Magic & Larry Bird were the Epicenter of a 1980s Earthquake

November 8, 1991


Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the epicenter of the earthquake that shook the NBA in the 1980s.

Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics met three times in the NBA Finals, in 1984, '85 and '87. Magic's teams won the last two, but it was the first encounter, in 1984, that may have been the on-court shot of adrenaline the league needed to take the jump to "big time."

The series shattered previous TV ratings and, because of Bird and Johnson, rekindled the LA-Boston rivalry, which dominated the league for much of the decade. Last year Magic had pined for one more Boston-LA matchup, a Glory Days revisited, if you will. Both teams were playing  well and the Lakers made it. The Celtics did not. If it happens again, Magic won't be a part of it. The Lakers guard
retired yesterday.

Two Celtics guards who battled Magic in those memorable playoff series reflected on the player and the individual. Dennis  Johnson and Danny Ainge both went head-to-head with Johnson and both felt the better for it. Ainge said he still got a kick out of playing against Magic.

"It's the ultimate challenge for me. I love playing against him. I've said it before, but I think he's the best player of all time," Ainge said. "Maybe Michael Jordan will be, but Magic has been doing it for 12 years." Dennis Johnson said, "I've probably guarded Magic more than anyone in the league. And when you played against a guy like  him, you came away with a lot more than just basketball. The happiness. The adulation. And he never said a negative word about anyone."

Magic already had two rings, and Bird one, when the Celtics and Lakers met in the 1984 NBA Finals. It was a hugely anticipated matchup in that it had been five years in the making. Although both players entered the league in 1979, months after their memorable meeting in the NCAA final in Salt Lake City, the Lakers and Celtics somehow managed to avoid each other come playoff time until 1984.  Bird had taken Rookie of  the Year honors. Johnson had finished that season with his memorable 42-point, 15-rebound, 7-assist performance while playing all five positions in the Game 6 closer against the Sixers in the Spectrum.

The Celtics won the '84 series in seven games, and Magic spent a disconsolate summer trying to shed his unfamiliar image as series goat. There were three events in that series that led to the demythologizing of Magic, something that was as short-lived as it was utterly absurd.

In Game 2, the Lakers were in position to win, but Gerald Henderson stole a James Worthy pass and tied the game. The Lakers still had time for one last possession, but Magic dribbled out the clock before LA could get off a shot. Boston went on to win in overtime.

His second gaffe came in Game 4. He had two free throws that would have put the game away but missed both. The Celtics again went on to win in overtime. In Game 7, as the Lakers were making a comeback, Magic had the ball stolen at a critical time.

Revenge came a year later, but it was a series remembered mostly for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's performance. The Lakers won in six, and for the first time, Magic was on a world champion without being the playoff MVP. Johnson always was able to add weapons to his game. He became a 3-point threat. And because of his height, he developed an affinity for posting up smaller guards and learned the baby sky hook from Abdul-Jabbar.

That move came in handy in Game 4. The Lakers had crushed the ailing Celtics in the first two games and, save for Greg Kite, might have won Game 3. Boston built a double-digit lead into the third quarter in Game 4 and seemed destined to tie the series.

But Magic stepped forward. With the Celtics leading, 106-105, Johnson posted up and tossed in a baby hook from the lane. LA took a 3-1 lead and closed out the Celtics at home in Game 6.Johnson also had one dramatic game-winner against Boston in the regular season. The two teams met early in the 1987-88 season, and both were struggling. The Celtics had lost three of four, and LA was on an Eastern swing, having lost to  Cleveland.

Magic won the game for the Lakers at the buzzer with a banker off an inbounds pass. The Lakers then went on a 15-game winning binge and eventually won their second straight NBA title. Ainge was on all three Boston teams, as was DJ. Ainge ran into Johnson again last year in the Western Conference finals. "I felt we had a great team last year in Portland," Ainge said. "We won 63 games and we might have won a championship.

But Magic Johnson beat us. Magic Johnson has been the roadblock to a few championship rings for me. Game 4 in Los Angeles had been an epic - truly one of the great games in Celtics playoff history - and now the teams were arriving at Logan Airport late on a Thursday afternoon to find a very different Boston than the one they had left five days earlier

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 president 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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