Larry v. Magic: Postscript #3
For Boston was in the grip of a heat wave.
We're talking high 90s with accompanying East Coast humidity. Logan Airport was chaotic. There were cars and taxis everywhere. There were people sweating, babies crying, miserable, angry, and frustrated people all over. If you ever saw "The Year of Living Dangerously," you know what I'm talking about.
The traffic was such a mess that the state troopers would not allow the Laker bus to get near Terminal C. And that's when I saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson folding themselves into the same taxi, and never mind the idea of the presi dent and vice president flying on the same plane.
"This," I remember thinking, "is not exactly what those two had in mind."
It was the eve of Game 5 in that unforgettable 1984 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, and it was a pretty good prelude for the game that took place the following night.
It was to be a very important affair, Game 5, with the teams tied at two games apiece and feelings coming to a boil. The series could easily have been an LA sweep, but a lot had happened to change the tone of the series, most notably a vicious Kevin McHale takedown of Kurt Rambis in Game 4 that would have gotten him suspended for the duration today.
The weather snippet on the far right corner of the game-day Globe said, "Hazy, humid, low 90s," but that turned out to be an understatement. By mid-afternoon it was a record-setting 96, so everyone knew it was going to be a very interesting evening of basketball because the original Boston Garden did not have that newfangled thing known as air conditioning.
There were some hot nights in that old building over the years, but there was never one like the evening of June 8, 1984. The male fans wore shorts and short-sleeved shirts. The women wore, well, as little as possible. Halter tops proliferated. There was never a day or evening in the long history of that building when there was so much exposed skin.
CBS announced a game-time temperature of 97 degrees.
The Lakers did not like it, and Kareem disliked it most of all. He was 37, and fairly cranky to begin with, and playing a Finals game in 97-degree heat was not his idea of fun. He would shoot 7 for 25 and wind up sucking on oxygen (honest).
"I suggest you go to the local steam bath with all your clothes on," he said afterward. "First, try to do 100 push-ups. Then run back and forth for 48 minutes."
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."
He had just played 42 minutes in Kareem's sauna. He had scored 34 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and shot 15 for 20. He even blocked a James Worthy shot. The Celtics had won, 121-103, to take charge of a series they would win in seven, and the man deserving the first, second, and third stars was No. 33.
"The man who made the difference was Bird," acknowledged Lakers coach Pat Riley. "He was just awesome. He made everything work. He was the catalyst, and that's what happens when great players come to the front."
"I've never seen him 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.
"It was extremely hot; both teams were affected," said Riley. "But Boston showed up better than we did. I think the home crowd had something to do with that. It gave them some adrenaline."
Those great people just did what used to come so naturally. Wyc and Pags, get this: No over-the-top PA man. No ridiculously loud and unnecessary music. No Jumbotron to tell you when to cheer and how to react. No dancing girls. The fans created an atmosphere to remember all by themselves. People in those days actually knew how to cheer. They went to the game to see the game, not for a mini-concert, and not, Lord knows, to see themselves on a big screen.
On the night of June 8, 1984, 25 years ago tomorrow, we had an unscripted evening of serendipitous athletic joy. The Clippers will win a championship before we'll ever have the remotest chance of anything like it ever happening again.
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