June 8, 1987
UNSTOPPABLE? NOT SO FAST
They were in the strangest of positions. They were straight men and character actors, back-up singers to the stars. Window dressing. The Boston Celtics were the defending basketball champions of the world but somehow they had become so much window dressing.
"Had you ever seen so many negatives attached to this team?" guard Jerry Sichting was asked after the Celtics had changed a lot of those negatives to positives with a 109-103 win in the third game of these best-of-seven NBA Finals at the Garden.
"Not since I've been here," Sichting replied.
The series was finished. The Celtics were done. Or vice-versa. The CBS television network already had scheduled a meeting on Monday to decide how the presentation of the championship Podoloff Trophy could best be held in the tiny visitors locker room. The Lakers were too good. The Celtics were too slow, too tired, too damn hurt. No chance. They were drowning.
"Not really drowning," star forward Larry Bird replied. "Nothing feels that bad. Because I almost drowned once. I came back up for that gasp of air and there's no feeling like that."
OK, maybe this wasn't as serious as actually drowning -- 7-year-old Larry Bird in trouble in the middle of an Indiana lake, saved by an older brother as his mother laughs because she thinks the two kids are clowning -- but this definitely was a last-gasp time. The Celtics had been destroyed twice in Los Angeles. What was to stop them from being destroyed two more times in a row?
This Lakers team was the greatest team of all time. Or could be. Or should be. Something like that. If a man could read a Los Angeles newspaper or listen to a Los Angeles drive-time disc jockey, he would know that fact. Bring these Lakers into your dirt farm and they could find water, plant crops and have the largest cabbage in the county ready in time for the state fair. They could do anything. They could score from the inside, the outside, from upside-down. They could not be stopped.
"You can tell yourself that you're not going to listen to all the nice things people are saying and you can guard against it, but still sometimes reality has to come and slap you in the face before you can do it," Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley, who had worried about all the talk, said. "If you could make your players blind and deaf for the three days between games it wouldn't hurt sometimes."
The best encouragement the Celtics players received was "you guys won't let 'em sweep you, you're too good for that." Even the stories about the mystique of the Garden seemed tired and old. Yeah, the leprechaun. Yeah, the ghosts. Yeah, the crowd and the dead spots on the parquet floor and the banners on the ceiling. Yeah, yeah, yeah. How many times can votive candles be lit and prayers answered? This seemed to be asking too much.
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas had made the team 3 1/2-point underdogs at home. When was the last time that had happened? When Sidney Wicks was playing? Or was it Fat Freddy Scolari? This was science fiction, wasn't it? The Celtics never were underdogs at home.
"We're under a dark cloud," coach K.C. Jones had admitted on the evening news.
"What do you do now?" the reporter asked.
"Hope that it doesn't start raining," the coach said.
There seemed to be no place to attack the problem. The Lakers seemed too hot to touch anywhere. A kettle on the stove. Bubbling. Uncontrollable. There were none of those little stories about "if we double James Worthy, then we give up this and if we give up this, we can pick up that." Nothing. There almost didn't seem to be a strategical hope. How do you stop a tornado that comes down Main Street? Don't you simply go to the root cellar and come out later to see if the roof still is on the house?
The Lakers seemed to have every feature of the Celtics' game covered. The Celtics didn't seem to know where to begin.
"I think now we have some ideas," Larry Bird said. "I think in this game we were able to win and learn at the same time. Those other two games, they were so far out of control, we couldn't study anything. I think this game was a game you could study."
What happened? There was a sense as the game started that the people in the stands were terrified. They believed what they read and heard. They believed what their late-night television showed them from the West Coast.
The building was dead for the first few minutes. The air had been sucked in by 14,890 nervous customers and swallowed. The search was for dignity more than a championship. Death with honor. Bird noticed the strange feeling. The other players noticed the strange feeling. They never had seen the crowd this way.
"This was a very big game for the organization and the crowd was just out for a Sunday stroll," Bird said. "Until they realized we could win this thing. Then they got into it and so did we."
What happened? Greg Kite was a star with zero points and James Worthy was human with 13. The Celtics' guards were hitting every shot they took. The Lakers had two starters who combined for 6 points. One thing led to another. What happened? Wasn't this supposed to be a romp, a roll, a grand Los Angeles giggle, two games and home, an intermittent stop at Springfield to leave Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's goggles at the Hall of Fame? What happened? Wasn't this supposed to be easy for this visiting team of destiny? What happened?
"Did you have a sense the playoffs really had begun after those two games in LA?" Larry Bird was asked.
"No, I didn't," Bird replied. "This just didn't seem like a final playoff series to me."