Bird and Magic

Note: Thanks to Ryan R. for the graphic.

This is Part 8 of our The Worst of Celtics-Lakers series. This was the infamous "Lakers Revenge" series, where L.A. finally beat the Celtics in the Boston Garden no less. And I will now throw up in my mouth.

1985 NBA Finals

Be careful what you wish for: As noted in Part 7, Magic Johnson pretty much blew the '84 Finals with costly turnovers and missed freethrows. He became so depressed afterward that Kevin McHale started calling him "Tragic Johnson" and Larry Bird was gracious enough to openly invite another showdown with the Lakers in the Finals: "I'd like to give them the opportunity to redeem themselves. I'm sure they have guys who feel they didn't play up to their capabilities."

Cedric Maxwell: 1984-85 was not a good season for Cornbread Maxwell. First, he held out of training camp because of a contract dispute. Then, in February, he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and missed 25 games (which was, essentially, the rest of the regular season). When Maxwell finally returned for the playoffs, it was clear that he hadn't fully recovered, and some people in the Celtics organization -- Red Auerbach in particular -- felt that Max hadn't fully committed himself to rehabbing his knee. This enraged Auerbach, particularly since the team had given in and signed Max to a big contract extension after he had held out. To make matters worse, Cornbread openly sulked that he didn't get his starting job back (K.C. Jones decided to leave Kevin McHale, who had been on fire in Maxwell's absence, in the starting lineup). So between the subpar play and his attitude, Jones and the rest of the Celtics lost faith in the man who had taken them to the promised land in Game 7 of the '84 Finals...and he became firmly rooted to the useless Boston bench. (More on that later.)

Fun fact: Maxwell once said: "You know what I like to do in the offseason? I like to get in my big, fancy car, drive around to construction sites, and watch guys work. Then I roll down the window and say, 'Guess what boys? I got nothing to do today.'"

The new 2-3-2 format: The NBA, in collusion with CBS, had opted on a new 2-3-2 format for the NBA Finals. The company line was that the change was made to cut down on travel. This, of course, was complete and utter shenanigans. It was done for money, not to save the teams and media a few bucks on travel expenses. As Peter May explained: "CBS needed a series of at least six games to make a profit, and the chances of a six-game series were better with a 2-3-2 format." Proof positive that this decision was not made for basketball purposes: The format has remained 2-2-1-1-1 for every other playoff round. Anyway, the biggest problem with the revised format is that it forces the team with homecourt advantage to play Game 5 on the road. And most NBA experts and players -- and Larry Bird is prime among them -- feel strongly that Game 5 is the most pivotal game of any playoff series.

The Lakers in Game 1: This game has become known as The Memorial Day Massacre, and for good reason: The Celtics won it 148-114. Everybody on the Boston roster was on fire that day, particularly Scott Wedman who shot an NBA Finals record 11-for-11 from the field (including 4-for-4 from three-point range). As K.C. Jones put it: "It was one of those days where if you turn around and close your eyes, the ball's gonna go in." Meanwhile, Kareem was a complete loss: He found himself in early foul trouble, got embarrassed by Robert Parish (who repeatedly ran by the 38-year-old legend like it was a layup drill), and finished with only 12 points and 3 rebounds. (His performance was so bad that he personally apologized to Oh, and the Celtics owned a 63-43 advantage on the boards (Magic pulled down only 1 rebound; he had been averaging 7 RPG for the playoffs).

The Celtics in Game 2: They should have been ready. They should have realized that they wouldn't get all those extra points from Game 1. But they didn't. The Lakers fastbreaked their way to a 21-6 lead which they extended to 18 by halftime. Boston made a run to get back into it, but lost the game -- and homecourt advantage -- with a 109-102 loss. Larry Bird had 30 points and 12 rebounds, but shot only 9-for-21 and committed a team-high 5 turnovers. Dennis Johnson was 6-for-18. Cedric Maxwell was 0-for-1 and had zero rebounds in 11 minutes of lack-tion. Quinn Buckner had a two trillion. And Robert Parish, who sprained an ankle in the second quarter, was destroyed by Kareem (30 points, 17 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 blocks).

The Celtics in Game 3: As Hubie Brown would say, this game was "chippy" -- Boston reserve Ray Williams was tossed for punching Kurt Rambis and Bob McAdoo and Kevin McHale got double-technicals for roughing each other up. And, believe it or not, the Celtics were ahead 48-38 midway through the second quarter. That's when they got Showtimed. The Lakers went on a 27-11 run to end the half and continued pummeling Boston en route to a 136-111 arse-kicking. The Celtics shot 43 percent (compared to 54 percent for L.A.) and got pounded on the boards (63-48). Larry Bird shot 8-for-21, Dennis Johnson was 3-for-14 and Robert Parish (6-for-14) was once again handed his jock by Kareem (26 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks).

The Lakers, having learned a lesson from the Celtics' physical tactics in '84 were now bumping and hitting their foes at every opportunity. As Mitch Kupchak, who was then playing for L.A., put it: "All I did was bang in 1985." Lakers assistant coach David Wohl put the team's new "hit 'em hard and hit 'em often" tactic into the following perspective: "They keep stealing your lunch money and every day it's another quarter until you finally get fed up and whack him. Our guys are tired of having their lunch money taken away."

Since the Boston bench was non-existent (more on that later), the starters were getting worn down, leading McHale to complain: "They're beating us on the boards. They're beating us up." Bird, meanwhile, wanted to settle things in the Forum parking lot. "I don't know if the league is up for that, but the Celtics are." You'd think Larry would have had his fill of fighting by now (more on that later).

Larry Spriggs: He had a one trillion in the Lakers' 107-105 loss in Game 4.

K.C. Jones: He had been playing the hell out of the starters all series, and he did it again in Game 5. Dennis Johnson played all 48 minutes, Kevin McHale played 46, Larry Bird and Robert Parish both played 44. Only two players got off the Boston bench: Scott Wedman (19 minutes) and Cedric Maxwell (1 rebound and 1 foul in 5 minutes). Meanwhile, he earned two technicals -- and an ejection -- for arguing with the officials. The Celtics, down by as many as 18, cut the lead to 4 on four different occasions during the final quarter but eventually succumbed 120-111. And the starters, to a man, looked absolutely and utterly spent.

Given the circumstances, Jones should have cut the team's losses and saved his starters for Game 6. But he didn't, and the team paid for it.

Fun fact: James Worthy was poked in the eye in Game 5, and the injury forced him to wear goggles in Game 6. He would go on to wear them for the rest of his career. Just in case you were wondering about that.

Johnny Most: The late, great Celtics radio man opened his Game 6 broadcast by telling everybody that Kurt Rambis had just crawled out of a sewer. Ah, you've gotta love a homer.

The Celtics in Game 6: [Insert the depressing music here.] By losing this game, the Celtics not only surrendered their title, they not only lost to the hated Lakers, they lost the championship series in the Boston Garden for the first time in franchise history. It was a dark day...a very dark day. Larry Bird scored 28 points, but he took 29 shots to do it (and he missed 17 of them). Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge were a combined 6-for-31. And Robert Parish (5-for-14) was once again demolished by the oldest man in the league (Kareem had 29 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists despite battling foul trouble all night and eventually fouling out). The game was actually tied 55-55 at halftime, but the Celtics ran out of gas in the second half, mostly because of...

The Boston bench: The Celtics starters played all but 26 of the 240 possible minutes in Game 6. Over the last two games, they played 430 of 480 minutes. Cedric Maxwell, M.L. Carr, Quinn Buckner, Ray Williams, and Carlos Clark didn't play a single minute in the final game. And the Boston starters played every single minute of the second half. But while the bench was Big Reason #2 that the Celtics failed in 1985, Big Reason #1 is...

Larry Bird: Larry won his second MVP in 1985. During the regular season, he averaged 28.7 PPG, 10.5 RPG and 6.6 APG while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Yet he went belly-up in the Finals, shooting 44 percent for the series (and only 42 percent after Boston's killer Game 1). Bird's shooting woes were credited to the outstanding defensive play of Michael Cooper (who after the previous year's Finals had taken video tapes of Bird on his family vacation), in addition to the Lakers solid anti-Bird defensive schemes. As David Wohl put it: "In 1985, we had three, maybe four guys on Larry. We wanted to pressure him all the time. We wanted to deny him the ball, just make him work to even catch it. I think we were more relentless in that series, and in the last two games I think it caught up with them."

And while all that is true, there's more to the story.

Bird started the playoffs on fire and was averaging 30 points (on 50+ percent shooting) and 10 rebounds up until Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. That's when Larry's production really began to fall off. He then averaged 16 PPG and 6.3 RPG for the rest of that series and only 23 PPG and 8 RPG in the Finals. So...what happened?

Larry was already struggling with existing back and elbow injuries when he showed up to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a heavily bandaged right index finger (this, by the way, was the same finger that had been mangled in a college softball game before Larry's rookie season). The injury hadn't occurred in a game and nobody within the Celtics organization would comment on it. And while the press sort of left it alone until after the playoffs, it became a three-ring media circus over the summer (well, in Boston, anyway). The story ran in both the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe. And here are as many of the facts as may ever be known (since Larry himself has chosen to never publicly discuss it):

On May 16, 1985 -- the off-day between Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals -- Larry, Quinn Buckner and Larry's friend Nick Harris went to a Boston bar named Chelsea's. At some point in the evening, Larry got into a fight with a man named Mike Harlow (who was a bartender from a nearby bar named Little Rascals and a former college football player) in an alley next to Chelsea's. During fight, Larry knocked Harlow the hell out and injured his right index finger.

Now, there are two versions of why the fight took place. In version one, Larry's friend Harris had been beaten up by Harlow (allegedly for repeatedly hitting on Harlow's girlfriend) and Larry came to Harris' five-fingered rescue. In version two, Larry made the advances on Harlow's girlfriend and that was why the two men fought (although that story didn't explain why Harris got beaten up first).

Either way, Harlow was hurt badly enough (or pretended to be hurt badly enough) to be admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital after the fight. He then filed a lawsuit against Larry. But before it went to trial, and out-of-court settlement was reached (for somewhere between $15,000 and $21,000) and the documents were sealed.

The fact that this happened while Larry was hanging out with Harris wasn't a big surprise. According to the Boston Herald, Harris (then a 39-year-old used car salesman) had previously been convicted for selling drugs, fixing odometers, and "fraudulent bookkeeping." The Celtics didn't want Larry hanging out with his shady buddy, and they had even asked the Massachusetts State Police to run a background check on Harris (the Celtics denied this, although the state police confirmed it). It was also reported that the Celtics had specifically asked Larry to end his friendship with Harris and Larry refused (though both parties denied it), while Bird's agent, Bob Woolf, "literally begged" Larry's close friends to convince Larry to ditch Harris. Eventually, after the Finals, Larry did so.

So yeah, the Lakers played great and the Boston bench sucked. But it is also quite possible -- even probable -- that Larry Bird cost the Celtics the 1985 NBA championship.

Even more sour grapes: Kevin McHale remained convinced that the Celtics should have won it all in '85. And years later he was still talking about it. "We had a better team than they did that year. Max got hurt and everything, but they came to the Garden not thinking they could be us in that sixth game, no way. We had played like crap. We shot the ball poorly. If we had played well that sixth game, I'm not sure they'd have showed up for the seventh game. They were a great team and all, but they did not believe at that point that they could beat us. That was a turning point for them." Uh, sure, Kevin. Whatever you say.

Jerry Buss and Pat Riley, quote machines: After the game, Buss told Brent Musburger: "This trophy removes the most odious sentence in the English Language. It can never be said again that 'the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics.'" Riley added: "They can no longer mock us as they did a year ago." I will now throw up in my mouth again...

Sources:, Wikipedia,, 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 this awesome Web site that has box scores for every NBA Finals through 2003.

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Blogger 80's NBA said...
"All I did was bang in 1985."

Are you sure it was Mitch Kupchak who said that, and not Magic Johnson?

Anonymous Anonymous said...
i'd like to thank you for using a lot of time finishing these pieces - which are truly remarkable considering that they happened ages ago.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'm not one to usually complain about refereeing, but that was ridiculously unfair. 38-10 advantage to Boston at the line? Boston got a gift. Both teams were playing pretty physical and aggressively, so the calls need to be equal. Crap

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Great series but you should have said more about Game 4. It was hands down the most competitive NBA game I have ever seen. Lead changes all game long, both teams shooting lights out in half court sets and never more than a 4 point lead for either team. And DJ drains a 20 footer with no time left to win it.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Sounds like you guys are a bunch of whiners. Digging stuff up from 20 plus years ago, come on. Boston rules. It's their year, deal with it!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous Anonymous said...
on the bird fight..version 2 is correct...larry was hitting on "her", i want to keep her name out of it..harris jumped on harlow from behind as they walked out the front door ...that was his first mistake...harris's that harlow finished him off bird suckered him on top of the head...and yes he broke 2 fingers..and the only thing that stopped harlow from beatin the%%$$ out of bird is that larry wouldnt fight...he ran back inside,then out the back door....they say that there are 3 sides to every story...yours,mine and the truth...guess what side i know !!!