Twenty-five years ago. Long enough to officially make it a classic. But, of course, it was a classic even as it was being played. Sports writers and fans can be forgiven, in this one instance, to invoke words like “war” to describe the NBA finals that year, a seven game masterpiece ultimately won by the Celtics, in the old Boston Garden.
Bob Ryan,the estimable dean of Beantown sports scribes, deserves kudos for his invocation of the series in today’s Boston Globe. He focuses on the (truly) pivotal Game 5, played in the infamously un-air conditioned Garden in the midst of an unseasonably scorching East coast heat wave. To a fourteen year old Irish Catholic altar boy (who worshipped at the altar of Larry Bird), it was as though God was proving that He was a Celtics fan and was providing some Old Testament fire and brimstone to test the mettle of the two teams; epitomized by Larry Bird’s blue collar grit and Magic Johnson’s L.A. cool: forget about facile Hollywood facsimiles of ancient Gladiator combat; this is as close as we could legally get to emulating that barbaric crucible of competition. (Did I mention that I was fourteen?)
Each team had already made statements; the momentum had swung at least three times. It was now a best of three, and as is invariably the case in a series like this, the outcome would likely be swung to the favor of whoever could secure a game five victory. Who was going to step up? Keep in mind, in the ’80s you were either a Lakers fan or you were a Celtics fan. There were other teams in the NBA, obviously, but for a long stretch of that great decade, it seemed like each season was an extended formality: we collectively bided our time until everyone else got out of the way and let the two teams go hammer and tong for the title. A couple of months ago, I recounted what this rivalry was like for a fan in the prime of his formative sports-loving life here.
I’ll happily step out of the way and let Ryan remember it best; he was there, after all:
Referee Hugh Evans had to leave at halftime, a victim of dehydration. Robert Parish sat out a stretch of the second half with leg cramps. But there was one player who applied mind over matter better than everyone else, one player who not only overcame the circumstances to play a good game of basketball, but who so took to the conditions that he played one of the great games of his life.
As my mother used to say, I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.
“I play in this stuff all the time back home, ” sneered Larry Bird. “It’s like this all summer.”
“I’ve never seen (Bird) as intense as he was tonight,” said Kevin McHale. “Never.”
The other great force that night was the crowd, which turned what could have been a negative into a complete positive by celebrating the absurd conditions. Rather than bemoaning the heat, those savvy people celebrated it, realizing that the Lakers were feeling sorry for themselves because they were used to the creature comforts of the palatial Forum.
Here was the message: Watching a game in an old, cramped, steamy building and sitting on those hard seats, why, that’s what we do here in New England. We don’t need your cushioned seats and we don’t need no stinkin’ air conditioning. We leave that stuff to you West Coast wusses. And, by the way, your team is soft.
What he said.
Give up it up for the Garden, and old school:
Best series ever.