Bird Stern
In 1984, Bird and the Celtics were the first
victims of Stern's dark machinations.

As I noted in The Stern Button post, officiating controversies and conspiracy theories have dogged David Stern for the last several years. Looking back, I couldn't help but wonder when it all began. Was it the Dwyane Wade Freethrow-A-Thon in the 2006 NBA Finals? Was it when the Kings got jobbed in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals? Was it when the Jazz got hosed in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals? Was it when the Suns got 64 freethrows in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals? Or was it the entire second half of Michael Jordan's career? Surprisingly enough, it was none of those. Turns out, the conspiracy theories started in Year 1 of the Stern Regime.

Stern was named Commissioner of the NBA on February 1, 1984. He took the helm of a league beset by fan disinterest, financial problems, and drug scandals, yet he righted the ship almost instantly. Of course, Stern had a little help from fate and circumstance. First, the 1984 NBA Finals featured a classic seven-game showdown between Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers. Then, over the next couple seasons, a new crop of soon-to-be superstars entered the league: Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, and Patrick Ewing to name a few. Further sweetening the pot was the fact that the Celtics and Lakers met in the Finals again in '85 and '87. By the time Jordan's popularity took off in the late '80s, the league was suddenly speeding headlong toward globalization.

It sure seems like Stern was the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time. Or was he? In retrospect, the good times clearly started with the '84 Finals, which was the ignition point of the Bird/Magic Era. I was recently rewatching Game 7 of that series -- one of the best championship matchups of all time, by the way -- and I was surprised to hear Tommy Heinsohn say, "By challenging the commissioner, I think [Bird] was trying to get the refs on his side." Dick Stockton followed that cryptic statement with the following explanation: "You heard Commissioner Stern...hearsay that someone heard David Stern say that the league wanted a seven-game series, and of course Larry Bird went to town with it." [You can listen to it here; the comments start around the 2:35 mark.]

Eh? I was intrigued. Unfortunately, a simple Google search failed me, so I started poking around The Boston Globe's online archives*. On June 11, 1984, the Globe ran an article written by Dan Shaughnessy called Bird: NBA Wanted 7. After the Celtics lost Game 6, Larry Legend was pissed, but not at the Lakers or his teammates. He was steamed at the Commish.

"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."

Those were some pretty strong words from Bird**. Was there any validity to the claim? It's hard to say, since Game 6 is the only game of that series I haven't seen. But I can tell you this: The Celtics were in control for most of the game, leading by four after one quarter, by six at halftime, and by 11 with 3:59 left in the third quarter. But then things turned around in a hurry, as the Lakers outscored the Celtics 46-24 the rest of the way, enjoying a 35-17 advantage*** at the line and winning 119-108 despite Bird's 28/14/8. [This information comes from the Boston Celtics 1984 Championship Official Souvenir Book.]

On June 12, 1984, the Globe ran another Shaughnessy article called Riley: Script Is Written For Lakers' Victory. It's mostly a bunch of hippe talk**** from Pat Riley, but it does give a brief follow-up to Bird's anti-Stern comments.

According to Shaughnessy: "NBA commissioner David Stern chose not to issue any statement in response to Larry Bird's charge Sunday that Stern wanted a seventh game because the league needed the money. Stern's office said the commissioner was 'unreachable,' and no one there knew his exact whereabouts. However, NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre spoke with Stern. '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.'"

It's interesting that Stern chose not to confront Bird's comments head on (and what's up with the "no one knows his exact whereabouts" stuff...what, was he on Air Force 1?). It's even more interesting that he didn't fine Bird or the Celtics; these days, those comments would be worth 100K or more in fines. It wasn't at all surprising, however, that Stern dismissed Bird's claims as "ridiculous," since that's his buzz word of choice whenever any kind of criticism is leveled against him.

Was there a conspiracy? Did Stern have a little chat with the refs before Game 6 about the league's need for a seventh game? We'll never know for sure. But it is, nonetheless, a fascinating piece of historical trivia that Stern never had even a single year as NBA Commissioner without at least one officiating controversy.

* The Boston Globe charges $2.95 per archived article. That seems a little steep to me.

** Of course, this is the same guy who called his own teammates "a bunch of sissies" after the Celtics got blown out in Game 3. Then, when asked if his team had played any better in their Game 4 comeback victory, Bird said, "Yeah, we just played like a bunch of women tonight." Yikes.

*** Did the C's get a few makeup calls in Game 7? Maybe, maybe not. But they had a 51-28 freethrow advantage in that final game.

**** Going into Game 7, Riley guaranteed the Lakers would win. "It's destiny. I believe in the Fates, and I think it's our time. I think the script is written for us to win." This is the kind of motivational crap that Riley's famous (and infamous) for. It sounds brilliant when he's right, and idiotic when he's wrong. In this case, it was the latter for Riley, since the Lakers lost the game 111-102.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
If I were Bird, I would be pissed that David Stern's magic button made my jersey become a mirror image.

That's interesting, and one of the MANY reasons why I hate that it's impossible to find free archives of newpaper articles. I mean, I KNOW they're out there, but we're not allowed to see them, like the NBA with repeating regular season games on NBATV. I want some Minnesota vs. Miami 1990 action, damnit. Tony Campbell was MONEY!

In all seriousness, that's interesting. I think a serious study of the 1984 NBA Playoffs is in order. That's an interesting conspiracy theory. Maybe Stern didn't stop there? Were there any interesting seven game match-up's before that Finals series?

Blogger Basketbawful said...
"If I were Bird, I would be pissed that David Stern's magic button made my jersey become a mirror image."

Damn, josh, you caught me. But I didn't need anything as powerful as the Stern Button; I just used a simple Photoshop command called "Go Back Into The Past And Take Bird's Picture From The Other Side." Sure, I could have just used the "Flip" command, but what fun would that be?

Hey, be nice to the Top Cat. I remember how Tony exploded up from like 5 PPG in '89 to something like 24 PPG in '90. That's a huge upswing. Of course, he went from being a stooge at the end of the Lakers bench in '89 to "first option" for the '90 Timberwolves.

You bring up a point that always bugs me, though. The NBA has pretty much every game from the mid-70s on in their vaults. Why not make more available? Why not sell entire playoff series as a set? Or classic matchups, like those Bird/Jordan shootouts I talked about a week or so ago. It seems like there's potential to make some fat cash if they did that. know, six of the eight first round matchups went the distance (five games at that time), with only L.A. and Boston advancing early. Boston got pulled into a 7-game series with the Knicks in the second round, and the Suns came up with an inexplicable road victory in L.A. to push the Western Conference Finals to six games. Hmmm...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Oh no, I DO like Campbell, but he just fits what I like to call The Oliver Miller Phenomenon, where a (sometimes crappy) player transforms into a great player due to playing for a crappy expansion team. Named after the original Jerome James™, who had that one good year where he averaged freakin' 13 points and 8 rebounds a game. Other members of this elusive club are Kurt Rambis (11 points per game, no, I'm not kidding) Scott Hastings (From .2 ppg to 5 ppg...), Tyrone Corbin, Greg Anthony, among others. But I am rambling...

I totally agree, the NBA really should use their footage more...I mean so many great moments. I'd love to see John Havlicek's final game, with the halftime speech, among other great moments.

I saw Game six of the 1984 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals between the Knicks and the Celtics, and I KNOW there was no fix going on there. Believe me, the Celtics from the second half on had a total MELTDOWN like I've never seen before. Every shot was a brick, even wide-open shots. And Bernard King had like 46 points. Plus, it was at MSG, and the Knicks in the 80's won like every game against the Celtics in the 80's at MSG. That's a VERY interesting point, though. Makes me wish NBATV wouldn't just show classic NBA Finals games. I'd kill to see the 1981 Western Conference Finals, with Houston and Kansas City with the 40-42 records in the season EACH. That was basically a battle over who wanted to lose to the Celtics more.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
bbawful, fine work to illuminate a piece of NBA history. The most interesting part of it to me was actually the stuff about the nature of Stern's relation to the NBA's rise to national prominence. That chicken and egg nature, whether or not he actively guided it or merely rode the crest of a wave of amazing good fortune. In reality it's probably a little of both; no hack screenwriter could possibly have come up with Bird/Magic in the NCAA finals followed by them going to opposite coasts to the two most storied franchises in basketball or the unbelievable wave of talent that emerged 84-86 or so. On the other hand, even though he's stumbled a little recently Stern deserves a ridiculous amount of credit for managing to walk the tightrope in marketing the League both to "middle America" and its' hardcore fans at the same time and for engineering (illicitly or not) its' Golden Era. Either way its' one of those wildly compelling tales that trumps any fiction.

I still have a hard time believing he'd be so crude as to manipulate the outcomes of games in a way that so readily invites suspicion, just because he's so slick-cigarette executives testifying in front of Congress have NOTHING on that dude. Although the '84 Finals are actually a much more compelling case than anything that came after, since that was what really broke the NBA and I can see him being desperate/exuberant enough in his first year office to take a crazy gamble like that. Whatever, if he did it payed off for everyone in the long run.

On the other hand, if that type had been going for the last 20 years then how could the Spurs have reached the Finals 4 times in 9 years? And how could the SA-Det debacle, which even I found unbearable, have been allowed to happen? Not that I have a problem with this post's type of historical speculation. More with the type of NBA-haters who seized upon the Donaghy thing as some kind of evidence against vast NBA conspiracies when in fact it's almost the complete opposite (as in, if the League was so powerful how could get suckered by a mouthy Irish guy from Philly and a couple of scheming bookies?).

Honestly, at this point the Stern-led conspiracies seem like belief in a higher power, e.g. impossible to prove or disprove with facts and reason. I guess I feel like the burden of proof is on those who ardently claim that tampering exists. Maybe I'm just naive. Either way, thanks for another great read about a bizarre and fascinating slice of the NBA's heritage.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
josh -- Don't forget Sherman Douglas. He averaged 18 PPG and 10 APG and 50 percent shooting with the '91 Miami Heat, but he was nowhere near that good. The Celtics traded Brian Shaw to get Douglas...but only because Shaw undercut Bird in practice early into the 1991-92 season and reinjured Bird's surgically repaired back. ANYway...

No, I have that Game 6 too. The Knicks got away with being extra physical with the C's, but that was good old 80s playoff basketball.

I'd also love to see Hondo's last game.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
padraig -- I seriously doubt Stern had anything to do with fixing Game 6. The Lakers went on a 46-24 run, but they were a team that was fully capable of doing that. And anyway, so Stern said that he wanted a Game 7 and it would be good for the what? He did, and it was. That doesn't mean there was foul play. I find many of the things that have happened since to be much more sinister.

Assuming the NBA tries to manipulate games, I'm guessing they can't do anything overt. It would have to be subtle, like Bill Simmons suggestion that bad officiating crews get assigned to certain games, while good crews get assigned to others. Although that 2002 WCF Game 6 was so bad, I would think, after watching it again, that Stern IS fixing games. Ugh.

If anything, I think the Donaghy scandal will force Stern to improve officiating and will decrease the liklihood of ANY kind of fix going on from this point forward.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Don't forget that Shaw was a dick to them, anyway. Remember the 1989-1990 season contract holdout?

Thanks for pointing out Douglas, forgot about him. He was horrid on the Celtics...And well...everwhere but Miami. :P

Got the Knicks DVD, ehh? ;). Yeah that thing is a godsend, only problems are that the comeback vs. Milwaukee from the early 70's isn't in there, and Patrick Ewing's first game isn't, either. Would've loved to have seen that Game 5 of the 1990 First Round, too. Ewing's only playoff three pointer...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I did watch Game 6 of the 84 Finals recently. You mention the 35-17 discrepancy from the line down the stretch after the C's were up 11 with 16 mins left in the game.

But the truth is the entire game was horribly officiated. They literally called like 2 ghost fouls on McHale in the early going.

It was like an early version of the Kings, Lakers Game 6 in 02. From start to finish, there were a lot of bad calls that went in the Lakers favor.

It was so bad, that I think the C's who played much better that game; would have probably won the game by 20-30 with decent officiating.

Anonymous scott said...
i've been a Celtic since the 60's - courted with them for years on those sunday afternoon ABC games and then fell head-over-heels for them during the 1969 title run.

the 1984 playoffs were maddening, but of course ended great with Boston taking the Finals in 7 games.

the Knicks series was almost better than the Finals and i remember that game 6 at MSG - i kept waiting for the Celts to win one in NY and get out of there before they got too beat up for the rest of the playoffs, but that series may have toughened them up enough to overcome the Lakers in the finals.

Boston just looked dead after the game 3 blowout loss against LA. i've heard Pat Riley talk about sitting in his office the next day while Boston was practicing and he said they were cussing and yelling at each other and that the practice evidently was very physical - go them ready to turn the series around in game 4 - which was one of the greatest Celtic wins in playoff history - and that's saying a lot.

people always talk about Michael Jordan "willing" the Bulls to playoff wins - whatever. if any player ever willed his team to a championship, it was Larry Bird in games 4 & 5 in 1984. the mental toughness it took to win game 4 still is beyond me - Boston was down 5 points with under a minute left in the game and got it to overtime before Bird buried the Lakers with that little turn- around in Magic's face in OT.

people forget, but game 7 was really won more by Max in the 1st half and Robert Parish's domination of the 3d quarter while Bird rested on the bench. Parish was a monster on the boards in that game and just killed the Lakers all night.

Great Memories !!

Blogger herb said...
Was watching an NBA special on Bird and Magic last night. Magic made a couple of 'boneheaded' moves in two games, both of which resulted in Laker losses that tied the series. I couldn't help but wonder a bit.