To the chagrin of several flight attendants, Pat Riley had established position near the first-class galley of TWA Flight 846, the widebody that was whisking the Los Angeles Lakers to Boston for Sunday's sixth game of the NBA championship series. He had posted up some reporters, and he wasn't budging one inch. "We're not going to be careful," said Riley, whose Lakers led the Celtics three games to two, and now had two chances to close out the series in Boston Garden. "We're going to be carefree. If they thought we ran last night...."
The stewardi weren't looking. Riley stuck his hand into a nearby ice bucket, dug out a cube and popped it mischievously into his mouth.
"...they're going to see us run some more. Sometime in the course of the game one team is going to crack. And if we push it, it's more likely to be them.
"Hey, if it's meant to be"—and Riley believed it was, having already made much of how the Lakers would atone, after their loss to Boston in Game 7 of last spring's finals—"why not go back to Boston and win it there?"
We now know that Riley spoke a prophecy at 36,000 feet, and the man who made it come true was 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His skyhook, the supersonic shot with the turboprop pedigree, made the difference in the six-game get-back setback the Lakers dealt the Celtics.
Boston did crack, 111-100, right there in its own Garden, losing the final game of a championship series on the parquet for the first time ever. And after the Lakers had banished the demons of their eight straight championship series losses to the Celtics dating back to 1959, only Abdul-Jabbar was old enough to invoke the most felicitous analogy. "It's like the Dodgers beating the Yankees in 1955," he said. "Celtic pride was in this building, but so were we."
The Lakers, if you please, would like to make one thing clear: The Celts didn't just lose, they succumbed to L.A.'s relentless pressure. Take an ice cube, suck on it, clamp your teeth down, and it's only a matter of time before it cracks. "I'd seen that they were tired all over their faces," Magic Johnson said. "Riles kept making that point. 'Hey, Bug, keep pushing it.' Even if we pushed it up and didn't score, my job was still to push it up. To keep pushing it till they'd break."
Charley Eckman, the folksy former coach of the Fort Wayne/Detroit Pistons (1954-58), used to say there are only two great plays: put the ball in the basket and South Pacific. And in their only certifiable must-win game of the season, the Celtics shot horribly. They began the series by shooting a record 60.8% from the field in Game 1. They ended it with a miserable 38.5% effort in Game 6.
Their guards, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, clanged 25 of 31 shots Sunday. Their series studhorse, Kevin McHale, hit 11 of 18 from the field and 10 of 13 from the line for 32 points, but was forced to spend his sixth personal foul with 5:21 to play. And while Abdul-Jabbar was the unanimous choice as the playoffs' Most Valuable Player, Boston's Larry Bird, the regular-season MVP, never did bust loose. "I thought I'd have a great game today," said Bird, for whom 28 points on 12-for-29 shooting isn't great at all. "I can only dream about the shots going in that didn't."
"We made 'em lose it," Magic said.
The Lakers' collective will was the sum of many individual motives. James Worthy, a young star, was motivated by the moment. He provided 28 points in the clincher on an impressive array of splay-legged slams and outside jumpers, scoring from the perimeter more often than Bird did. But if anything spurred the Lakers on, it was the resolve of their written-off and their reviled. "There comes a time when you have to plant your feet firmly, take a stand and kick some butt," Riley said. "That's what we did. They can never mock us, or humiliate us, or disrespect us, which is what they did last year."
L.A. defensive specialist Michael Cooper had taken a muzzled shot at his coach for failing to get him in at the end of Game 4, when Dennis Johnson sank a 21-foot jumper at the buzzer to beat the Lakers at the Forum, 107-105. Here in Game 6 he helped to throttle Bird, even returning for the fourth quarter after his day seemed finished late in the third, when he was carried off with a bruised knee.
Mitch Kupchak, the 6'10" reserve, was a longshot to ever play again after ripping his left knee apart 3½ years ago. In an ironic twist, Kupchak embodied the Lakers' commitment to physical fitness. He threw his rebuilt body at McHale all series long, and spelled Abdul-Jabbar for a long stretch of the second quarter Sunday, when fouls forced the captain to the bench. "They really didn't lose nothing," Bird noted.
Kurt Rambis, trashed by Celtics radio man Johnny Most as a creature "from a sewer" who perhaps should be "kicked out of the league," dived routinely into the stands for loose balls. Those scratches on his back, he explained, really weren't from alley fights under the boards—he grabbed 19 rebounds in Games 5 and 6—but from trimming rose bushes.
As for Abdul-Jabbar, he had been humiliated by Riley at a team meeting following his lethargic 12-point, three-rebound performance in L.A.'s 148-114 Game 1 loss. "He stepped forward and said what I was saying was right," Riley said. "And he made a contract with us that it would never happen again, ever. That game was a blessing in disguise. It strengthened the fiber of this team. Ever since then, Kareem had this look, this air about him."
Magic, of course, had nursed a special kind of determination, too, ever since he muffed late free throws, threw away crucial passes and took the rap for the Lakers' '84 loss to Boston. "You wait so long to get back," he said. "A whole year, that's the hard part. But that's what makes this game interesting. It's made me stronger. You have to deal with different situations and see if you can come back."
The Lakers found out they could. They refused to Wilt after that dispiriting loss in Game 4 at the Forum, when D.J., Boston's L.A.-bred guard, took a pass from Bird above the foul circle with two seconds left and "buried it in his own backyard," as Celtic M.L. Carr put it.
Long before that buzzer-beater, even before the game began, in fact, the Celtics had outfoxed the Lakers. Just hours before tip-off, NBA vice-president for operations Scotty Stirling warned the opposing coaches, Riley and K.C. Jones, that extracurricular horseplay of the sort demonstrated in Games 2 and 3 would be dealt with summarily. Riley dutifully relayed the message to his Lakers but Jones cagily kept it to himself. L.A., which had seemed to profit psychologically in Games 2 and 3 from its newfound aggressiveness, was the consensus loser as Game 4 play turned Etonian. The Lakers had their chances, but couldn't deliver a fatal sting. "It makes you wonder when they win all the games decided by one or two points," Cooper mused. "Those are the games where you see the heart of a good ball team. We've just gotta buckle down and win one of these."
In Game 5, the Lakers were determined to match the Celtics' aggressiveness, and a defensive switch early in the second quarter helped them to break through with a 120-111 win. McHale, who came to full-blooming stardom in this series, had already scored 16 points over and around smaller Lakers, so Riley took Abdul-Jabbar off Robert Parish and assigned him to McHale. The Celtics naturally began feeding Parish, but the Chiefs troubles didn't end when Kareem left him. McHale, meanwhile, was sealed off from the offensive boards, where he had run down four rebounds before Abdul-Jabbar began guarding him. And he made but three shots the rest of the way.
The 6'8" Rambis was the one left to cope with Parish. Twice Rambis pirouetted around the seven-footer for steals that started Laker breaks. But his single most impressive play came late in the second quarter, with L.A. nursing a 50-48 lead. McHale had entered the lane and launched another one of his heretofore automatic short jumpers, the ones that Most calls "pumpkins."
Worthy poached to his left and sent McHale's shot flying for the sideline, ticketed for out-of-bounds. Rambis pursued the ball to the courtside row of Forum fat cats. It did not matter to Rambo that a long-stemmed lovely in lavender and white, squired by Indy 500 champ Danny Sullivan, sat demurely in his path. Nor did he mind particularly that to keep the ball in play, he had to leave size 12DD treadmarks on her face, which would soon be sullied with tears. "Hey, sorry, lady," Rambis would say later.
Worthy took Rambis's retrieval to the other end, where he sank a free throw. Soon Worthy and Rambis each picked off a D.J. pass, and L.A. put together a 14-3 run to end the half ahead 64-51 and very much in control. When the Celts rallied to trim an 89-72 Laker lead to 101-97 with 6:01 remaining, L.A. ignored the autopsies that blamed the Game 4 loss on heart failure. Magic conjured three hoops, and Abdul-Jabbar threw down three skyhooks, plus a dunk for good measure. "People didn't think we could win close games," Magic said. "But we won one."
When it was close in Game 6 on Sunday—tied, in fact, at 55 at halftime—the Lakers actually felt good about themselves. "They'd only played seven guys," Magic said. "Kareem and me hadn't played much because of foul trouble, and we were running off the long jumpers they'd take." The long jumpers they'd miss.
When fatigue did begin to settle in—Games 5 and 6 were separated by only 38 hours, and 3,000 miles—it bypassed Abdul-Jabbar. He led the Lakers through the stretch, scoring 18 of his 29 points in the second half, seemingly unmindful that more than 14 years had passed since he was last a playoff MVP, as a young Milwaukee Buck named Lew Alcindor. "He defies logic," says Riley. "He's the most unique and durable athlete of our time, the best you'll ever see. You'd better enjoy him while he's here."
He'll be there for one more season, in which the Lakers will try to do what these Celtics came so close to but no team has done since 1969—win back-to-back titles. Riley likes their chances. "This team is going to win again," he says. "It's going to win as long as he's with us."
"The best marathoner in the world is in his 30s," Kareem says. "He pays the price. I live with me all the time. I know what I can do."
"He amazes me," Magic said. "But then again, he doesn't, because he's Kareem. He was focusing in. Nobody and nothing stops Kareem once his back hits the wall. You know he's coming back."
"I'm back. Back."
To Los Angelenos, flying is "skying." To fly back to their home airport is to "sky to LAX." The word somehow does justice to both how the Lakers won, and what they'll be doing all summer long. Look for contrails of contentment wherever they go.