-Lite goggles, Kareem himself, that big whining sissy, Kurt Rambis, the resident honky who did the unthinkable and made Kevin McHale the second goofiest looking professional athlete of the ’80s. And leading them all, Magic. I hated him. And Bird hated him, too. Seriously. That rivalry was for real. Look at the barely-disguised animosity in this commercial.
Of course, the ’86 Celtics were far and away the best team that ever suited up, and that subject is not open for discussion. It was the kind of year (the Celtics lost one home game over the course of the entire regular season) where Celtics fans were looking forward to the eventual Lakers rematch. There is no chance the Lakers would have won. None. It was therefore comical when the Lakers were upset in the western conference finals by the upstart Rockets (a young Hakeem Olajuwan and Ralph Sampson), but it was almost immediately anticlimactic; we wanted the Lakers that year and we needed the Lakers. It was not just going to be our turn on top of the revenge see-saw, it was going to be a bloodletting, a reckoning. It wasn’t meant to be, and some of us actually felt cheated. But boy did the Celtics beat up on the Rockets, cementing their status as the big kids on the block.
No one had any doubt the two designated teams would meet again in 1987, and everyone was correct. It was not a finals so much as a formality. The Celtics were almost crippled by injuries throughout the season (especially the porcelain-kneed Bill Walton), and at times it appeared that Ainge and Parrish might come apart at mid-court. Famously, McHale played most of the post-season on a broken ankle: it undoubtedly shortened his career, but also earns him all-time stud status (normally only hockey players exhibit that type of grit and lunacy). And so the Celtics quite literally limped into the playoffs and the hungry young teams took their shots (including a sneak-peak at the increasingly explosive Michael Jordan, who dropped 63 points on the Celtics in the Garden). They barely beat the Bucks and it looked like the obnoxious, upstart Pistons (led by the always insufferable Isiah Thomas) might have too much juice for the suddenly torpid Celtics. Flash forward to Game Five, series tied 2-2: with seconds left on the clock and the ref (dubiously) awarding an out of bounds ball to the Pistons, the Celtics needed a miracle. And Bird provided one. This is it, for me: the most unexpected, sublime few seconds I’ve ever witnessed in sports. There are games that rank higher, achievements ultimately more significant, but in terms of the shock factor combined with the gratification, it was as though one of the Greek gods descended from Olympus just for my amusement.
Two unthinkable things occurred in the ’87 finals: The Lakers won, and I (and many other Celtics fans) found myself unable to suppress a grudging admiration for how unbelievably great Magic Johnson was. Beyond appreciation, I was actually almost starting to like him. He won me over, not merely by the way he willed his team to win, but because he really did make watching the game more exciting. There was seldom any debate about whether Magic radiated more joy through the act of playing a sport than anyone else who has ever played at a high level. What he did in Game 4 with his improbable, and devastating, “junior” sky hook was a barbed wire ripping out the entrails of every Celtic fan’s gut. But you had to admire it; you had no choice. Bird hit the three as if to say “That’s what I have to say, what have you got?” And Magic responded. With two seconds left on the clock, Bird did get that last shot, and damn if it didn’t just rim out (that is already one of the best endings of all time; if Bird had nailed that Hail Mary it would be considered the best playoff basketball game ever played).
We consoled ourselves knowing that we could count on many more years on the see-saw. Alas, that was it. The Celtics, slowed by injuries and derailed by the sudden and shocking death of Len Bias (that tragedy remains unendurable to this day), started to show their age, while younger, faster teams stepped into the spotlight. And I found myself ambivalent, in ’88, watching the Pistons (who we hated so much, it’s probable some of us would have done jail time in order for the opportunity to bitch slap Bill Laimbeer) and Lakers square off. I couldn’t root for the Pistons, but I couldn’t root for the Lakers. So I rooted for Magic. Well, I allowed myself to accept that it was better for Bird’s rival to win. Or something like that.
In the meantime, Bird and Magic had gone from tolerating one another to building a genuine bond. So much so, when Magic realized he’d contracted HIV, Bird was one of the first people he phoned. Allegedly, Bird broke down and sobbed when he received the news. One more season and Bird, his body battered and his back an unrelenting source of misery, hung up the Weapons. They needed one another, and for Celtics fans, it was like Batman had lost his Joker; it was time to walk away. Fortunately they did have the chance to play together on the “Dream Team” during the ’92 Olympics. Watching the two of them talk about each other, in the years since (which they’ve done often) is always enjoyable and, no other word will do, heartwarming. They love the game and they love each other.
To consider that thirty years have passed since the night that changed everything is difficult to reconcile. On the other hand, it would be churlish to feel any emotion more than gratitude for having had the opportunity to watch that story unfold, in real time, savoring every second of it along the way.