The walk to the locker room was through the celebration. The tired faces had to cut through the sea of smiles.
Down a hallway. Past the line of mini-cams. Past the room where the champagne already was being opened. Through the celebrities -- look, there's Sammy Davis -- and around a corner. Past a television set.
"Hey, Celtics, take a look at this," a young guy shouted, pointing at the picture on the 21-inch screen yesterday afternoon, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar standing next to the National Basketball Association championship trophy.
"Shhhhhhh," a couple of Laker Girls, the cheerleaders for the Los Angeles Lakers, said. "That's not nice."
One by one the tired faces passed, single file, almost as if you were watching one of those World War II movies that shows all the characters in the gallant platoon one last time during the closing credits.
McHale . . . Parish . . . Bird . . . Ainge . . . Johnson . . . K.C. Jones. This was the end of the Boston Celtics' long-running story.
The dead end.
"This hurts," guard Dennis Johnson said, finally reaching the little visiting locker room at the Forum after the Celtics had been thumped, 106-93, by the Lakers in a sixth and closing game to determine the champions of the professional basketball world. "We can be proud of each other and proud of our accomplishments, but this hurts. No doubt about it."
There had been so much work -- the season extended by 23 playoff games, dragged all the way to the middle of June -- that there was an unreality to what had happened. Over? How can this be? These were the first dizzy steps after a long ride on the roller coaster. Over? What do you mean? Isn't there a seventh game Tuesday night for the entire NBA enchilada? What do you mean, "Over?"
"We shouldn't have been here," coach K.C. Jones said in his quiet voice. "That's the thing to remember. This rag-tag team with the broken feet. These guys fought, hustled, grabbed, sat on the floor, did everything they could do. That's the thing to remember."
The work had been so hard and so many people had done so many things that second prize did not seem to be enough. Oh, the Lakers deserved to be champions, running away to this clinching win in the second half, but the Celtics somehow did not deserve to be losers. They were, of course, losers, but the name seemed more harsh than it had to be. For this team.
Didn't these guys stay alive twice with wins in seventh games, situations where they either had to win or go home? Weren't two players playing with broken feet? How do you play basketball with broken feet? Wasn't there a new injury even on this final day, Danny Ainge's sprained ankle being taped and taped again so he could withstand the pain?
"You think about how it could have been," forward Kevin McHale, the owner of the most prominent broken foot, said. "You don't take anything away from the Lakers. You just wonder. What would we have done with a healthy Bill Walton, a 7-foot-3 guy off the bench who claims he's 6-11? What would we have done with Scott Wedman off the bench? What would we have done if everyone were healthy?
"I know for me, it was like three-quarters of the year went through in a breeze and then God said, 'Oh, no, I don't think basketball's supposed to be as easy as that.' I haven't been able to practice in a month. Two months. Haven't practiced once. Just shot and played the games. How much does that hurt?"
The Lakers were better. That was the final story. The Lakers were a lot better. That was the story at the beginning. The Celtics somehow pulled and yanked and prolonged this thing to a sixth game, scared Jack Nicholson half to death, and still are one Magic Johnson hook shot away from being tied, three games to three in the series. That somehow was the best story.
At least in Boston.
"I thought when you were retired, stuff like this wasn't supposed to hurt," M.L. Carr, the former Celtic, now on television, said as he sat at a locker stall. "Doesn't it just eat at you?"
This team somehow captured hearts and minds even better than last year's world championship team did. Underdogs. When have the Boston Celtics ever been underdogs? This was what they were here. There was a ragged look to this team. An endearing team. The Celtics of 1986 went exactly where they were supposed to go. The Celtics of 1987 went further than where they were supposed to go.
"I knew we'd be here in the finals against the Lakers," star forward Larry Bird said. "I somehow always knew that we'd be in the finals, even when we had those two seventh games."
"What did you think last year?" a reporter asked. "Did you think you'd be in the finals last year?"
"Last year I knew we'd win the world championship," Larry Bird said.
The final player left in the locker room, an hour after the game ended, was McHale. He somehow was the symbol of all this, wasn't he? The broken foot. The bruise under one eye. The man who decided to play when he didn't have to play. The man who will have his foot put in a cast in the next week and will hobble for the rest of the summer.
"What can we say?" he said as he stood to leave. "We gave it a good run. The run came up short."
A reporter pointed toward McHale's locker and told the player he had forgotten a sneaker. McHale looked and saw it was the sneaker for the left foot, his good foot.
"Maybe I should take it," he said. "That's the only shoe I'll probably be wearing for a while. Then again . . ."
He swung out the door, into the hallway still filled with noise and celebration and the smell of somebody else's champagne. End of story. Dead end. Kevin McHale's shoe still sat in his empty locker in the empty room.