Say this for the Houston Rockets: They are the team of tomorrow. But throughout this NBA season, with a single exception, there had been nothing but grim todays for visitors to the Boston Garden parquet. Sunday's Game 6 of the championship series was no different. Systematically but passionately, the Boston Celtics, a team that must now get younger, destroyed the Rockets, a team that must now get older, by a score of 114-97 to earn their 16th NBA championship. Hang another banner, sew a few more stitches of tradition into that big green quilt that drapes the NBA. And know that this Celtic team, which finished the season 47-1 at the Garden and 82-18 overall, can take its place alongside any that has gone before.
The Rockets did themselves proud in the final series, but surely no one, not even that cocksure prophet of the pivot, Akeem Olajuwon, believed that Houston could win two straight at the Garden. Anyway, this particular Celtic championship long ago seemed ordained. It was "predestined," Kevin McHale said after the game—but at what moment?
Perhaps it was back in the preseason when Celtic president Red Auerbach traded a disenchanted Cedric Maxwell for an enchanted Bill Walton, who arrived in Boston via time machine. The fire burned in Walton's eyes and the passes flicked off his fingertips, just as they had done in 1977 when he brought a championship to Portland. The Celtics' jigsaw had been missing a giant piece—a center to spell Robert Parish—and Walton nestled snugly into place.
Or perhaps it was back on February 16 when the Celtics beat the defending champion L.A. Lakers 105-99 at the Forum to complete a sweep of their two-game season series. Boston attacked the Lakers' soft underbelly of complacency—the same target Celtic opponents will be aiming at next season—and after that game the Celtics may as well have begun scouting the horizon for other challengers. The Rockets, Twin Towers visible from afar, were a logical choice.
June 15, 1986
Or perhaps it was one week earlier in Dallas, on All-Star Weekend. Larry Bird had just won the NBA's first three-point-shot contest and he was ecstatic. "I'm the three-point king! I'm the three-point king!" Bird shouted over and over. Why was a superstar so excited about winning a contest that included Leon Wood and Kyle Macy, for heaven's sake? It spoke volumes about Bird's motivation this season. This was the year he wanted to stuff all the awards in the pocket of his blue jeans and tote them back home to Indiana. That's exactly what he did. He won his third straight MVP award for his play during the regular season, and on Sunday, when he was at his best with his second triple-double of the six-game series, he was voted the series MVP. Who says you can't have it all?
For Game 6, Bird was clearly in no mood to fool around. Early in the fourth period with the Celtics ahead by 84-61, he searched his arsenal for the final dagger to plunge into the Rockets' heart. Sweeping up the refuse of a half-court play gone bad, he suddenly began dribbling away from the basket to the far left corner. As the shot clock wound down, he let fly with as arrogant a shot as has ever been hoisted in the playoffs, an I-can-do-anything three-pointer. "Every one I took was on target today," Bird would say later. And so was this one. The game was over.
Bird had 29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists, 3 steals. But those are only numbers. It was how he played Game 6 that made the difference. Although he scored only seven points in the first period, he dominated the floor at both ends. On the Rockets' second possession he stole a Rodney McCray pass. Later he outfought McCray and Olajuwon for an offensive rebound and put it back in. He grabbed three defensive rebounds. From his knees, where he had fallen in manic pursuit of a loose ball, he screamed to Danny Ainge, "Come to the ball!" When McHale, running upcourt ahead of Bird, failed to look for a pass, Bird shouted at him, "Look up, dammit!" And, said Celtic assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers, "when Larry talks, we all listen." Said McHale, "It's embarrassing not to play the way Larry wants you to play."
There was ample reason for Bird's intensity, which he said was as high as it had ever been for any game. The Celtics had returned to Boston from Houston Friday afternoon with scores to settle. One was with Ralph Sampson, who in Game 5 had picked a fight with Celtic reserve guard Jerry Sichting and been ejected. Another was with Olajuwon, who, while backing up his boast that Boston wouldn't win the series in Houston, had made Celtic centers Parish and Walton look like graybeards.
The Celtics, though, had no one to blame but themselves. After their 106-103 Game 4 victory in Houston, which made their series lead 3-1, they began icing the champagne far too early. They had been lucky to win that one, but several Celtics still caught themselves talking about the championship in the present, instead of the future, tense. The Rockets' Robert Reid, meanwhile, waxed nautical: "We're not drowning. We're hanging on a life raft, true, but we're still floating." They came out for Game 5 on Thursday night not floating but swinging.
Or at least Sampson did. At 9:40 of the second period he and Sichting, who at 6'1" is 15 inches shorter than Sampson, became entangled during a Rocket possession. They bumped. Sichting didn't back down. Sampson gave him an elbow. Sichting said, "I'll get you for that." Sampson suddenly turned and threw a frightening right hand, then another, at Sichting. Dennis Johnson came running over—"to pull Jerry away," he said—and Sampson took a swing that landed near Johnson's left eye. Stick, as Sampson is called by his teammates, had suddenly become Stick And Move.
Both benches emptied. Olajuwon and Johnson squared off. Despite the fact that he had worn a DANCE FOR DISARMAMENT T-shirt to practice the day before, Walton tackled Sampson, who grew progressively enraged as the battle wore on. After peace was restored, Referee Jack Madden made the correct decision, ejecting Sampson and not Sichting, who had committed no crime except to play tough, irritating defense. Reid, the Rockets' father hen, ran straight over to Jim Petersen, Sampson's replacement, and said, "See that guy walking off the court? He was gonna give us 25 points tonight. He's our leader." Translation: You have to stay in the game and contribute.
Petersen did. Everybody did. From the time Sampson left until Celtic coach K.C. Jones waved the white flag by going to the bench with 3:29 remaining in the game, the Rockets went over, around and through the Celtics. Olajuwon finished with 32 points, 14 rebounds and 8 blocks in the 111-96 rout. Petersen had 12 rebounds, 6 at each end. McCray played an almost perfect game and finished with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 0 turnovers. Mitchell Wiggins, whose aggressiveness on defense and swaggering bad-dude style mark him as the second coming of Norm Van Lier, had 16 points and 4 offensive rebounds. At long last the Celtics were exposed as a little old and a little slow, weaknesses they generally cover up with intensity and savvy.
The game brought out the worst in almost everyone, except for easygoing K.C. Jones, whose first words to the press were "Oy vey." He called his offense and defense "organized chaos" and said the Celtics "were there but were somewhere else." Sichting said of Sampson's attack that he didn't know whether "it was a punch or a mosquito bite. My three-year-old son hits harder." Bird roasted both the officiating and the Houston fans and said he couldn't believe Sampson had picked on Sichting, because "my girlfriend could beat him up."
Johnny Most, the gravel-voiced radio play-by-play man and Celtic cheerleader, became a folk hero back in Boston for his description of the fight on WRKO. Most said, in part, "Ralph Sampson is a gutless big guy who picks on little people, and he showed me a gutless streak. That was a gutless, yellow thing to do."
Sampson, for his part, returned to the Summit floor after the game and waved to the crowd like a heavyweight champion. And though he said he was sorry that the incident occurred, he never really apologized for precipitating it.
At their practice Saturday, the day before Game 6, the Celtics basically beat each other up. "I had to call it off before they killed each other," said Jones. McHale, normally Mr. Quip, left practice quickly, his dark, hollow eyes staring straight ahead. Bird, in keeping with his sudden emergence as an all-NBA schmoozer, stayed around long enough to say he expected to get more involved in the offense (he had taken only 13 shots in Game 5) and that he wasn't worried about McCray's or Reid's defense on him ("Michael Cooper's not in this series and he's the only one who can really shut me down"). And he also said, "I'm ready to go. And if I'm ready to go, usually the other guys are, too."
Certainly the Beantown fans were ready to go. On Sunday, Sampson was booed every time he touched the ball in the first half. One moron, standing next to a policeman, hung Sampson in effigy from the upper deck. Whether he felt pressured or not, Sampson played poorly, stiffly, uncertainly. He failed to get to the free throw line and finished with 8 points on 4-for-12 shooting from the floor. Said Sampson later, "I wasn't tough psychologically." Or any other way.
But even a Sampson in sync might not have made a difference. The Celtics played as if possessed. While McHale shut down Sampson, Parish and Walton controlled Olajuwon (19 points). Johnson had asked to switch to Reid, and the dependable DJ was in Reid's face all day, holding him to 12 points and 6 assists.
There was one brief sequence late in the first period when the NBA's future, in the person of Olajuwon, flashed before the Celtics' eyes. On three consecutive possessions Olajuwon came from behind Walton to make steals that led to Rocket baskets, two of them slam dunks by Akeem. Never had Walton, who will be 34 in November, looked older. But inevitably, inexorably, he had his moment. Right after Bird's three-pointer in the fourth period, Walton turned up the Garden decibel level to its highest point when he made a 15-foot jump shot. The Rockets called timeout, Walton raised his fist and the crowd went crazy. It was the moment he had come for, the apotheosis of his long, strange trip, as his friends, the Grateful Dead, might put it.
And where will it lead next year? "We're an old team and a little injury-prone," said Bird. "Bill Walton is the key. If he stays healthy we have a great shot at winning more championships."
Even more clearly, the Rockets can only get better. As Reid made his way through the crowded corridor outside the Celtic locker room after Sunday's game, he was stopped by Boston assistant coach Chris Ford. "Good game, Robert," said Ford. "Same time next year?"