June 9, 1986
Legends take root and grow on days like this one in the Boston Garden. Legends of heroism and legends of the opposite sort, too.
With his incineration of the Houston Rockets in the sixth and final game of the NBA finals, Larry Bird added another large page to the resume that he's amassing as the best all-around player in basketball history.
Simultaneously, Ralph Sampson gave more fuel to those who'd damn him as the most disappointing giant in the clutch since Wilt Chamberlain.
Legends, of course, bear only a shadowy relationship to reality. Sport feeds on the pleasure of exaggeration. Get on the right side of the myth-making machinery and it fuels your own self-esteem while granting a protective aura that daunts foes. Get on the wrong side for too long, however, and woe be unto you. Even if you don't come to believe in your own invisible flaws, others may. Then self-fulfilling prophecy begins.
Bird, with the most impregnable basketball arrogance since Bill Russell, hardly needed another coat of armor; now the 6-foot-9 Boston Celtic has another NBA playoff most valuable player trophy to put next to the three straight regular-season MVP awards he already owns.
Sampson, more stylist than warrior by nature, hardly needed more burdens. Now, after getting himself ejected in a humiliating, childish brawl with a 6-foot-1 Celtic in Game 5, he has another memory -- two points in the first 32 minutes as his team fell a hopeless 22 points behind. Talk about being naked before thine enemies.
Though raw numbers say that Bird is the best of his era, they still do not touch the core of his value -- especially on days like this 114-97 Celtics victory. His triple-double -- 29 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds -- seemed to require a recount. Certainly every column was a half-dozen short. Heck, Bird's averages for the 18 games of the playoffs are almost that good: 25.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.2 assists.
The Rockets' Jim Petersen was closer to the majority opinion when he said: "I've never seen anyone who could demoralize a whole team like he can. It's like he doesn't even need his teammates. It's just him, one on five, and he almost beats you singlehanded.
"It's the way he does it. Offensive rebound, go right to the corner, three-point shot, nothing but net. He gets you down and then breaks your back."
Normally, Bird doesn't play against the other team; he plays against the game of basketball. Not this time. Bird took this one personally; he played the Rockets. He wasn't a purist, he was a killer. So incensed was Bird over the Game 5 blowout in Houston, plus the unanswered punches Sampson laid on two Celtics, that, as Coach K.C. Jones said, "For the last two days, he's been the quietest man I ever saw."
Bird had decreed that penance and sacrifice were in order. Guard Dennis Johnson came forward and said to Jones, "Let me cover Robert Reid." And center Robert Parish, ashamed of his Game 5 sleepwalk, asked for Akeem Olajuwon.
D.J. and The Chief may have volunteered for KP duty, but nobody loves dirty work as much as Bird, the former French Lick garbage man. On a floor littered with 7-footers, Bird was the dominant rebounder -- in efficiency and violence. In floor burns, no one came close. Once, buried under Rockets, Bird screamed at his mates, "Why aren't you guys down here with me?" On defense, he picked the Twin Towers' pockets all day.
No matter what Sampson did, Bird had decreed it wouldn't be enough. But Sampson was in double jeopardy. No one knows how much all those signs bothered him. Numerous "Sampson is a Sissy" placards. Plus "Ralph, why don't you fight Marvin Hagler? He's more your size." And "Ralph, I'm 5-foot-2. You'd probably hit me, too." No one knows how much the sarcastic chants of "Shoot" and "We Want Ralph" bugged him as he withdrew further into his shell.
What indisputably hampered Sampson was the way Johnson got in Reid's jersey and rendered him null and void. "I took myself out of the offense. I don't know why. I'm mad at myself," said Reid. "I did the opposite of what I should have done. D.J. got to me and I couldn't get the ball to Ralph. We just didn't take care of Ralph today."
Ralph didn't take care of Ralph either. Kevin McHale used him all day for 29 in-your-face points. McHale's still the NBA's Mr. Underrated to Sampson's Mr. Overrated.
"The crowd didn't bother me," said Sampson. "You've got to lose before you win this thing. We are on the way to being the best." Many words but no further illumination.
"Some guys have to grow. Ralph's 7-4 so he doesn't have to get any bigger," said Houston Coach Bill Fitch. "He has to ripen emotionally. But he's come a long way in the three years."
By the time that McHale and Bill Walton, The Grateful UnDead Celtic, had embraced and high-fived themselves to exhaustion with the Celtics ahead by 30 and the Garden doing its earthquake imitation, there were few questions left to be answered. Only those concerning matters of legend.
Are these Celtics -- 67-15 in the regular season and 15-3 in the playoffs -- the greatest NBA team ever?
And is Bird the best who ever played?
Jones, at the risk of insulting old teammates, said, "This team is the best team I ever saw." And Red Auerbach, the first cause of all things green, offered, "This is one of the greatest, if not the greatest team I have ever been associated with."
Even Fitch offered that, "Walton, Bird and McHale are all going to end up in the Hall of Fame. This Celtic team is going to look even better in a few years after this Houston team does all that it's going to do."
Bird differed. Or rather, couldn't have cared less. "I got a lot of work to do this summer," he said. "We want to repeat."
If Bird and his teammates become the first team since the '60s to repeat as world champions, that will be time enough to undertake such long thoughts.
For now, let's just say that no living athlete in any sport gives us as much continual pleasure and never-ending surprise as Larry Bird.