Thirty years ago the Lakers walked onto the Celtics' parquet for Game 6 of the NBA Finals. It was a meeting of bitter rivals—Bird and Magic, Boston and L.A.—and it would lay to rest ghosts that had tormented the Lakers since 1959
AS THE LAKERS and the Celtics prepared to meet in the 1985 Finals, a rerun of the armed combat in short shorts that had transpired the previous season, the NBA was still an on-the-rise property, its title held jointly by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, both in the sixth year of their immortal careers. They stood guard at the crest of NBA Mountain, peering down imperiously on all others, even the young Michael Jordan, who had his $2.5 million (gasp!) Nike deal, his aerial acrobatics and his ineffable tongue-wagging appeal, but not the established savior-of-the-league bona fides of M & B.
Thirty years later the pair has been synthesized into a single sainted icon: MagicLarry/LarryMagic, immortal BFFs, their bro-ship celebrated both in print (Jackie MacMullan's best-selling When the Game Was Ours) and onstage (a 2012 Broadway play that was called, quite to the point, Magic/Bird).
But to fully grasp the tenor and tone of that championship series 30 years ago, it is necessary to see the Larry-Magic dynamic in a different light, one that reveals them as combatants more than brothers-in-arms. They had yet to film the Converse spot that famously drew them together as titans of commercial crossover, and while it would be an overstatement to say that they didn't like each other, each was the heart and soul of his team, and that left no room for camaraderie.
June 8, 2015
"The hostility was a big part of the reason people tuned in and got excited," says Magic. "Larry and I were part of that." As was Lakers coach Pat Riley. During the '85 Finals he went to the history books, dug up all sorts of terrible facts about the treachery of the ancient Celts and related them to his team, even as he acknowledged that, say, Kevin McHale's dirty little post tricks probably had little to do with the sacking of Rome in 387 B.C. "I wasn't always accurate, either," Riley admits with a laugh. "Kareem had to correct me on a few things."
Beyond their atmosphere of enmity, the '85 Finals were memorable for any number of reasons. That was the first year the NBA used a 2-3-2 format, affording the lower seed, in this case the Lakers, three straight games and eight blessed days at home, a system that was abandoned only last season. (The 2-3-2 also afforded the league a better chance of getting at least a six-game series and the added revenue that came with it.)
The '85 Finals also furnished the first solid evidence that James Worthy, newly begoggled, was indeed worthy; he would become known as Big Game James in that series. It was a Finals of metaphors, beginning with a massacre and ending with an exorcism, both performed on that long-gone Boston Garden parquet. And as much as a retrospective of the '85 championship series reveals two players and two franchises in stark relief, at the height of their aggregate power, it also provides unequivocal proof of the singular greatness of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the MVP of that series at age 38, who has somehow become both immortal and underrated.
I HAD BEGUN covering the league at that juncture, an accident of timing for which there is no limit to my gratitude. Back then there was no Internet beast to feed daily (a geezeresque observation if ever there was one), so story lines and themes were limited—and for several years they pretty much came down to Lakers/Celtics/Magic/Bird. You couldn't get past it. If you wrote about one team or one player, devotees of the other would call you out. To this day some still claim that I favored Bird over Magic, while others say I favored Magic over Bird. I answer this way: First I wrote a story suggesting that Bird was the greatest player ever, then I wrote a story saying that, no, Magic was the greatest player ever, then I wrote a story saying that Jordan was better than either of them.
Even the greatness of others was drawn upon the Lakers/Celtics/Magic/Bird canvas. Could Dr. J finally get past both of them and win a title? Yes, but only once, with his terrific 1983 76ers team that included Moses Malone. Same for the Ralph Sampson/Akeem Olajuwon Rockets in the West: They got by the Lakers in 1986, but they were a one-off conference champion, and anyway, they couldn't beat the Celtics in the Finals. All the other great players from that era—Bernard King, Sidney Moncrief, Adrian Dantley, George Gervin, Alex English—had their dreams crushed by either L.A. or Boston, in a preview of what Jordan's Bulls would do to so many other stars (Stockton, Malone, Barkley, Ewing) in the '90s.
Lakers-Celtics lore also permeated the media coverage at that time. I knew about Bill Russell and Bob Cousy and the tortured championship history of Elgin Baylor and my favorite player, Jerry West (who went winless in six Finals against Boston as a player), but younger scribes learned about it fast. The league was always reaching back, back before the forgettable blur that was the 1970s, back to a simpler time defined by the greatness of the Celtics and the superlative supporting role played by the Lakers.
So you can't consider the significance of what happened in the 1985 Finals without looking at the Celtics-Lakers saga in its entirety. Before '85 the franchises had done battle eight times in the championship round, and eight times the Celtics had come away with the hardware. Boston had beaten Baylor, West, Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain. L.A.'s losses included the infamous Game 7 of 1969, in which Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke prematurely hung celebratory balloons bearing the inscription WORLD CHAMPION LAKERS from the Forum ceiling ... and the Celtics won, 108--106. But mostly the Lake Show lost in Boston Garden, dropping 19 of 26 championship series games in that hellhole (Lakers interpretation), where the nauseating brew of bellicosity and Red Auerbach's sour stogie smoke seemed to choke the Lakers quite literally.
And if you discounted ancient history, well, there was still the matter of L.A.'s painful seven-game loss only a year earlier, in the '84 Finals, known alternately as the Henderson Steal Series, the McHale Clotheslines Rambis Series, and the Heat in Boston Garden Series.
"You can't look at 1985 without looking at 1984," says Magic. "We all thought we should've won. It was the ultimate motivator."
In the '84 series the Lakers had disposed of the Celtics 115--109 in Game 1 and in Game 2 held a 113--111 lead with 18 seconds left, needing only to kill some clock and make a free throw or two to go back to L.A. with a 2--0 series lead. The painful memories of all those Boston Garden defeats were about to be washed away. But Gerald Henderson, the Celtics' sixth man, stole Worthy's crosscourt pass to Byron Scott and took it in for a layup. The Celtics ended up winning in overtime, 124--121. "There's no way we lose the series coming out of Boston ahead 2--0," says Riley. Even Bird conceded that if not for the steal, "we probably would've been swept."
The Lakers won Game 3 in a rout in L.A., 137--104, after which Bird commented, as only Bird could, that some members of his team "played like sissies." True or not, the suspicion fell on McHale. So in Game 4, as Lakers forward Kurt Rambis went in for a layup....
"I saw two guys closing on me, and I knew one of them was going to hit me," says Rambis, now the associate head coach of the Knicks. "No surprise it was Kevin." McHale, making no attempt to block the shot, cuffed Rambis on the head and sent him flying. The Lakers forward crashed to the floor. McHale's move was so out-of-bounds illegal that Bird, generally no peacemaker, went over to Rambis and gently lifted him up. In today's less wild 'n' woolly world McHale would've drawn a Flagrant 2, an ejection and perhaps even a multigame suspension.
"I don't even think Kevin got a technical, did he?" Rambis wants to know. He did not.
In hindsight, the play may be overrated in a series defined by physicality, but it did seem to confirm a theme. "You know how it went back then," says Rambis. "We were run-and-gun, highlights and flash. The Celtics were all work, plodders and tougher than us. That wasn't exactly true, but that's what people believed."
The Celtics won the clothesline game in overtime, 129--125, to tie the series at 2--2. And when the Lakers flew into Boston the next day, they found a city locked in an awful heat wave. On the evening of June 8, the Game 5 temperature in Boston Garden, which did not have air conditioning, was in the mid-90s. The Lakers were out of sorts from the beginning, half-believing that Auerbach could control the New England weather. Though it was "the same for both teams," it really wasn't, beginning with the decrepit visitors' locker room, which was about as inviting as a Turkish prison in Midnight Express.
While Abdul-Jabbar wilted, Bird thrived, scoring 34 points and grabbing 17 rebounds and afterward dismissively reminding everyone that he shot baskets in much more stifling heat back in French Lick, Ind. The final score was 121--103, and though the Lakers won Game 6 back in L.A., the Celtics, as if following an ancient and intractable script, took the championship with a 111--102 Game 7 victory in Boston Garden.
The loss was devastating for the Lakers, particularly for Magic, who had earned the sobriquet Tragic Johnson from the quick-witted McHale owing to mistakes Magic made in Game 2 (he dribbled out the clock in regulation without passing in time to get the Lakers a shot), Game 4 (two crucial missed free throws) and Game 7 (a key late turnover).
But the defeat also strengthened the Lakers' resolve. Riley instituted a "no friends" policy regarding opposing teams. "We used to work out in the summer with DJ," said Magic, referring to Boston guard Dennis Johnson. "Coop [Lakers sixth man Michael Cooper] and I were good friends with him. But after that loss Riles said no more friendly games, no more picking each other up and driving around, not even casual conversation. It was all business."
THERE WAS little to differentiate the Celtics (63--19) from the Lakers (62--20) during the 1984--85 regular season, but Boston was the favorite going into the playoffs simply because of the home court advantage afforded by the Garden. However, as the Finals began on Memorial Day, Bird was not on top of his game. Between Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the 76ers, he had allegedly hurt his right index finger in a barroom fight in Beantown. Bird never talked publicly about the injury, won't now and never indicated that it had anything to do with his subpar performance.
By halftime of Game 1, however, no one was even thinking about that. Scott Wedman, eighth man in the rotation, came off the bench and made all 11 of his shots, as the Celtics ran away with a 148--114 win that came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre. "On that day Scott was Larry Bird," says Danny Ainge, a guard on that Celtics team and now Boston's general manager.
"It was the first time—and the last time—I ever remember us with a look on our face that said, We don't know what to do," says Magic.
"It was just one of those inexplicable games," says Riley. "It went the wrong way very, very quickly. We looked heavy and tired. We just didn't have it."
Abdul-Jabbar, in particular, didn't have it. Celtics center Robert Parish, who at 30 was eight years younger than Kareem, ran by him repeatedly, and the Lakers' captain finished with only 12 points and three rebounds.
After that debacle, the main question was, Would the series even make it back to Boston?
The following day Riley walked into the film session at the team hotel, and the first thing he saw was Abdul-Jabbar sitting in the front row (he usually sat near the back), arms folded, staring stoically at the TV, ready to take his medicine. "His body language said, Let me see all my mistakes. Let me see that horror show," remembers Riley. "That's how Kareem was." (Abdul-Jabbar, recovering from quadruple bypass surgery, was not available to be interviewed for this story.)
Like most teams, the Lakers broke their game film into small, digestible parts with themes—you didn't properly rotate here, you didn't double-team there, etc.—and on this day those themes sounded like indictments. Riley ran the same snippets over and over; the dominant ones were of Kareem getting beat. "It was harsh," said Mitch Kupchak, now the Lakers' general manager and then a backup big man in the L.A. rotation, "and directed mostly at Kareem."
As Magic remembers it, "Riles got around to everybody eventually, including me, but Kareem was the focal point for an obvious reason: Pat knew we had to get him going to have any chance to beat the Celtics."
After the two-hour film session Riley gathered the team together and announced that whistles would not be blown during the ensuing scrimmage. "Riles huddled up with the reserves, gave them their instructions, and they just beat us to death," says Magic. "His message was: Stop whining, stop looking at the referees, be physical yourself. There were almost a couple fights. It was like football. Then we did it the next day too. But you know what? I think it was the turning point of the series."
Before Game 2, Abdul-Jabbar approached Riley and asked, "Can my father ride with us on the team bus to the Garden?" The coach agreed. Lewis Alcindor Sr. was a jazz musician who attended Juilliard and made his living as a transit policeman. He was known as Big Al, even though he was only 6'3". In his mind's eye Riley can still see Big Al and Kareem sitting together in the back of the bus, not talking much, staring straight ahead, the son quietly drawing strength from the father.
"It made an impression on all of us," remembers Magic. "Pat was a stickler for rules—no outsiders on the bus—and it sent a powerful message when he made that exception. It was all about family."
Bird insists that even after the Game 1 rout, the Celtics did not take the Lakers lightly. "We knew they'd come back strong, especially in a Finals setting," says Bird.
At any rate, in Game 2 the Lakers ran all over the parquet, building a 21--6 lead they never lost and coming away with a series-tying 109--102 victory. They were fueled by Abdul-Jabbar's 30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks. "All things considered, it was one of the greatest games Kareem ever played," says Riley. Afterward, Abdul-Jabbar wryly offered a few versions of Mark Twain's comment that "rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated." (Though Twain's actual comment was, "The report of my death was an exaggeration.")
Then it was back to L.A., and for the first time the lower seed had three straight games at home. "What I remember is that Red [Auerbach] was in favor of the 2-3-2 format," says Ainge, "but in this case it was clearly a break for the Lakers." The Celtics' pasha had indeed been kvetching about the Finals travel schedule, which in '84 had taken the teams from Boston to L.A. on June 1, back to Boston on June 7, back to L.A. on June 9 and back to Boston on June 11.
After comfortable charter flights became the norm, the NBA would return to a 2-2-1-1-1 format in 2014. But in 1985 it wasn't the air miles as much as the game schedule—the first four games were played in 10 days, the final two in three days. Why? Because TV dictated the schedule and did not want prime-time games during sweeps weeks. The NBA was only four years removed from having its Finals broadcast on tape delay, and pro basketball was still not quite considered prime-time material. Such was the tattered legacy of the 1970s that the arrival of Magic/Bird had begun to repair.
THE LAKERS won Game 3, 136--111, as Worthy scored 29 points and Abdul-Jabbar had 26, not to mention 14 rebounds. It was becoming apparent that the center's reawakening was permanent. It is illuminating to remember that the Lakers of the '80s were an offensive team that at once had possibly the best fast break in history and unquestionably the best half-court option ever.
"Our rule was always to break first," says Magic. "That was really true against the Celtics. We had to push it every single time, because speed and depth were our advantage.
"But Kareem was always in the back of my mind. We had a play off the break. If it wasn't there, we'd have Byron [Scott] go pick for James [Worthy], who comes to my side. If James didn't have an opening, I'd swing the ball, and by that time Kareem would be moving into the post. We'd get it into him then, and it would be a like a secondary break, because Kareem would be on the move instead of stationary. It was hard to double him then."
Yet for all that, the Celtics, the so-called plodders, could also put up points. Their 148-point game in the series was an outlier, but they rarely struggled to score, even if it did not come as easily to them as it did to the Lakers. In Game 4, McHale, Dennis Johnson and Bird finished with 28, 27 and 26 points, respectively, and DJ's buzzer-beating jumper produced a 107--105 victory. Johnson was usually the Celtics' x-factor. He limped, he sighed, he shook his head in disgust, and sometimes he seemed to be playing at half-speed—but he was almost always at his best in the clutch. On that decisive play Johnson, dribbling at the top of the key with L.A.'s Johnson on him, was clearly looking for Bird on a curl. DJ passed him the ball, and Bird, guarded by Bob McAdoo, took one dribble before Magic double-teamed him. "They loved to run Larry on that, so I stunted toward him," remembers Magic. "You can't let Larry have it in that situation. And then I just couldn't get back to DJ in time." Bird passed back to DJ, whose shot tied the series at 2--2.
By this point one of the dominant themes in the series was the contrast in the two teams' depth, or rather, the way the coaches were employing their benches. Riley had a nice rotation going, with Cooper (more like a starter), McAdoo (a stunning offensive talent who was in the twilight of his career) and Kupchak (injured but cagey) getting strategic minutes. "I had one role," says Kupchak, "and that was to go in and bang." By contrast, Boston coach K.C. Jones seemed frightened by the very prospect of looking down his bench. In Game 5 he clearly wore out his starters. DJ went 48 minutes, McHale 46 and Bird and Parish both 44, and the Celtics went down to a 120--111 defeat.
The story has come down that Worthy, who scored 33 points in Game 5, was poked in the eye during the series and only then began wearing his goggles. But his eyewear had appeared earlier in the season, after he was injured in a game against the Utah Jazz. The Lakers were quite a spectacle: Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy wore goggles, and then there was Rambis in his president-of-the-math-club specs.
Perhaps Worthy needed the prop to at last get his due. One of the mysteries of that era is why he was ever considered soft. He was not. Worthy was the closest thing there was to a Matrix-type player that—he's here and then ... he's there. Worthy moved like a shadow. But that doesn't mean he wasn't tough.
WITH THE Lakers up 3--2, both teams boarded commercial flights on Saturday morning for the trip back to Boston and a Sunday-afternoon Game 6. The obvious story line was, Would the ghosts jump out of their musty Boston Garden closets and once again spook the Lakers?
Players rarely obsess about history—"You're too much in the moment to think about it," says Magic—but for Kupchak, who was in his ninth season, the curse was real. "When I first came into the league [with the Washington Bullets], Boston Garden was just a place where you could win," says Kupchak, a rookie in 1976. "Then Bird came along, then I got to the Lakers [in '81], then 1984 happened and, suddenly, you were aware of the demons. The frustrations that Jerry [West] went through. The bolts on the parquet that didn't go all the way down, the dead spots on the floor, the showers that mysteriously didn't work, all the little things you didn't notice when you were beating them."
It was worse for Riley, who had played for the Lakers in the 1970s (though never against the Celtics in the Finals), had heard of the frustrations firsthand from his pal West and, of course, presided over the 1984 defeat. As he ran his team through two hotel ballroom walk-throughs, all the stomach-roiling thoughts about the Garden ran through his head.
"That place was always a nightmare," says Riley, who is able to rustle up some vintage indignation quite easily. "As soon as we'd start our off-day practices, the chain saws would come out, and the workers were all around, and the security guys would show up, and I'm not sure anybody was doing anything except watching us. In 1984 it was so hot we could barely breathe in our locker room, while they had these big machines that blew cool air. It got to the point that we brought our own beverages to the Garden because we couldn't trust their water, and we covered all the cameras during practices because we didn't know who was watching."
The Game 6 atmosphere was charged, as it always was for playoff games in Boston Garden. Celtics announcer Johnny Most had sunk to the occasion by describing Rambis as "something that crawled out of a sewer." Says Rambis now, "I loved it. How many people in their lives are ever called a sewer rat?"
Back in Los Angeles, West tuned in for the afternoon game while his six-year-old son Ryan's birthday party proceeded at a dull roar all around him. The GM had elected to remain in L.A. both because watching games live drove him crazy with anxiety and because he didn't want to contribute any bad juju from the past. In the second quarter his cable went out, and West switched to the radio. He always said that radio was better: Instead of listening to Boston legend Tommy Heinsohn pump up the Celtics on the CBS TV affiliate, he could listen to L.A. legend Chick Hearn pump up the Lakers on KLAC AM 570.
From the outset it was the Lakers' day. Perhaps they were desperate to avoid a Game 7, or perhaps they were just better than the Celtics. "We had a number of players who could guard Bird in Cooper, Worthy, Scott and Magic," says Riley, "while they didn't have anybody who could play Kareem. We took motivation from the year before. We were very confident going into that game."
It wasn't particularly dramatic. There were no clutch shots or memorable heroics. It was a workmanlike 111--100 victory achieved by a team that was deep and driven. "What I remember most about that game was Kareem hitting this skyhook along the baseline from about 14 feet out," says Bird. "That did it. People forget that Kareem could pass out of the post as well as score. He was the difference-maker in the series."
And so history was rewritten, "the demons exorcised from the franchise," in Kupchak's words. In the final seconds, Cooper threw the ball high in the air, and the Lakers ran off the court "before we got trapped," as Riley puts it.
"A part of you wants to win a championship in front of your home fans," says Rambis, "but for a competitive athlete it doesn't get any better than jamming it to a team on their home court. Particularly the Celtics."
"I'll never forget getting back to L.A. and talking to Jerry West about it," says Magic. "It was only then that I fully realized the misery they had gone through and what this meant to the franchise."
Danny Ainge, do you have any final memories from Game 6? "I've spent the last 30 years trying to forget that series," he says, "and now you're asking me to remember?"
But of course the story didn't end in '85. "No question what happened in that year helped us in '86," says Bird. The Lakers-Celtics rivalry had a Biblical aspect to it. Just as 1984 begat 1985, so did '85 beget the Celtics' title in '86. In turn, '86 begat the Lakers' back-to-back titles in '87 and '88. Disappointment produced motivation, motivation produced excellence, excellence produced vengeance.
But the rivalry did cool. After the '85 series, Magic and Bird filmed their Converse commercial in French Lick, which got them socializing and thinking a little differently about each other. Not everyone wanted to see the hard armor of that competition scrubbed shiny. "I told Earvin, 'I can't believe you're selling yourself out to do a commercial with Bird,'" says Riley with a laugh. "Earvin said, 'Coach, I can handle it.' I guess he could. But I didn't like it."
By the time the Lakers beat the Celtics in six games in 1987—that was the series in which Magic's "junior junior skyhook" won Game 4 in Boston Garden—Bird and McHale were breaking down physically. The Lakers held on through '88, then passed the torch to the Pistons, who in turn passed it to Jordan and the Bulls (albeit unwillingly, to say the least).
But in a way there is no end to the saga of Lakers-Celtics/Magic-Bird. It simply endures, though always with more than a little sadness. In 2007, Dennis Johnson died of a heart attack at age 52, and in 2013, Ray Williams, a guard on the 1984--85 Celtics team who went bankrupt and became homeless after his playing days were over, died of cancer at age 58.
"Every speech I make," says Magic, "the first question is always some version of this: A guy stands up and says, 'I remember when the Lakers played the Celtics and you and Larry Bird would go against each other and....'
"And I interrupt and say, 'I remember too. And there will never be anything like it. Ever.'"
POSTSCRIPT: On an August morning in 1992, West, still the Lakers' GM, was robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot of the Forum. (Ponder for a moment the cosmic indecency of robbing the Logo in his parking lot.) Two thieves demanded his wallet and told him to remove from his finger the 1985 championship ring, the only one he ever wore. They were never caught.
West eventually got a replica, and on June 9, 2004, on Ryan's 25th birthday—19 years to the day after the Lakers won Game 6 at Boston Garden—father presented the ring to son, who keeps it locked away in a jewelry box.
The Icon owns one championship ring as a player and seven others as an executive, not counting the '85 replica. "But he doesn't wear any of them," says Ryan, now a Lakers scout, "because the only one that really means something to him is the one from 1985."
Riley went to the history books, dug up terrible facts about the treachery of the ancient Celts and related them to his team.
Riley can still see Big Al and Kareem sitting in the back of the bus, the son quietly drawing strength from the father.
For an expanded version of this story—and more of our series looking back at 1985—go to SI.com/longform