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Revisiting and analyzing the Epic 1984 NBA Finals

How Larry Bird and the Celtics outlasted nemesis Earvin Johnson and the rival Lakers to win arguably the Greatest Championship Series Ever

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

By Professor Parquet

With ancient rivals Boston and Los Angeles recently playing a classic overtime contest, even though both fabled franchises are currently in rare rebuild mode at the same time, it brought back memories of the best battles between the two most successful clubs in league history.

The Celtics and Lakers have won 33 of the 68 NBA titles between them, and have met 12 times in the Finals, with Boston holding a 9-3 edge. Five of those title series went seven games, and almost all of them were memorable and even historic, in basketball terms, featuring several barnburner contests.

Game seven in the 1962 Finals went down to the final shot at the buzzer (a mid-range jumper missed by Laker guard Frank Selvy) before going to overtime, where Boston prevailed 110-107.

Earlier in game three of the same series, Laker legend Jerry West stole a pass and converted a driving layup at the buzzer for a 117-115 LA win. In game five, Elgin Baylor poured in a Finals record 61 points to pace the Lakers to a 126-121 upset victory at Boston.

Game seven in the memorable 1969 Finals was decided by a mere basket, aided by a fortunate bounce on a Don Nelson shot at Los Angeles in the swansong for Celtic legends Bill Russell and Sam Jones.

The trio of game four thrillers in the Boston vs. LA 1980's championship trilogy provided top-notch quality basketball and theater, and were easily the best battles in each of the three Bird vs. Johnson Finals.

Ironically, the road team captured each of those classics. Boston won 129-125 in 1984 in OT, and again in 1985 by a 107-105 count on a Dennis Johnson 21-footer just before the buzzer. In 1987, the Lakers rallied with the aid of some dubious officiating to survive a last-second desperation triple at the buzzer by Larry Bird, 107-106.

The 83-79 game seven slugfest in 2010, while not offensively artistic, was played at an incredible level of intensity and excitement reminiscent of past great Celtic/Laker battles.

But with apologies to the Finals of 1957, 1962, 1969 and 1970, the 1984 NBA championship series is very arguably the greatest title matchup in league history. Certainly it is the best I have seen since I was not around to see the other great ones that preceded it, and little footage is available from those earlier epics.

For sheer extended thrills, tension, great play and drama, no championship series that I have witnessed can match the 1984 title series, which actually exceeded the hype and build-up, a rarity in championship round sports.

In fact, only the dramatic 2013 Heat/Spurs seven-game series comes remotely close among Finals this century, and even then it falls well short in terms of quality of play and drama.

A classic seven-game thriller, the unpredictable 1984 Finals had everything and more: great play from all-time great players, costly gaffes, extreme drama, controversy, thrilling finishes, multiple overtimes, strategy, conspiracy theories, many thrust-and-parry adjustments, racial tension, more twists and turns than a 1980's night-time soap opera, a dramatic finish and even more.

George Orwell's infamous titular year was a time well before the Internet and cell phones, before computers took over, a time when few people even owned a VCR and kids actually played outside regularly.

In their fifth season, arch-rivals Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson finally met in the title round for the first of three epic championship showdowns. In their first four seasons one or the other had been in the Finals, but never at the same time.

In a golden era for sports, the Celtic/Laker rivalry was the defining sports rivalry of the time, one that transcended the game. The rivalry captured a nation's imagination with its many-layered subplots, headlined by the celebrated and much-anticipated Bird-Johnson duel, with its long-awaited rematch storyline and undeniable racial and historical overtones.

In 1982, Boston appeared headed for a possible repeat title and a date with the Lakers after blowing out the 76ers 121-81 in game one of their eastern finals series, the east coast rivals' third straight conference title playoff showdown.

But then irreplaceable playmaker Nate Archibald separated his shoulder when he was tripped in game 3, and the 76ers took a 3-1 lead. The Celtics gamely rallied to tie it for a second year in a row and force a seventh game.

Yet this time Philly escaped the ignominy of blowing a 3-1 series for the second consecutive spring, and pulled off a rare game seven win in Boston. But just as in 1980, the Sixers had little left for the coasting Lakers in the Finals, who again had a relatively easy annual road to the title series through a very weak west.

But in 1984 the stars aligned and the Finals everyone - the league, CBS and hoop fans the world over - wanted to see since the Indiana State/Michigan State 1979 NCAA title game was finally, thankfully, at hand.

That the two main antagonists, supposed opposites who went to the Celtics and Lakers, the most storied and ring-laden franchises in NBA history, was central casting that ultimately came together to produce easily the best Finals of the last 45 years.

Boston, by virtue of having the better record by eight games over the Lakers (62 wins to 54) despite playing in a much tougher division and conference, had earned the important homecourt advantage, yet was somehow considered the underdog by the time the series began.

Even though Boston nearly swept a strong Milwaukee squad in the east finals while LA struggled to beat a 41-41 Phoenix team in the west finals 4-2, including only by a 99-97 count in the sixth game, Los Angeles was perceived to be better.

Much of this probably derived from the fact the Lakers were mostly black and in the casual fans' conventional wisdom, were thus somehow better - read more "athletic", more superficially spectacular and flashy, which in hoops is often wrongly equated with better - than the Celtics, who were portrayed as a white, intellectual/blue collar-type team.

Twice in the CBS intros to games 4 and 6, the Celtics were referred to as a "working man's team" and "workmanlike, determined" while LA was described with adjectives like "power, finesse, and speed."

This even though they started four blacks with Bird, and possessed loads of talent and skill. No champion lacks talent, especially in an era before expansion diluted the NBA and skilled stars were on every team.

Perhaps as sentimental, sympathetic favorites the Lakers (who had never beaten Boston in seven prior Finals) were also seen as the oppressed, and their 75 percent African-American roster lent verisimilitude to this notion.

Especially when one realizes that basketball players wear much less clothing and padding and are closer to the fans in the arena and easier seen on TV than almost any other team sport, thus their skin color is much more constantly apparent.

Played in the more conservative prime of Reagan's eight years in office, the series could also be seen as the oppressed against the establishment.

Add that to the fact that being caught rooting for the Celtics vs. LA in 1984 in a post-"Roots" zeitgeist and the reverse microcosm society world of the NBA was viewed by much of the brainwashed public at the time as tantamount to being racist, except in New England and parts of the Greater French Lick area.

Even if one simply liked Bird or Boston's style of play better, or if one was inclined to root for the underdog, or maybe didn't like the sullen Jabbar, the overly ebullient Johnson or the slick-haired Riley, most Celtic backers were seen as pastily uncool, the Switek and Zito to the Lakers' stylish Crockett and Tubbs (that time's uber popular "Miami Vice" set of divergent police partners).

The Lakers were flashier while the more halfcourt-oriented Boston was perceived as more "boring" (read fundamental). But with Bird the Celts had their share of flair and creativity. Meanwhile, LA possessed the most consistent if not numbingly efficient weapon in the game, Kareem's deadly sky hook shot.

Compared to the perennial runner-up Laker Wilt/Baylor/West teams (where ironically all three superstars had lost in successive NCAA finals from 1957-59 and in numerous NBA Finals), this 1984 LA club possessed players accustomed to winning titles.

This completely new set of stars had combined to win nine NCAA titles and eight NBA rings between them, and thus LA was confident, poised and hungry to win its first championship series against Boston in eight tries.

On the other hand none of the 1984 Celtics had won a single NCAA title, and the only crown any of them could boast was the 1981 ring won over upstart Houston and Moses Malone.

The major media painted the series as the supposedly hard-working, hard-hat, smart Celtics against the talented, smooth Lakers, relying on familiar old stereotypes to pigeon-hole the teams.

This advertising hook, besides being inaccurate and superficial at best, nonetheless made the series more accessible and palatable to the casual fan tuning in to the NBA Finals in large numbers for the first time in years.

But those stereotypes of course belittled the considerable talent the Celtics possessed and the basketball smarts the Lakers boasted, too. Ultimately the struggling league had its first Laker/Celtic Finals since 1969, with all the romance and lore of that marquee rivalry ready to restore the NBA to prominence again.

The plotlines abounded. It was Athens vs. Sparta circa 1984, east vs. west, an intellectual and blue-collar hub vs. glitz, glamour and Hollywood. Gang Green vs. Purple Rain. Showtime vs. Slowtime. Payback for Bird over Johnson for the NCAA finals, when Michigan State had swarmed Larry and ruined his undefeated Cinderella season.

Six players from the two combatants made the NBA 50 Greatest list in 1997, with three from each team. Three other Hall of Famers and a Finals MVP in Cedric Maxwell, and several more future or past All-Stars were on display. Defensive aces like Michael Cooper and Gerald Henderson also dotted the rosters.

The individual matchups were just as delicious as the anticipation and the actual seven-course meal, with two overtime appetizers thrown in for good measure.

Bird vs. Johnson, even though they were the main protagonists, guarded one another only on switches or in transition. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Robert Parish was a fine matchup at center. James Worthy and Jamaal Wilkes vs. Cedric Maxwell and Kevin McHale at forward was a standout matchup.

The showdowns between Celtic defensive stopper Dennis Johnson vs. his Laker namesake, and LA defensive standout Cooper against Bird, the man Larry said "guarded me better than anyone," only added to the layers of intrigue.

And the classic matchups extended to the front office, with Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach vs. ex-Laker great West. Jerry had played brilliantly in five Finals losses to the Celtics, even being named playoff MVP in 1969 despite losing another ring chance by two points in a gut-wrenching seventh game defeat.

This time he and Red faced off with Jerry as the Laker GM/architect, with former Celtic great and southern California native Bill Sharman also playing a key executive role for LA.

Even West, who authored a 42-13-12 triple-double in the 1969 Laker 108-106 home loss in game seven, says that defeat (clinched by Nelson's fortunate high-bounce-off-the-back-rim basket from the foul line late in the decisive game) haunted him more than other, because he truly felt that was the one year LA was definitely better than the aging Celtics, with Russell and Sam Jones playing their final contest.

And so after all the hype and anticipation, the Finals to end all Finals began on May 27, 1984, much to the joy of basketball purists everywhere, as well as CBS and brand-new commissioner David Stern, who had started his 30-year run in charge of the league four months earlier at the 1984 All-Star Game in Denver.

After struggling to beat the .500 Suns in a close six-game western final while Boston dispatched a strong Buck team in five, the Lakers came out strong on the parquet. LA made a shocking statement at the very outset of game one, literally running out to a 34-22 lead after the first period and stunning the Garden crowd.

The Celtics crept within 92-88 after three quarters, but LA held on to win the opener convincingly despite a close score, 115-109. Jabbar dominated a seemingly intimidated Parish, making 12 of 17 shots en route to outscoring the Chief, 32 to 13.

Sixth man McHale led the Celtics with 25 points om 10-16 field goal accuracy. Bird netted 24 points and yanked down a game-high 14 rebounds while dishing out a team-best five assists. Boston, which needed to control the boards to slow down the vaunted Laker running game, held a slight 47-42 edge on the glass.

But LA shot far better from the field and foul line as Johnson paced the victors with 18 points and 10 assists, leading the Laker running game to a lot of easy baskets and a 1-0 series lead.

Game two, an excruciating four days later due to CBS scheduling, thus turned out to be a virtual must win for Boston, who couldn't afford to go west to the Forum down 0-2. The impressive Laker series-opening win made people forget that LA had struggled to reach the Finals and had never beaten Boston.

The road victory had many series followers whispering about the possibility of a sweep, led by LA superfan Jack Nicholson.

Jack was seated in the upper reaches of the Boston Garden, miming brushing movements off each shoulder as a Joker-esque smile danced on his lips as he lip-synched the word "sweep."

But he did not count on the dramatic turn of events that would salvage the series for the resourceful Celtics.

Fired-up Boston came out and seized a 36-26 lead after the first stanza of game two, but the Lakers pulled within 61-59 at the half. The Celts inched to a 90-87 edge after three, but with Worthy shooting 11-12 from the field (mostly on short shots and dunks) Los Angeles seemed poised to seize a commanding 2-0 lead.

After Worthy scooped up a bad Laker pass late in the fourth period, he drove and dunked over Maxwell while Cornbread tried in vain to take a charge. The explosive LA second-year forward completed a three-point play to give the visitors the lead.

As Gerald Henderson said later, "We were all like, get up Cedric get up, we don't want this moment to last long."

Shortly thereafter following a missed McHale free throw, LA had the ball with a two-point edge and less than 20 seconds to go. Desperate Boston brought in its "pressing team" as CBS analyst Tom Heinsohn called it.

Presses rarely work in the NBA because the players are too good and poised to lose the ball typically, but in this case the situation caught up to LA and the inexperienced Worthy.

One might question why Riley had the 6-9 Worthy handling the ball in backcourt, and with good reason, but Celtic fans were glad to see him with the ball. It was clear James wanted nothing to do with it and handled the ball like a hot potato.

Worthy in-bounded the ball to the backcourt along the sideline, got a return pass and tossed an awkward, soft crosscourt pass against a scrambling Celtic fullcourt press.

Speedy Celtic guard Henderson anticipated the ill-advised floating pass aimed toward Byron Scott. Henderson cut in front of the Laker rookie, batted it away toward the basket and laid in a right-handed layup off glass from the left side just over a scrambling Worthy as the Garden roared.

Was it the leprechauns or the ghosts of "Havlicek steals the ball" who made the big play? The banners above the parquet floor? No, it was simply a nervous youngster playing in his first playoffs who was not a good ballhandler making a tentative, poor pass, and Henderson taking advantage to make a great play.

But the game wasn't over. Tied 113-all, the Lakers had the ball and a plenty of time to win on a last-second shot. Jabbar posted up and called for the ball as Earvin Johnson dribbled the clock down. And dribbled some more.

Yet Johnson, in the first of many costly gaffes he made in those dramatic Finals, inexplicably dribbled the last 13 seconds out almost completely while Jabbar stood on the right low block in vain, right hand extended as a target hand.

Finally Johnson passed to ex-Celtic sharpshooter Bob McAdoo, whose 22-footer was too late and was swatted anyway by a high-flying McHale, to force overtime. No one could believe Johnson had made such a basic error. Rumors of a fixed series began to swirl.

Yet LA rebounded to take a four-point OT lead and after an ill-advised Henderson drive resulted in a charging foul, appeared in complete command. But Boston battled back when Bird led Henderson perfectly with a long outlet pass, and Gerald converted a driving three-point play in transition after Johnson nudged him in midair.

After LA missed, rebounded and missed again, Boston had the ball trailing 121-120 in the final minute. The Celtics calmly worked the ball from corner to corner against the thinly-veiled Laker zone in a textbook display of ball movement.

Bird passed up a shot and drew a double team that helped create an open shot with crisp ball movement along the left sideline, where corner sharpshooter extraordinaire Scott Wedman was spotted up.

A former two-time All-Star small forward in Kansas City who had seen his minutes drastically cut behind Bird and the deep Celtic frontline despite having many good years left, Wedman was the preeminent baseline shooter in the NBA, hungry to show he still had it.

In his first NBA Finals after eight seasons, this was the biggest shot of his career. Scott rose up calmly and cleanly drained the 17-footer over a flailing Johnson to put the Celtics in front, 122-121. It was one of the most underrated big shots in the series.

At the other end, LA had a chance at redemption but missed. Yet after Maxwell rebounded and passed the ball away quickly and unwisely to an unsuspecting Bird under the Laker basket, LA got yet another reprieve when Johnson knocked the pass off Bird's foot and out of bounds.

Bird gave Maxwell a pained look as he knelt on the floor, knowing that an essential series-tying win was now back in question. Max had wanted no part of the ball and in his haste tried to get it to Larry, the great foul shooter and clutch Celtic, but it backfired.

Now Boston had to come up with yet another stop to tie it 1-1.

LA in-bounded to McAdoo deep in the left corner, guarded by Parish. Sensing a speed advantage against the tightly-guarding Chief, the 6-9 three-time NBA scoring champion with Buffalo tried to blow by the 7-footer on the baseline, even though jump-shooting was Bob's clear strength.

But Parish snaked his hand in quickly and poked the unprotected ball loose cleanly, then crucially recovered it before it could go out of bounds. He then passed up the floor to Bird, who dribbled over halfcourt, drew a foul in the final seconds and clinched the classic 124-121 win with two free throws. Boston collectively drew a huge sigh of relief, tied 1-1.

The game was immediately called "the one LA let get away" or the one "Boston (Henderson) stole." But the truth was, the Celtics led most of the game and earned the victory. Henderson did joke afterward that he thought for a minute he could hear legendary Celtic broadcaster Johnny Most in the rafters yelling "Henderson steals the ball," but Boston came by the victory fair and square.

Bird led a whopping eight Celtics in double figures with 27 points, and added 13 rebounds. Worthy topped all scorers with 29 points, but the 6-9 jumping jack grabbed only three rebounds in 43 minutes.

"Big Game James" was more concerned about leaking out on the break for easy baskets than he was about doing the dirty work of hitting the glass, a habit that would cost the Lakers dearly as the series progressed.

Boston out-rebounded LA 50-42 and outscored them by nine at the foul line to offset sparkling 57 percent Laker field goal shooting in defeat. So the teams switched coasts to Los Angeles all knotted up for games three and four, back when the Finals format was 2-2-1-1-1 for the last time until the format was reinstated 30 years later in 2014.

On Sunday, June 3, the vengeful Lakers simply blew Boston out with a devastating running game as the Forum faithful screamed for more green blood. LA led by 11 at the half and then put up an astounding 47 points in the third period to bury the beleaguered Celtics.

As Bird and the rest of the haggard Celtics watched the layup and dunk-fest from the bench that continued in the fourth period, LA openly celebrated a 137-104 win in taunting fashion.

Bird scored 30 and Wedman netted 16 off the bench, but no one else in green topped 12. Jabbar led seven Lakers in double digits with 24 points, but perhaps as or more importantly, the hosts out-rebounded the flaccid Celtics, 63-44.

LA also outscored Boston by 10 at the foul line, shot 52 percent from the field and held the Celts to just 40 percent as they completely dominated. They out-pointed Boston 108-78 over the final three periods, including 47-33 in the third stanza, a common halftime-type score of many offensively-challenged games today.

An angry Bird came out in the press and said his team played like "sissies...we have a lot of great players on this team but not the right heart" after basically giving up, allowing the Lakers to laugh at them while converting one fancy fast break after another in the second half.

With almost everyone preparing their obituary, a grim tone was set for game four, one of Gang Green against the world. Three days later, the two arch-rival teams played one of the great games in Finals history.

Team emotional leader M.L. Carr led the team single file onto the Forum floor amid boos, claiming it was "not the March of Dimes, this is the march on to victory." LA edged in front with a big second quarter at intermission, 68-58. The Celtics were in trouble.

But Boston dug down and clawed within 90-88. Along the way, the simmering series of racial and historical overtones exploded into a dramatic battle of tempers, lost poise and physicality that changed the entire outlook.

Yet behind the scenes it was another defensive switch that also changed the course of the Finals more substantially. For the first three and a half games, Celtic coach KC Jones had inexplicably used slight 6-1 defensive ballhawk Henderson to guard the 6-8.5 Earvin Johnson, giving up 50-60 pounds as well as much height and reach.

Maybe Henderson reminded Jones, a great Celtic defensive guard, of himself with his size, speed and tenacity. But he was simply too small to bother the much bigger Johnson, who had clear sight lines to pass easily over Gerald, as well as a big advantage under the boards.

K.C.'s strange assignment was even stranger considering the fact that before the season Boston had acquired the NBA's premier defensive guard in 6-4 Dennis Johnson via trade for just such matchups.

They also had another physical, excellent defender in powerful and smart 6-3 Quinn Buckner off the bench. The belated switch of the longer, taller and tenacious DJ onto his Laker namesake kept Earvin from getting easy looks over the defense and at the basket.

Dennis had been a Johnson nemesis out west dating back to his days with Seattle and Phoenix, and knew Earvin's game well. Perhaps keeping Dennis off of the Laker star was K.C.'s way of motivating the occasionally laconic DJ, but if so, he waited almost until it was too late to make the dramatic switch.

"Don't get lazy on him; make him work," Jones warned Dennis. And so he did, every step of the way, wearing Earvin Johnson out. And as he was given the new assignments, DJ's offense also picked up dramatically over the last half of the series.

The clever, experienced DJ made him work for everything, wore him down and openly frustrated him. Much has been made of the McHale clothesline of Kurt Rambis on the fast break in the second half of game four as the turning point of the series.

But revisionist history likes to make things simple and is also frequently wrong when seen through the lens of much time passed.

Almost all the Lakers, so-called experts and their fans to this day erroneously point to this "bullying" tactic as the switch that put Boston in control, and it has become accepted myth/fact that the rough play was what helped the Celtics win it all - and in no uncertain terms, thus in unfair fashion.

But of course no one play dictates such a topsy-turvy seven-game series that featured dozens of huge plays and momentum changes. Today's penchant for oversimplification to a single "key" and under-analysis, especially when it comes to basketball - think of all the relative OVER-analyzing done in football and baseball by observers - lends itself to this sort of stunted, easy categorizing.

But the DJ switch onto Earvin Johnson was the biggest tactical turning point of game four, and the series. The Laker guard's on-court miscues may have been the biggest turning points, along with a couple big shots by Bird and a lost temper by the normally composed Jabbar.

People also forget that the physical, no-layup tone that McHale is usually blamed for inciting was already put in place by the Knicks and Hubie Brown in the eastern semifinals vs. Boston that spring.

After Boston blew away the outmanned Knicks in the first two games of that series, Brown instituted a no-layup rule to slow down the Celtics. Ernie Grunfeld took down McHale, Bernard King tried to start a fight with Kevin, and then a very ugly incident that made the Rambis takedown look almost tame in comparison took place.

Late in game six at New York, the Knicks trailed the series 3-2 but led the contest by 11 midway through the fourth period. Bird darted into the passing lanes and picked off a Knick pass, then rambled full-speed up the left side of the floor toward the basket with two NY guards in hot pursuit.

As Bird neared the hoop, Ray Williams came up on his left side and tried to grab him around the shoulders for a two-handed takedown. His hands slipped off Bird but Rory Sparrow, who was coming up hard on Bird's right, swung a hard forearm and elbow to the side of Larry's head as he went down.

The force of the collision sent Bird flying into the stanchion under the basket. A flagrant two-shot foul was called, and Sparrow was immediately ejected by referee Earl Strom as the Garden crowd howled.

Knick reserve Trent Tucker tried to restrain the protesting Sparrow, and then-New York assistant Rick Pitino helped escort him out. Bird sustained a cut to the back of his neck for his troubles, but never uttered a word of complaint or made any gestures or antics toward the offenders or the refs.

He simply got up, sank both free throws and led Boston on a comeback that fell just short 106-104 as the fired-up Celtics finished the game on an 13-2 run. They rode that anger and momentum into game seven and blew out the Knicks 121-104 as Bird turned in perhaps the best playoff performance of his career with a 39-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece.

But the norm for very hard playoff fouls had already been set. And most people forget or don't know that a few plays before McHale took down Rambis, Jabbar made multiple dangerous, physical plays that escalated the physicality.

First he threw an elbow into Maxwell, knocking him down and out of bounds, with no foul called. Then very shortly after, Henderson reached in and stole the ball from Kareem, who unleashed an elbow toward the head of Gerald but missed as the Celtic guard ducked.

Jabbar stood in the backcourt complaining and throwing his arms up and down angrily while Bird went up to shoot and instead found Parish, who had outrun the lagging Jabbar for an easy layup.

Then an angry Worthy found himself in the lane engaged in a loose ball tie-up on the floor, and threw several elbows around in a childish temper tantrum. Tempers were clearly close to erupting, but it was the Lakers doing the elbow throwing.

In disingenuous fashion ever since, they have never admitted these incidents, preferring instead to play the victim role to curry sympathy, make excuses and distract followers from seeing the truth, that Boston simply beat LA.

But the McHale foul is what gets remembered as the supposed turning point. Ironically, when an incensed Rambis got up to go after McHale, Worthy shoved Kurt, his own teammate, back over the photographers under the basket and Bird ended up pulling Kurt up.

Moments later, Jabbar grabbed an offensive rebound and nailed Bird in the cheekbone with an intentional elbow via his backswing on the way down. Bird grabbed his cheek to make sure it was still in place, shook his head and voiced his displeasure in close quarters to Jabbar, but without being physically threatening.

An incredibly infuriated Jabbar swore at Bird, nose to nose, with the F word clearly being used, and pointed and threw his finger toward him to punctuate his foul language. Kareem had blown his cool, and pushed away BOTH REFEREES and a teammate who tried to restrain him as he backed away from the fray while Bird continued to calmly plead his case.

Yet no technical was called; however, the Lakers and Jabbar had clearly blown their call under pressure. LA still held on to a close lead, but the mood had changed. Boston had become the hunter instead of the hunted, and would close the game on a 67-53 charge.

With 45 seconds to go, LA led 113-108. Things looked dim for the Celtics, but their desire and decisive board work carried them through. DJ drove the lane and missed. A tip by McHale missed. Parish grabbed the board and missed a baseline shot.

But not to be denied, the Chief grabbed his miss, and on their fourth try tossed in a short shot while being fouled with 39 seconds left. His clutch foul shot cut the deficit to 113-111 and the collective collars of the Lakers suddenly began tightening.

The hosts still had a chance to put it away, and Cooper dribbled away much of the clock before missing a 15-footer, with Johnson tellingly not touching the ball the entire possession.

Parish rebounded but away from the board, in a crowd under the basket jockeying for the rebound, Bird was clearly shoved in the back out of bounds and Jabbar was called for pushing him, a double-whammy for the Lakers.

For not only had they put the deadly Bird on the foul line for two potential tying free throws, Jabbar had fouled out, even though it was unclear in the mass of bodies under the hoop if Kareem, Rambis or Worthy had shoved Larry.

At the other end, Bird stepped to the line with 16 ticks remaining for the two biggest foul shots of his NBA career to that point. Because if Bird missed now, the league's premier pressure player would be seen as having choked. His first shot went straight in to bring the deficit to one.

A nervous Larry set his feet and let the second shot fly. It hit the front rim, rimmed to the back and up into the air tantalizingly as Bird leaned forward to body English it in. Backspin brought the ball back down through the net to tie it. Again though, like in game two, LA still had a chance to win.

And again Johnson flat-out choked with a historic brain cramp.

As he dribbled away 10 seconds with the ball near the right sideline in front of the Boston bench looking to feed a posting Worthy, Parish fronted James over his right shoulder and picked off a late, errant Johnson pass with one hand to force overtime.

Just like in game two late in OT, Parish had come up with a potential game-saving steal. The Chief's clutch swipes were just another aspect of the multi-faceted, multi-layered series that has been overlooked and forgotten.

In the extra session, DJ hit a jumper and then converted an incredible tip-in. Parish fouled out trying to block a Swen Nater shot as both starting centers were now disqualified. Worthy hit a tough baseline turnaround with Bird all over him, then made an off-balance three-point play in the lane to put LA up 123-121.

Bird answered by posting up Cooper and scoring inside over the stopper to tie it with 1:20 left. And then Johnson once again folded. With the score tied at 123, the Laker guard was fouled with 34 seconds left, but missed BOTH foul shots long. BOTH.

Bird rebounded the second miss and Boston called timeout. Johnson dejectedly practiced his free throw form as he walked, dazed, to the Laker bench.

In the huddle, a rejuvenated Bird and the Celtics smelled Laker blood in the nearby Pacific waters. Bird wiped his right hand off on Scott Wedman's towel on the bench right before he prepared to throw the ball in bounds, tipping off that he expecting to shoot.

Jones had called a play for Bird, who moved furiously without the ball to get open, and muscled through a fallen Cooper in the lane, which forced none other than Johnson to switch onto him in the mid-block area on the left side of the lane. It was a matchup for the ages, mano a mano. No zone this time to bail Johnson out, like in the NCAA finals.

In such switch situations, Bird always tried to score on Johnson. "I've got a little on me," he would say, calling for the ball. And remeber at that time in 1984, Bird and Johnson were not yet friends. In fact, they disliked each other intensely.

Larry aggressively called for the ball as he jockeyed for position before pinning his nemesis on his back. He took the pass, spun and lofted a clutch 13-foot fallaway that swished perfectly through the cords to give Boston the lead for good with 16 seconds left in OT.

A jubiliant Carr met Bird at the bench with a high-ten. LA was not yet done, but with Jabbar fouled out their anchor was gone.
Worthy was fouled with 10 seconds to go and had a chance to tie, but bricked the first free throw well short.

Maxwell, Worthy's boyhood idol growing up in North Carolina fter Cornbread led UNCC to the 1977 Final Four, raised both arms and gave the choke sign toward the booing Laker crowd while switching spots across the lane.

Jabbar buried his face in his arms on the bench, unable to watch as Worthy bounced in the second shot. DJ was fouled immediately and swished two clutch free throws to give him eight huge points in the extra session. When asked to, he had come up big, very big.

Still, the Lakers had one last chance to tie with a three-pointer. They were down 127-124 and had the ball out of bounds at midcourt. Puzzlingly, they chose Worthy to throw the pass in, and again he made a bad decision and toss.

This time it was Carr who slammed the door on the Lakers. He suckered James into throwing over his head toward Johnson and "Not Yet Big Game James" took the bait. He floated an underthrown pass that wobbled toward midcourt.

Carr deflected the ball with both hands toward the Celtic basket, chased the loose ball down and flew in to the hoop ahead of the stunned Worthy to throw down an emphatic slam that put the finishing touches on an epic 129-125 OT win. Once again, Boston had come up with another huge steal on a pass by Worthy.

An excited Carr high-fived everyone in the vicinity after the final buzzer. "I told you we'd be back, I told you," yelled a jubilant Carr toward the taunting Laker fans and disbelievers into the CBS cameras as the happy Celtics left the floor. The win guaranteed a game six back in LA.

An angry Laker fan threw beer into Carr's eyes as he exited the floor, but he and Boston were just happy to be going back home tied 2-2 with the momentum now firmly in their court.

The determined Bird, despite an off-shooting night, scored 29 points and pulled down a series-best 21 rebounds. And for the first time in the series, Parish played without fear against Jabbar, scoring 25 points and grabbing 12 caroms.

DJ added 22 markers. Kareem scored 32 points and Worthy was unstoppable again inside with 30 points on 14-17 shooting. Johnson recorded a 20-11-17 triple-double, but made the two huge mistakes to again cost his team a chance at victory at the end of regulation and led to another overtime defeat.

Asked afterward if his teammates played like sissies in game four, Bird responded in his southern Indiana accent with a politically incorrect psychological ploy, stating "we can play a lot harder. We played like a bunch of wee-men (women) tonight."

After surviving two tense, must-win OT games with the aid of costly Johnson late-game errors, there was the growing sense now among players and fans that the Celtics were the mentally and physically tougher squad, and thus better equipped to win the close games. LA had found a way to lose at home somehow despite shooting 59 percent.

Certainly, playing in the much superior, more physical Eastern Conference also helped Boston win the tough, close and physical battles. Out in the run and gun West, the Lakers faced very little tough or close opposition, cruising to the Finals for the fourth time in five years. Meanwhile, Boston had to navigate great teams like the 76ers and Bucks just to reach the final round.

Twenty turnovers didn't help the Lakers in game four, nor did their comparatively poor foul shooting (Boston shot 84%, LA 64%). Plus the Celtics played with the desperate urgency of a team not wanting to fall behind 3-1, a deficit no team had ever overcome in the Finals to win.

Now is where the 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format helped the Celtics. The next year when the new 2-3-2 format was implemented for the first of 30 Finals, it would cost them.

But back home in the non-air conditioned, 59-year old Boston Garden, the Lakers would wilt under the 97-degree heat and humidity two days later. With Jabbar gulping down oxygen from a mask and only Bird looking "fresh as a daisy" as Riley put it, the gasping Lakers managed to stay within 55-53 at the half.

But then Boston and Larry Legend took over in the second half.

The supposedly slow Bird drove down the lane past the Lakers for a three-point layup. He hit jumpers, putbacks, post-ups and three-pointers, rarely misfiring.

He head-faked two flying Laker defenders off their feet, calmly re-positioned himself as the crowd screamed for him to shoot as the third period ran down, then drained a huge trifecta to give the Celtics an 88-77 lead as the heated Garden reached a frenzy pitch.

Bird then showed rare emotion by raising and holding his right arm straight up as he went to the Celtic bench, accepting high-fives along the way.

In the fourth period Boston continued to pull away for a 121-103 blowout win, their first decisive victory of the series. Despite not having played that well over the first three-plus games, the opportunistic Celtics now held a 3-2 lead.

They had figured out how to beat the faster Lakers - beat them up on the offensive glass to stymire the running game, and force them to play a slower halfcourt tempo that favored th emore skilled Celtics.

Bird authored probably the best Finals game of his 31-game championship series contests. Playing in what Riley called a steambath and Buckner termed a sauna, he shot 15 for 20 from the field, canned both three-pointers he shot, scored 34 points and pulled down 17 rebounds.

DJ had played well with 22 points and his strong defense on Johnson, but it was Bird's game, make no mistake. His 17 boards led Boston to a resounding 51-37 advantage on the boards. "Larry Bird is like a coal miner, he goes down and gets the tough rebounds," said K.C. Jones.

"I've lived in Texas and never felt heat like that before," Buckner would recall later of the sauna game.

Jabbar, literally sucking wind as he applied the oxygen mask to his face on the LA bench, struggled to make only seven of 25 shots. Johnson canned only three of nine shots and stumbled to a mere 10 points.

"The difference tonight was Mr. Bird," said Riley. His entire defense all series had been aimed at doubling and running at Larry in an attempt to disrupt and confuse the game's smartest player, and force him to get rid of the ball before he had a chance to survey the floor and pick the LA defense apart with pinpoint passing.

Suddenly, Jack Nicholson wasn't calling for a sweep.

"Aw hell, I play in hotter weather back home in French Lick in the summer," downplayed Bird after his game five tour-de-force. Two days later in LA on a Sunday, the Celtics were poised to knock out the reeling Lakers. Boston carefully built a 65-59 halftime lead as the Forum crowd was now uneasy, expecting yet another Laker letdown vs. their arch-nemesis.

The Celtics led by 11 with 3:59 left in the third period before LA began to rally. Searching for answers, Riley dug into his bench and tabbed rookie Byron Scott, and the explosive 6-4 guard who shot much better at home than at the Garden came up with 11 big points to pace the comeback.

The rookie who replaced popular All-Star guard Norm Nixon (who had clashed with Johnson over sharing the ballhandling duties, necessitating a 1983 trade) stole the ball and converted a left-handed fast break reverse layup. The shot gave LA its first lead at 89-87 since early in the game as they continued on a decisive 18-3 run.

When Bird tied it at 93-all with a pretty left-handed reverse in traffic, Scott answered with a left corner trey that gave LA the lead for good midway through the fourth stanza.

Jabbar then kept Boston at bay down the stretch with a barrage of hook shots. But earlier, another under-reported and little- remembered incident happened where the Lakers answered the McHale clothesline with a cheap shot of their own.

With Boston on a fast break midway through the first period while leading 17-16, DJ fed Maxwell with a behind-the-back feed as Cornbread steamed down the middle of the lane.

Just as Maxwell elevated for a layup, Worthy flew in from behind and shoved his now former idol hard from behind with two hands into the side of the basket support, and Max rebounded off the stanchion onto the floor, very hard.

A remorseless Worthy then turned his back immediately after the push and stalked away as the Laker crowd, tired of losing to the Celtics over the years, cheered the retaliation move. Max leaped up in anger after the cheap shot and was met by a still-angry Rambis as both teams squared off for the umpteenth time in the series.

Bird clapped his hands near Maxwell to keep morale up. The Celtics were grizzled veterans of the physical wars in the rugged east as compared to the wide-open, run and gun-oriented west and thrived in such battles.

Boston used the hard foul as motivation to help outscore LA by 10 points over the next two quarters, but faltered late to lose. Los Angeles outscored Boston 36-21 in the final period to win going away by a deceptive 11-point margin, setting up a seventh and final showdown.

More controversy arose the day after the late Laker comeback. A story broke in The Boston Globe that new NBA commissioner Stern had told a fan that the NBA needed a seven-game series to make more money and have higher ratings, implying to some interpeters that game six was rigged for LA to win down the stretch after trailing much of the game.

When Bird heard this, he publicly questioned Stern's integrity. "He's the commissioner and he shouldn't be saying anything like that," said Bird in a June 11, 1984 article by Globe reporter Dan Shaughnessy.

"The NBA wanted a seventh game because they wanted to make more money and they got their wish...Maybe he said it in jest. But I am trying to make a living and win a championship...When the commissioner makes a statement like that, you know it's going to be tough" (to win game six).

Stern refused to address Bird's comments directly, and when the commissioner was asked to comment his office reported that he was "unreachable."

But NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre said Stern called Bird's comments "ridiculous. Like every fan he is looking forward to a game seven. It's a dream matchup and everybody has wanted to see a seven-game series from day one," explained PR man McIntyre.

Interestingly, when Henderson made a baseline-driving shot and apparent three-point play that would have pulled Boston to 99-97 with 4:52 left in game six, he was called for a charge when clearly no contact had been initiated by the Celtic guard.

LA continued on a 7-0 run to seal the verdict before Bird ended the spurt with a three-point play, ending a Boston drought of just two made field goals in almost 13 minutes.

Bird, who took only 11 official shots and made eight, added 12-13 foul shooting to pace Boston with 28 points. But strangely, the Celtics went away from their star when they had the game in hand, and it slipped away. Larry added 14 boards and eight assists while Henderson netted a series-high 22 points and DJ contributed 20.

But the Celtic bench added only 10 markers. Jabbar bounced back from his game five disaster with 30 points and 10 caroms while Cooper added 23 markers. A determined and desperate Laker club translated their energy to the boards where they out-rebounded Boston, 44-41.

A frustrated Bird said afterward that the Celtics had missed their chance to finish it but still had the chance to go home and win it all. "I thought we shoulda swep' 'em," he told reporters, keeping up an air of supreme confidence for the press and his teammates, even though most had tabbed them as serious underdogs.

Of course, one wonders how Boston, who won 62 games amid a tougher schedule and division/conference, somehow became decided underdogs to a 54-win Laker team that barely got by a .500 Phoenix squad and had playoff rookies like Worthy and Scott playing key roles.

Tuesday, June 12, 1984 marked the fourth championship series seventh game between the Celtics and Lakers, and the third to take place in Boston. The Celtic record in the prior game seven's vs LA, all barnburners, was a perfect 3-0. But the margin of victory was very slim: 110-107 in OT in 1962, 95-93 in 1965 and 108-106 in 1969 at the Forum.

Thus after a long eight-month season and playoffs, it all came down to one game in the highest-rated NBA TV telecast ever. Key seventh men for both teams, McAdoo and Wedman, were out with injuries.

This was the biggest organized winner-take-all basketball game in America since the ballyhooed 1979 NCAA title bout between Indiana State and Michigan State. This time it was in the pros between the league's premier franchises.

The teams battled to a 30-30 tie after one period. Boston edged in front 58-52 at the half before a raucous home crowd.

Then with Bird on the bench for a rare rest, the Celtics surged in front. It was if they wanted to do it for Larry, or maybe the Lakers were so designed on defense to contain Bird that they didn't know what to do in the few moments he was sitting on the pines. Indeed, Larry played 306 of a potential 346 minutes in the series, more than any player on either team.

Amid rumors that he was going to be let go as a free agent after the season, third-year guard Danny Ainge came up huge with 10 big points, including a pair of outside jumpers while Bird was resting. His key outburst probably kept Danny in Celtic green for the next five years as he developed into an All-Star.

Maxwell used his array of unorthodox inside moves and good post entry feeds from Larry to score and draw fouls, and he sank 14 of 17 free throws en route to 24 points. DJ came up big as well. Yet the inside offense of Jabbar and Worthy, with 29 and 21 points respectively, kept LA close.

With Larry cheering them on from the pines and waving his towel in M.L Carr fashion, Boston pulled away to a 91-78 lead after three stanzas. The Garden scoreboard flashed "12 minutes until banner number 15" as the crowd roared.

It was DJ who reminded his celebrating teammates to get serious and back into the huddle since the game was far from over. And he was very right. Four years earlier, he had seen LA first hand overcome a 23-point second half deficit against his defending champion Sonics in game four of the 1980 West Finals, a loss that all but ended their repeat dreams and propelled LA to the title.

The Celtics started to play a little tentatively, milking the clock on their possessions and losing their natural offensive aggressiveness. The Lakers sensed this and took advantage of the opening to began a last-ditch rally. On one key play, Rambis kept a tip alive two times before LA put it back in.

Up near the Garden rafters, Nicholson cheered his revitalized Lakers, thought to be dead moments earlier, on to a seventh game comeback that would might end their longstanding Celtic curse.

Maxwell missed some rare foul shots, allowing the Lakers to creep closer. Jabbar, whose Bucks had lost a seven-game classic to Boston 10 years earlier, was determined not to have it happen again as he scored 29 points on 12-22 shooting.

The Lakers pulled within 105-102 in the final minute on a Worthy 14-footer in transition. Bird went for the jugular, but missed a foul line fadeaway when Jabbar switched out and made him arch it just an extra inch too long off the back iron.

Laker guard Johnson rushed upcourt and drove into the lane, but DJ picked him clean and rushed up the floor for what would be the clincher. Meanwhile, Johnson had comically continued his move into the paint without the ball, hoping for a call but getting none while play raced in the other direction.

But defensive ace Cooper hustled back, blocked DJ's shot and LA got the ball back to Johnson. Again, used to getting every call, he forced penetration into the lane hoping for a gift foul.

But the tall, aware tandem of Parish and McHale each rose up and stuffed him simultaneously while avoiding body contact with Johnson, whose method of drawing cheap fouls was to throw his body into the defense, yell and fall down.

There was no such bailout foul whistle this time either.

Again DJ came up with the ball, drove hard downcourt and drew a foul on Cooper as Bird trailed the play. Dennis nailed two clutch foul shots to give him 22 points and a perfect 12-12 from the foul line. Interestingly, after K.C. switched Dennis onto Magic, DJ scored over 20 points in each of the last four games after starting the series very slowly.

The guard who had shot 0-14 in game seven of the 1978 Finals as his Sonics lost a close battle and the title to the Bullets, then rebounded to win the playoff MVP the next year for Seattle, had redeemed himself as a great pressure player again. And he had avenged the 1980 conference final loss to Earvin and the Lakers, which ended his Sonic career as he was traded to Phoenix in the off-season.

Back in the final moments LA missed, Bird rebounded and was fouled. After making the first foul shot, a drunk Celtic fan ran the length of the parquet floor to congratulate Larry. Bird shook his hand, shook his head and retreated almost to halfcourt to regain his concentration.

Bird stepped back to the charity stripe and cleanly made the shot again to make it 109-102 with less than 30 seconds to go. LA missed a long shot, Bird got the ball and refused to give it up, dribbling until he was fouled, and only then giving the sphere to DJ, who had been begging for the ball in front of the Celtic bench.

With the long-awaited title round revenge over his nemesis almost complete, Bird toed the line and nailed his seventh free throw in as many attempts.

He turned away from the line, clapped his hands in self-congratulations as if to say "that's it" and looked up at the scoreboard above the parquet to make sure of the time and score.

With his load finally lightened, number 33 then went eagerly back to the stripe and hit his eighth consecutive foul shot to seal the verdict with under a half-minute to go, 111-102. Somehow a bunch of powder got thrown onto the floor, and play was stopped for several minutes, prolonging the Laker agony.

"Oh, does it hurt when you know it's not going to be your year," said TV analyst and former Celtics great/coach Tom Heinsohn on CBS as the camera zoomed in on a beaten Earvin Johnson. On the bench, Maxwell and Carr mocked Earvin's pistol gun-point and wink style of congratulating himself and teammates after a good play. But DJ declined to join in on the hijinks.

Behind the Celtic locker room doors, some Boston players called him "Cheesy" for his fake smile. McHale called him "Tragic" after his lethal mistakes. DJ and Bird refused to join in the name-calling and faux finger-pointing, however.

Many Celtic players came onto the floor to exhort the excited home fans, now ringing the aged parquet floor ready to storm the court, to back up.

Finally play resumed and Cooper missed a trey, the ball bounded out and the buzzer sounded. Hundreds of delirious fans dressed in summer gear stormed the parquet floor. Bird and his teammates literally fought their way to the victorious locker room.

A dazed Cooper and Jamaal Wilkes mistakenly started to enter the Celtic locker room after leaving the court, then exited quickly.

Once in the safety of the victoriou Celtic locker room, the reticent Bird was eventually interviewed by CBS announcer Brent Musburger, who told him he had been named the championship series Most Valuable Player - adding that had the Lakers won, Larry would still likely have been the MVP.

Ever the curious reporter, Brent asked Larry if this epic win got him "even with Johnson after what happened all those years ago," in college (only five years actually, but somehow it seemed longer).

Bird, rarley if ever letting his true emotions show publicly, ran his left hand through his blonde hair, wet with sweat and beer. He answered evasively but tellingly, between the lines, "Well we don't talk about that, we're professionals now...but I won this one for Terre Haute."

"You sure did," said a admiring Musburger. "Thank you, Larry." It wasn't apparent if he was thanking Bird for the interview, or for the performance he had given, or most likely, both.

In the Laker locker room, after a long shower, Johnson finally emerged and told the media that "we gave it to them...we helped them, and at the same time they took it."

Later on, deep into the night of championship celebration, Bird told his brief Indiana University 1974 teammate Buckner privately in reference to Johnson, "I finally got him. I got him."

Bird contributed 20 points and a dozen rebounds in game seven, while Parish scored 14 markers and yanked down 16 caroms. Boston won the key battle of the boards by a major 52-33 margin, paving the way to the win. 52-33!

Lost in all the talk of the clothesline, the Henderson steal, the "Tragic" Johnson gaffes, the overtime classics, the game five steambath, Larry's quotes, the revenge hit in game 6 and another Celtic seventh game win over LA, was another under-analyzed key to the series.

Jones at times utilized a huge lineup to counter-act the Laker size and to pound LA on the board, especially the offensive glass to limit their running game. Boston knew they would almost certainly win if it boiled down to a halfcourt game of execution and nerves, and needed to keep the Lakers from fast breaking. So at times the Celtics employed a lineup with the 6-4 DJ and Bird at guard, along with Maxwell, McHale and Parish up front.

Max guarded Earvin Johnson some and frustrated him with his equal size and very long arms, and also took the defensively-challenged Johnson to the hoop inside at the other end for a clutch, team-high 24 points.

Their desire to win, symbolized by Bird's burning drive to beat Johnson, pulled the Celtics through. And a 25-point advantage at the foul line didn't hurt either, where Boston made a whopping 43 of 51 shots.

Some might wonder if this was in answer to the game six Laker turnaround and Stern's curious, ill-advised comments, but it was mostly the result of LA fouling too much inside on the boards and in trying to catch up late. Boston was the aggressor in game seven, and for much of the last half of the series, which they dominated.

Earvin Johnson scored 16 points but made only five of 14 shots from the field and committed seven costly turnovers, including two in a row in the final minute when the Lakers had rallied perilously close to tying it, within three. Worthy added 21 points but snared only four rebounds in 40 minutes. Rambis led LA in boards with nine despite playing just 26 minutes.

Bird averaged 27.4 points, 14 rebounds and 3.6 assists a game in the grueling series despite being barraged by the Laker defense throughout. He accepted every challenge they threw at him and kept coming, until he and the Celtics were the ones left standing, not the undeservedly-favored Lakers.

The Celtics, needing any advantage over the years to keep motivation high to win titles again and again, learned to always seek a new edge to beat back talented and hungry challengers, even if it made them look worse - like wearing black shoes which make players appear slower.

Or letting opponents complain about the lack of air conditioning and dead spots and bad showers and locker rooms at the Garden - things the Celtics also endured as tenants of building owned by the NHL Bruins.

Ironically, after complaining about the Celtic "bullying", none other than Riley - who was a very athletic and tenacious but marginally skilled backup guard in the NBA - later adopted the blood and guts style and adapted it to his later much lesser personnel with the Knicks and Heat, employing a style of combat basketball that lowered the level of the game for years and might have made the Bad Boy Pistons blush.

Riley became obsessed with the philosophical and intangible aspects of sport after the crushing 1984 Finals loss to Boston, and became an ardent student of Sun Tzu's ancient "Art of War" text, mining it for motivation and quotes for the next 25+ years.

Unfortunately, instead of just emphasizing tough rebounding and hard-nosed competitiveness, something Riley mined in his dad's famous "stand your ground and swing back" speech that helped the Lakers finally end the Celtic curse in 1985, Pat took the game to new lows with thugball tactics in New York and Miami.

One might argue that those lesser talented teams needed to play dirty to compete, but it certainly shows Riley's hypocrisy and win at all costs mentality after he openly and repeatedly whined that the Lakers, no wallflowers themselves, were being bullied by Boston.

Nearly 30 years after the Finals defeat, even Earvin Johnson admitted his Lakers were much rougher than given credit for. "We bumped you, we held, we kncoked you off your cuts," he said in the NBA TV documentary "Bird and Magic: A Courtship of Rivals."

The Laker starting lineup went 7-2, 6-8, 6-9, 6-8.5 and 6-7 in that series, with the biggest and most physical point guard in NBA history, even moreso than Oscar Robertson.

STILL unable to admit they were outplayed and that his major late-game mistakes in the game two, four and seven losses contributed heavily to the defeat, Johnson continued to whine and play the same old sympathy line that worked on naive fans fed up with Boston always beating the "poor" Lakers.

That he selfishly used the agonizing title losses of West and Elgin Baylor to gain an edge and sympathy shows what kind of classless, win at all costs mentality Johnson possessed as well.

Boston "couldn't beat what they couldn't catch (had to make the game rough)...don't ask about it no more." The fact that the usually smiling Johnson showed his true colors by growling so many years later about it illustrated his phony facade.

Clearly the seven previous championship series losses to Boston, many of them by the slimmest of margins, put the Lakers in the category of fan favorite for almost all other than Celtic fans, something LA played upon and used for preferential officiating calls, crowd support and sympathy.

By the time the mid-1980's Finals rolled around, the Celtics were painted as the big, bad bruisers and the Lakers were the poor little victims, the unlucky perennial runner-ups bullied by Boston.

The fact that Bird was not media friendly while Johnson was the exact opposite, never missing an interview or meeting a camera he didn't love, made LA even more easy to root for by the average fan with no rooting interest. And certainly the racial undertone made the Lakers an even easier team to root for by anyone not a Celtic fan in the politically correct, post-Roots era.

The fact also that Johnson drew something of a free pass from the media and fans for his late-game chokes in three of the four LA losses shows the media favoritism he enjoyed. The publicity-leery, less friendly Bird certainly would not have been given such a break, and had in fact suffered from being downgraded for having a single subpar game in the 1979 NCAA finals - despite being double and triple-teamed.

Against this backdrop it is apparent that Boston had even more to overcome than the Lakers, and more pressure. "When you play the Lakers, you are expected to win because the Celtics have always beaten them (in the Finals)," noted Bird of the pressure.

In the end, Boston found a way by willing it on the boards and in the trenches, in the halfcourt offense. They won the close games, and handled the high-pressure situations better.

Years later Parish was a guest of long-time Knicks announcer John Andariese on his NBA TV talk show "Johnny Hoops." Andariese asked Robert how the leprechauns and the ghosts of Boston Garden affected the opposition and helped the Celtics win.

Implied was the sense that something extra must have helped "less talented" Boston win all those titles, not their talent, skill, hard work, basketball smarts, clutch play and more intangibles.

Stoic as ever, the Chief simply replied that it wasn't the ghosts or leprechauns that won titles. It was the players and not gimmicks, he emphasized, who won the championships.

Not cold showers, hot gyms, dead spots, all the banners hanging from the rafters, nor referees, leprechaun luck or cheap shots - those make for a good story, but it was the players who stitched together the Boston championship tapestry and Celtic pride.

It was all about the Celtic players; their heart and skill, the will to not be beaten or told you can't do something, which won it, mostly embodied and led by Bird. They were much tougher and more determined on the backboards, and better in the halfcourt offense than the more superfically-impressive looking Lakers.

So the next time someone says the turning point of the unsurpassed 1984 Finals was the hard McHale foul on Rambis in game four, tell them that is not the real truth. Such an over-simplified and false revisionist view of hoop history overlooks the truth that although the series turnabout did take place starting in game four, the reasons why are far more complex than that.

The switch of DJ onto Earvin Johnson, and the occasional big lineup employed by Boston, were far more key to the victory. As was superior Celtic halfcourt offense and rebounding. In their last three wins of the series, Boston out-rebounded LA by a combined total of 155-116, or 13 per victory.

LA's weak defensive rebounding and sleek running style was embodied by Worthy, who eschewed the defensive glass in favor of leaking out in transition for easy finishes.

The high-flying 6-9 forward grabbed a mere 17 defensive rebounds and 31 overall caroms in 274 minutes, just 4.4 per game. That he pulled down 14 offensive boards in the series, many of which might lead to easy putbacks, also shows his mindset.

Bird, also at 6-9, showed that rebounding is more about determination, good hands, timing and anticipation than leaping ability. Per the Russell axiom, 90 percent of rebounds are taken below the rim, although fans are often overly impressed by one-handed caroms or the rare above the square ones.

Larry muscled, hustled and positioned his way to 98 big boards, including 72 defensive rebounds and 26 on the offensive glass. And he tended to get the most important, toughest rebounds as well.

As a team in the series, Boston yanked down 131 offensive caroms to just 205 defensive boards by the Lakers en route to a plus 5.2 advantage per game on the glass. Larry's total of 98 rebounds was a whopping 44 more than the Laker with the most boards (Johnson at 54). The 7-2 Jabbar, albeit nearing age 36, grabbed only 52 caroms in 272 minutes compared to 80 rebounds by Parish.

One might also argue that the epic series win was also a case of the more mature Bird having been knocked down more often yet bouncing back from more adversity in his life than the happy-go-lucky Johnson had, at least to that point. The grimmer Bird came from a fractured home split by alcoholism and post-war stress suffered by his father, who had to kill a man in hand-to-hand combat in Korea.

The financially-poor family moved 18 times in his first 18 years of life in a poverty-stricken section of southern Indiana, and Larry worked on a sanitation crew after dropping out of Indiana.

As author David Halberstam put it, "He wasn't handsome or rich...his way of lifting himself out of his little white ghetto was through basketball."

Asked what what would have happened had he stayed working for the city and nver had gone back to college, Bird masked his feelings as usual with humor, instead of complaining. Larry quipped, "Well, I'd hope I would have been the boss by now."

But he did come perilously close to not even playing college basketball, let alone dominating it seemingly out of nowhere, if not for the dogged recruiting of then-assistant Bill Hodges.

At every step along the way, there were doubters: he played at a small southern Indiana school and barely made all-state, then was considered too slow (read too white) to play big-time college ball by coaches like Joe B. Hall at Kentucky.

Then the doubters said ISU played a weak schedule before they made it to the NCAA finals undefeated. When they lost to a more sleek, talented team in the title game, it seemed to affirm all the doubts - too slow, not gifted enough, hasn't played top-flight competition. Surely he would not be an NBA star, would he?

Some, including former Laker superstar turned great talent scout Jerry West, openly questioned if Bird was good enough to be an NBA starter. West would be forced to eat those words, and more, and years later called Bird one of his favorite players ever.

Yet on every successive level he conquered along the way, Bird used the doubts as motivation to keep working, improving and to show the haters that he was the real deal. Not to mention that he was more athletic, smarter, skilled, more ambidextrous with excellent body control, and far more talented, often in more subtle ways (he had probably the best hands and hand-eye coordinaton in the game), than given credit for.

He became the greatest all-around player in the world in the most athletic of sports for nearly a decade before injuries and over-use began to bring him down. One might argue, myself included, that Bird was already the best all-around player in the world in 1978-79 as a dominating fifth-year senior in college.

Conversely, his typically-smiling nemesis had won a high school state title in Michigan, and two years later added an NCAA crown in his sophomore season at Bird's expense. Then in his rookie NBA campaign, Johnson rode Jabbar's coattails to another crown.

Incredible luck seemed to follow the attention-loving, camera-happy Johnson, while a media-wary Bird remained tight-lipped and pensive, waiting quietly for his chance for title revenge, and a chance to redeem himself from the 1979 college finals.

Even more painful, Bird also had had to watch his former Indiana University teammates win 63 of 64 games from 1974-76 and post the last undefeated national title campaign in 1976 while waiting to become eligible for Indiana State.

Then in his first season after leading the Sycamores to a 25-3 mark as a sophomore by averaging 32.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists a game, they were ineligible to compete for the Missouri Valley Conference crown since they were a new league member, which kept them out of the NCAA tournament.

Two great, unheralded pre-ESPN seasons ended in consecutive one-point NIT losses before his epic senior season when he emerged to lead Indiana State to the finals at 33-0 (the last team to make it that far with a perfect record), before the gut-wrenching loss to Johnson and Michigan State.

No excuses were made, but MSU clearly had a deeper, better-coached and more talented team, with three future NBA players (Johnson, Kelser and Jay Vincent) and excellent complementary players like Mike Brkovich, Terry Donnelly (who made 10 of his 11 field and foul shots in the finals) and Ron Charles as well.

Bird's only Sycamore teammate to even sniff the NBA was guard Carl Nicks, who had an undistinguished career over parts of three seasons with the Jazz, Cavaliers and Nuggets. His pro total of 1,067 points was not much more than Bird scored per season in college, even without a three-point line or shot clock.

ISU interim coach Bill Hodges was in his first season as a head coach, although many claimed Bird was really the coach on the floor. Spartan head man Jud Heathcote was an established coach who had already been in the NCAA tournament. Jud coached Montana, led by another future NBA big guard similar to Johnson in Micheal Ray Richardson, to a near upset of eventual champion UCLA in the 1975 tourney.

Playing a swarming zone, the long-armed Spartans double and triple-teamed Bird virtually every time he got the ball, and when he was able to get his hands on the ball, Larry was usually in bad position to score. At the other end, Bird guarded MSU star Greg Kelser man up.

With very little time to prepare for the unusual matchup 1-3-1 Spartan zone and just two days between the semis and finals, as well as little time to recuperate from their 76-74 battle with DePaul at altitude in Utah - while the Spartans romped to a 101-67 laugher over Cinderella Penn that was 50-17 at the half - the unbeaten Sycamores were ripe for a letdown.

And boy did they suffer one as the normally good-shooting Sycamores made just 10 of 22 foul shots as a team, with Bird even struggling to make five of eight at the line. Admittedly, Larry played his worst game of the season, and buried his face in despair in a towel on the bench after he was taken out in the waning moments.

Meanwhile, the always-effusive Johnson mugged for the camera and celebrated openly, all but brushing off Bird's post-game handshake and hug.

Then as a rookie, even though Bird was first team all-league, Rookie of the Year and led Boston to a league-best 61 wins (32 more than the previous season, a league-record turnaround), Larry had to watch Johnson once again take home the title hardware.

In high school, Bird had never come close to a coveted Indiana state title. In college, he came painfully close. Finally in his second NBA season, he broke through for his first championship.

Yet LA came right back and took the title away in 1982 when injuries felled the 63-19 Celtics in a seven-game eastern final loss to the spent rival 76ers, who then fell to the Lakers in an anticlimactic six-game series.

While most knowledgable observers felt Bird was the superior all-around player, especially before 1987 and injuries/age began to pile up, Johnson backers could always play the trump card of more championships.

The fact that Bird was first team all-league in each of his first nine seasons before being injured in 1988-89, and Johnson never made first team All-NBA until his fourth campaign in 1983 support the notion of Bird being better up to 1987. Larry also won three straight season MVP awards before Johnson won his first in 1987. Bird is still the only non-center to ever win three consecutive MVP awards (1984-86).

Still, Johnson fans could crow before the 1984 Finals that Johnson had two NBA rings and one NCAA crown to just one pro title for Bird.

So by 1984, Bird was ravenous to beat LA and Johnson, who had known almost nothing but winning and partying, and was spoiled by it. Particularly since his teams, especially in high school and college, had always been more talented than those of Bird.

All those hunger factors helped drive Boston past the Lakers in 1984, something that Riley took keen note of.

"Hang high another banner for the Boston Garden, the Celtics have done it," summed up Musburger as CBS signed off after the epic series ended amid the Boston Garden jubilation and post-game celebration. It was their 15th crown, and one of the very sweetest, to be certain.

And the leprechauns had nothing to do with it.

If you wish to contact article author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at

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