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This date in Celtic history restarted the Boston/LA rivalry with the memorable Bird vs. Johnson rookie battles 35 years ago

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Boston was on top most of the way in the rematch, but a huge LA third quarter run led to a thrilling finish - and began the rivalry that helped revive the NBA

USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, December 28, 1979, the storied Boston vs. Los Angeles rivalry started a new and spectacular chapter that would help save a league struggling mightily to survive.


The classic battle lines between the NBA's bellwether franchises drew great renewed interest when super-rookies Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson met for the first time as pros since their ballyhooed 1979 NCAA championship game battle over eight months earlier in Utah.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dave Cowens had been heated combatants throughout much of the 1970's, but their intense pivot battle was now the undercard in the league's newest mano a mano super-rivalry as the so-called "me" decade drew to a close.

A sell-out crowd packed the normally blase Forum for the much-anticipated first matchup, and they went away happy. The contest did not go well for the Celtics, who came up decisive 123-105 losers to fall to a league-best 28-9.

Bird had led the Celtics, who won just 29 games the entire previous season, to an incredible turnaround and an eventual 32-game improvement, but the Indiana State superstar played to mixed reviews in his first meeting with Johnson's Lakers.

Larry tallied 16 points while Johnson led all players with 23 markers in the convincing LA 18-point win. Cowens, plagued by foul trouble, fouled out with just four points while Jabbar was held to 15.

Late in that game, buddies Bird and Rick Robey sandwiched Johnson and fouled him hard on a drive into the lane, nearly knocking him down while exacerbating the bad blood that already existed. 

In addition to the Laker/Celtic enmity, Robey's Kentucky team had eliminated Johnson and Michigan State in the 1978 NCAA elite eight round en route to the national crown. Freshman Johnson played poorly in that game, making six turnovers and shooting just 2-10 in the 52-49 Spartan loss to the Wildcats.

A year later, his club took out Bird and the Sycamores in the most-watched basketball game ever, a 75-64 Spartan national title victory.

So on January 13, 1980, 16 days after their first pro meeting, the hungry Bird and his Celtics sought revenge in a Sunday afternoon thriller televised nationally by CBS at the Boston Garden, where the Celtics were 18-1. For weeks CBS promoted the showdown heavily, with a commercial that asked "can Magic pull a Bird out of his hat?"

Of course today constant ESPN and ABC cross-promoting, along with the Internet and social media, would lift the mid-season meeting into virtual cause celebre status. Not so secretly, the NBA and CBS hoped the two rivals and the most tradition-rich franchises in league histoy would meet again in the championship series that spring. 

Due to a recent change in scheduling aimed at cutting down on travel, eastern conference teams would play the western squads only twice a season instead of four times, limiting the marquee Laker/Celtic meetings to just two per season - unless they met in the Finals.

By the time the anticipated regular season rematch rolled around, Boston came into the showdown sporting a league-best 32-10 record under new coach Bill Fitch, already surpassing their win total from the previous campaign. 

Meanwhile, the 76ers (31-11), defending champion Seattle (32-13) and Lakers (30-15) were not far behind. The Celtics had won four of five since the loss in LA, while the Lakers had gone 3-2.

The handshakes were mostly grim and tense before the opening tip-off. Spencer Haywood went out of his way to extend a friendly handshake to Bird. Larry shook hands with Jamaal Wilkes, then wiped his hands on the bottom of both sneakers before shaking respectfully with Jabbar. 

But notably, even though they stood no more than five feet apart, Bird did not shake hands with Johnson, as neither one approached the other. Johnson even looked away from his rival nervously, then back toward Bird, but Larry never even looked at his nemesis.

The Laker rookie had injured his groin during a 123-100 win at hapless Detroit in his return to Michigan two nights earlier, and was largely ineffective in the much-anticipated contest.

The power-leaping 6-8.5 Cowens out-jumped the 7-2 Abdul-Jabbar for the opening tip, but it went to Haywood and Kareem scored the first basket on a short hook. 

Moving quickly without the ball at the other end, a slender Bird flared out on the deep left wing, took a Chris Ford pass and immediately swished a perfectly-arched 20-footer over former UCLA great Wilkes.

Moments later Bird drove the left baseline and when he drew several defenders, cleverly dished a double-clutch no-look pass back over his shoulder to an open Cowens.

Dave appeared surprised by the deft dish and as a result, missed a short jumper badly. But Nate Archibald lifted Boston to an early lead with a circle jumper off a fast break, and another open shot from out top off a good feed from Cowens. Next, Nate split a pair of foul shots.

Bird then swished a quick release jumper from the right elbow between defenders Johnson and Wilkes. On defense, he hustled over to help and partially blocked a Johnson layup, triggering a fast break that Ford subsequently finished with a layup for an 11-4 bulge.

It is important to remember that in the early 1980's under Fitch, the Celtics were a running team.

Moments later, Larry head faked the heady Wilkes off his feet and drove past him down the right baseline. "Bird feels it," CBS play by play man Brent Musburger smartly surmised. As the long-armed 6-8 Haywood came over to help, Bird jumped off one foot and swished a tough runner from 10 feet right over the former Seattle All-Star. 

"Boy, what a future for Larry Bird...that's the toughest shot in basketball, going right at the basket without the glass, but he dropped it in like he makes them every day," said an admiring Hot Rod Hundley from his CBS analyst perch courtside.

Moments later, Bird rebounded a Haywood miss and quickly out-letted a pass to Archibald. Nate found Cedric Maxwell who converted a transition layup for a 15-6 lead, prompting an LA timeout.

An unusually exuberant Bird tried to give Maxwell a hug, but Cornbread shrugged the rookie off. Larry's atypical excitement showed how keyed up he was to get a chance at beating Johnson.

"That's the enthusiasm of the Boston Celtics," exclaimed Hundley. "The Boston Celtics are back, make no mistake about it," intoned Musburger as the fans cheered wildly.

Laker guard Norm Nixon drove the lane for a three-point play. Bird then led the break, dribbling behind his back near midcourt before passing over his shoulder to Ford. But Chris threw it away, leading to an easy Laker transition basket.

"It's nice to watch two highly-touted rookies come into the league who feature passing," observed Musburger. "Unselfish athletes...it's contagious."

Cowens drained a right side 17-footer created by Bird penetration. Larry then stole a Jabbar pass which led to a pair of Maxwell foul shots. He was everywhere, playing with great intensity.

A patented jump hook in transition by Cowens built the lead to 21-11. Jim Chones came in for LA and drilled a foul line jumper, but Cowens drove past the slower 6-11 ex-Cavalier for a pretty running hook.

Jabbar scored a hook of his own off the right baseline, his favorite spot. Chones banked in a left side transition shot. Young Laker defensive ace Michael Cooper came in to try and cool off Bird, who had made all three of his shots.

Three Boston foul shots and a driving layin by M.L. Carr were offset by two Jabbar baskets. A left-handed behind the back pass by Bird helped lead to an open 19-foot bucket by Cowens.

The redhead then swished an 18-footer from the circle as the trsiler in transition. Archibald converted a fast break layup to give Boston a 34-21 lead after one period of play. The Celtics shot a blistering 14 of 22 from the field (63 percent) while LA made just nine of 22 shots.

Bird fouled Johnson on the head during a drive down the lane, and Earvin split the free throws. Kareem then converted a rare bank hook shot. 

Cowens banked in a pretty turnaround shot over Haywood, who answered with a lane jumper. A pretty back-handed pass by Bird to a fast-breaking Don Chaney resulted in a Laker goaltending call. 

Chaney, in his final season, holds the distinction of being the only Celtic to play with Bill Russell (in his final season), and with Larry Legend.

Cooper converted a hanging putback inside. Bird then circled around Carr out top and took a fine M.L. bounce pass in stride for a gorgeous layin.

Haywood came up with a fine block of a Chaney drive and Johnson passed well to Cooper, who finished the break with a big slam. Haywood, turning back the clock, then blocked a Maxwell fast break layup as Cooper crashed into the stands.

Jabbar's follow of his own miss pulled LA within nine but Gerald Henderson swished a tough baseline runner for a 44-33 lead near the midway point of the second stanza.

Maxwell made a layin off a nice Carr post entry pass, but Wilkes went backdoor for a conventional three-point play. Henderson drilled a jumper from the circle and moments later, a cherry-picking Jabbar got an easy stuff that drew boos from the sold-out Garden crowd.

Haywood followed his own miss to inch within 48-40. Yet an aggressive Robey crammed in a stuff over Kareem off a nice Maxwell pass. Bird and Cowens re-entered the game. Larry immediately drove the left baseline and drilled a pull-up 17-footer over Wilkes and Nixon in front of the Laker bench.

Cowens made a layup off a fine Archibald bounce pass in transition for a 54-40 margin. Ford canned a long two-pointer. Bird rebounded a Nixon miss and tossed a perfect lead pass to Ford, but Cooper swooped in and blocked his driving layup try.

Another Laker block led to a Wilkes fast break layin as LA crept to 54-47. Bird nailed a right baseline 17-footer from Ford to remain perfect from the field. Maxwell scored inside but Kareem scored easily off a lob.

Archibald canned two foul shots but Cooper drained a right wing 22-footer at the buzzer to cut the deficit to 11 at the break.

Bird shot a perfect 6-for-6 from the field in the first half. For being so hot, he didn't even shoot much and unselfishly passed up some decent looks. He wowed the crowd with at least six tremendous passes while also grabbing six rebounds.

By comparison, the hobbled Johnson was almost a non-factor. Once when challenged by the veteran Cowens on a switch, he appeared intimidated and passed up an open 15-footer, throwing the ball out of bounds in a panic. He put both hands on his head after the turnover in dismay.

As the teams came out to start the second half, Bird patted Jabbar on the leg as he walked by him and an impressed Kareem reached back with a friendly return slap on Larry's chest, two great hoop warriors acknowledging each other.

Cowens tossed in a jump hook but Jabbar answered with a baseline turnaround after flashing his elbows near the face of Dave on a rip through. Ford drilled a right wing 18-footer for a 67-53 lead, but it was to be the last Boston basket for quite a while.

Because then the Lakers blitzed the Celts with an unbelievable, game-changing 21-0 splurge. Boston missed three straight shots and Wilkes canned a pull-up jumper to start the spurt. 

Still, the Celtics appeared to be well on their way to evening the season series vs. LA 1-1 early in the third period. 

A pretty bank shot after a pass fake by Bird was called off for a foul prior to the shot, and then a Cowens miss that was tipped in by Maxwell was waved off wrongly for offensive goal-tending.

Wilkes made a layin and Jabbar bounced in a baseline turnaround to make it 67-59. The crowd started to sense a momentum shift and became uneasy. Kareem swung to the left baseline for his patented hook as the Celtics missed three more shots.

But then Larry managed to record a rare block of Jabbar's nearly unstoppable hook, swatting it away with his left hand as he rose up to shoot. Kareem was visibly surprised and angered by the rookie's unanticipated block.

Yet Boston missed a layup and an easy tip-in, and Chones answered by hitting from the baseline. 

When Bird got the ball on the right baseline moments later, he drove past his defender but Kareem loomed at the hoop, anxious to return the favor with a block of his own. Larry sensed this and tried to make the attempt a little too fancy while avoiding the swat. He looped up a driving flip shot from 10 feet out high off the glass over Jabbar's flailing arm. 

But even though he did not reject the shot, the 7-2 Laker's intimidating help defense had created the first miss of the game by Bird. He had forced Larry to shoot the ball a dribble too soon, making what would have been a five-foot runner off glass a much tougher shot from further out. 

Wilkes then nailed a left side pull-up jumper to pull LA within 67-65. Archibald missed an easy driving layup and two Nixon foul shots tied it. A pressing Nate left a 19-footer short, but Robey rebounded. As he went up for the stuff, Johnson stripped him cleanly.

Chones put LA ahead for the first time since it was 2-0 with a shot over Maxwell. Max then misfired for Boston's 13th miss in a row. Bird tried to stop the slide, but his left corner trey try was just long and Chones made a running hook shot three-point play for a 72-67 Laker lead. 

Rookie Bird certainly was not getting any star treatment as it appeared he at most barely brushed Chones on the running hook.

Robey missed a lefty hook and Wilkes swished a left baseline jumper to make it 74-67 with 2:33 left in the period. "Silk" fired in eight points and Chones scored seven in the momentum-changing flurry. 

Boston, cooling off in costly fashion after building a big lead, missed 14 straight shots and 20 of their first 22 tries in the third quarter, and LA's lethal transition game turned the misses into quick, easy points.

The Celtics somehow went scoreless for 7:46. The Lakers led by seven despite having been completely outplayed over the first 26 minutes. It was a testament to how explosive LA could be on offense. 
Finally, Archibald's off-balance lane banker stopped the bleeding. Then, Robey finished an aggressive power layup move down the right baseline.

A Jabbar foul shot was followed by a Chones fast break layin. But Ford drained a right wing triple with four seconds left to pull Boston within 77-74 heading to the final quarter. 

It was the 12th consecutive game where Ford had hit at least one trifecta in the first year the rule was in effect. The eight-year veteran sank the first trifecta in league history, and ended up third in the NBA in three-pointers made that season with 70 triples on 43 percent accuracy. 

Only former ABA players Brian Taylor and Rick Barry canned more treys that year than Ford.

Haywood slammed in a one-handed transition dunk, but Carr converted a pretty driving reverse layup. Ford drove the lane and swished a pretty floater and Cowens then nailed a pull-up shot to put Boston back on top, 80-79.

Cowens rejected a Cooper drive, but Chones returned the favor by stuffing a Robey dunk attempt. Amazingly, after his perfect start, Bird had taken just two official shots in the second half. Wilkes canned a long jumper as Larry watched from the bench.

Robey's hustling stickback put Boston in front. Chones hit yet again from 16 feet. Robey was fouled and split a pair to tie it up. Ford's drive was blocked by Kareem, who was fouled on the rebound and canned both shots.

Carr tied it once more on an outside shot, 85-85. Jabbar made a baseline hook over Robey yet Henderson sank a 13-footer off a Cowens assist. 

Cooper intercepted a bad Cowens outlet and fed Kareem for a baseline jumper. Cowens missed a jumper and Haywood splashed a left side jumper for a 91-87 Laker lead with about five minutes to go.

Bird finally checked back into the game after a lengthy rest, but Boston only had one timeout left. Larry immediately swished a long corner fadeaway shot, but Maxwell was called for a charging foul on the pass to negate the basket as coach Fitch voiced his displeasure loudly.

Bird then faked a right corner trey, drove and made the same tough baseline runner he had sunk in the first half. Next, Bird came up with a rebound in traffic and started a break that culminated in a tying Maxwell stuff with four minutes to go.

Jabbar put LA back on top 93-91 by muscling across the lane to knock down a rolling hook into the lane. At the other end, Larry left a tough turnaround baseline jumper short against Cooper as Haywood came over to help. 

Fitch, still upset about the charge, complained to official Ed Rush that Bird was fouled by Haywood on the miss and was slapped with a technical foul, which Nixon converted.

As Jabbar turned for a hook and under the hoop, Wilkes pushed Bird hard in the back in the lane. Larry returned the shove and grabbed the missed hook, but was called for pushing off on Wilkes as the refs caught the retaliation and the crowd booed. 

Perhaps to punish Fitch further, Cowens was next called for a foul by Rush after Jabbar had clearly pushed him off with a shoulder and elbow to gain low post position. The calls were definitely going against Boston, even in the Garden, and the unhappy throng voiced its displeasure even more loudly.

With both hands held out toward Rush, Big Red pled his case to the referee, to no avail. Cowens continued to bark at Rush as Jabbar hit both free throws for a five-point bulge.

Bird found a wide-open Ford with a nice pass, but he missed a wide-open 14-footer and Jabbar rebounded. At the other end, silent assassin Wilkes calmly drained a right corner shot for a 98-91 cushion. Boston took its last timeout with 2:12 remaining.

"It has been a stirring comeback by Los Angeles," said Musburger.

Archibald drove the lane, drew the defense and fed Cowens for a layup. Jabbar missed a short jumper, Dave rebounded and Nate drew a foul. However, he made only one of three at the line (due to the old three-to-make two rule in effect for the penalty at the time) with 85 ticks to go.

Bird forced a steal that Carr came up with but as he sped upcourt on a potential two-on-one fast break, a 24-second violation was called to stop the break, causing more Celtic complaints. 

Yet Archibald found Cowens open, and Dave came up big by swishing a right side 17-foot jumper with 49 seconds left. His shot inched the hosts within 98-96 as the crowd began to roar.

Cowens battled Kareem hard for position and helped force his baseline hook to rim out. Bird came up with a tough defensive rebound and pushed the ball up the left side of the court hard on the dribble, showing speed that he wasn't supposed to possess but did before injuries set in mid-career. 

He then dished off to Maxwell on the left wing, who dodged Nixon and tossed in a difficult, wrong-footed layup straight over Haywood and Cooper, two fine shot-blockers.

Maxwell's tough baseline floater in transition had tied it 98-all, capping a 7-0 run. Clearly the momentum had shifted back to Boston with the crowd going crazy, but with only 21 seconds left that favored LA, especially since they had the ball.

The Lakers called timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt and to quell the momentum and crowd. Interim head coach Paul Westhead drew up a play to take advantage of the weakest Celtic defender, telling them to start looking for the shot with six seconds left as the huddle broke.

In another related piece of drama, assistant Westhead had replaced his friend and head coach Jack McKinney 14 games into that season when McKinney suffered severe head injuries and went into a coma in a bike accident. When McKinney finally recovered, the Laker brass decided to stick with young Shakespearean scholar Westhead, despite a 10-4 start under McKinney. 

On paper, it turned out well as LA went 50-18 under Westhead and went on to win the championship. But the decision left hard feelings between McKinney, Westhead and the Lakers. Ironically, LA ended up firing Westhead several games into the 1981-82 season because of a conflict with Johnson.

When play resumed, the Lakers got the ball in bounds against a Celtic tolen press to Nixon and Boston backed off, allowing him to bring the ball up easily.

LA isolated the speedy, younger Nixon on the defensively-challenged Archibald by putting the other four Lakers all near the baseline in a 1-4 formation. One might question why Fitch, normally a solid strategist, did not have Gerald Henderson in the game to guard Nixon.

As it turned out, Archibald did not do a bad job on Nixon and forced him left toward the elbow. But with no defensive help nearby, as Norm rose to shoot Nate reached in and stripped the ball. Yet he was called for a foul on Norm's patented turnaround mid-range jumper with just three seconds to go.

With the crowd hooting loudly, Nixon's first pressure foul shot hit the rim and backboard before falling through, and he pumped his arm in celebration. He made the second foul shot cleanly to put LA ahead 100-98. 

With no timeouts left, Boston was unable to advance the ball to halfcourt. Bird grabbed the ball, jumped out of bounds and faked a long pass over Haywood. He then threw the ball quickly in-bounds to Archibald beyond the foul line. 

But the act of taking the ball out effectively removed the clutch outside shooter from any chance of taking the last second shot.

Nate pushed the ball upcourt quickly and as he neared the three-point line, passed to his left to Cowens, who was spotted up open on the deep left wing, his feet just inside the three-point line.

Cowens, who made just one triple all season, quickly fired a long bomb at the buzzer and just got it off before the horn. The 22-foot shot was on line and straight, and appeared to be headed for the bottom of the net, which would fittingly force overtime in the epic battle. 

But the long launch carried just long and bounced off the back far side of the rim, then bounded high into the air and down to Carr. M.L. dunked it home hard in frustration well after the buzzer, shaking the backboard.

It was similar to a much tougher to swallow buzzer miss by Bird seven years later in game four of the 1987 Finals vs. LA, albeit from the other end of the court. It also showed that in 1980, Larry was not the automatic Celtic go-to guy for the last shot, as he would become in the future. 

Hands on hips after the miss, Cowens slowly trudged off the floor in dejection, kicking the parquet with his left leg as he reached the tunnel leading toward the locker room.

Jabbar led all players with 33 points. The underrated Wilkes contributed 21 markers and Chones added 15 big points off the bench with nearly perfect mid-range shooting against his former Cavalier coach. 

Johnson did not even make a basket and scored a mere one point, the lowest output of his rookie season.

Cowens topped Boston with 22 points on 11 baskets. After his red-hot start, Bird ended up with just 14 points as puzzlingly, he barely shot in the second half. 

He would have had 18 points if two baskets he made had not been waved off in the second half on questionable calls. He was the game's top rebounder as well. But neither he or Cowens even shot a single foul shot.

In addition, the wrongful foul on Cowens when jockeying for position and the technical also gave LA three free throws. Looking back, other than the incredible 21-0 Laker run, it was hard to understand how Boston had lost since they controlled the other 40 minutes of play.

LA had come up with several spectacular extra-effort blocks that probably cost Boston 10-12 points, but the Celtic inability to get the ball to a white-hot Bird also was costly, as were the bad calls. After scoring 62 points in the first half, Boston tallied just 36 after intermission.

Maxwell and Archibald each added 13 points, while Ford tallied 11, including the game's only three-pointer. 

Amazingly, LA would make just 20 triples all year and a grand total of ZERO treys in their six-game championship series win over the 76ers four months later.

The difficult defeat could not blamed just on bad luck, the big run and bad calls. Poor foul shooting also cost Boston dearly as the Celtics missed 10 of 23 at the charity stripe. 

Archibald, an 83 percent foul shooter that season, was the main culprit as he sank just five of 10. LA converted 18 of its 22 free throws to make up for a one-basket deficit in the close contest.

Even though Johnson was ineffective due to injury and Bird was somehow ignored down the stretch by veteran teammates, the showdown was still an exciting start to the personal and team rivalry that rejuvenated the NBA throughout the 1980's. 

Although the Celtics lost a battle they should have won, the nationally-televised barnburner was just a harbinger of many thrilling Laker/Celtic contests that decade which re-ignited great interest in a flagging league, perhaps even saving the NBA.


If you wish to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.