Kings of the court
There were incredible highs (overtime wins, boozy celebrations in Faneuil Hall) and miserable lows (doubting teammates, A hotel-room sob session). In this exclusive excerpt from their forthcoming book, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson recount their rivalry during the 1984 NBA Finals.
Jackie MacMullan: I was one of the fortunate journalists who covered the Celtics-Lakers and Bird-Magic rivalry in the 1980s as a sportswriter for The Boston Globe. The intensity with which both Bird and Johnson approached their head-to-head battles (while publicly feigning indifference about each other) was unmistakable. As the years rolled on, and I grew to know them better, I asked both Magic and Larry if they were as obsessed with beating each other as it seemed. Their answer was the springboard to our book, When the Game Was Ours.
June 12, 1984 Boston He could have shut the curtains and cranked up the volume on the television. Instead, Magic Johnson acted on his perverse need to witness the revelry that was unfolding around him, staring blankly out of the window of his hotel, fixated on the sea of green below. Thousands of fans clogged the streets, many wearing shamrock-colored T-shirts, creating a gleeful gridlock of traffic in the already historically congested city. Car horns honked, fireworks crackled, and grown men danced Irish jigs in celebration of the Celtics’ Game 7 victory over the Lakers to capture the 1984 NBA Championship.
“It was bedlam,” Magic said. “I made myself watch it. It made me feel worse, but I deserved to be miserable.”
His two close friends, NBA stars Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas, remained sequestered with him, attempting to console him. Back then, there were no team charters to whisk professional athletes home immediately after the game. The Lakers flew commercial and were forced to wait until morning before they could escape Boston and their glaring errors, which were highlighted hourly on the local news channels. Aguirre turned off the television, and Thomas ordered room service: a feast of chicken, ribs, mounds of fruit, and baskets of rolls and pastries. Most of it went untouched. Johnson had no appetite for anything except self-loathing. His friends broached various topics with the aim of distracting him -- music, cars, women -- but as the hours dragged on, Magic kept doubling back to missed free throws, errant passes, and dribbling out the clock.
“We should have won that series,” Magic said. “I’ve always prided myself on getting it done in crunch time. What happened?”
He already knew the answer. Larry Bird had happened. His rival dominated the series, copping the Finals MVP trophy with timely shooting, relentless rebounding, and uncanny court vision, a trait he and Magic shared from the moment they lined up opposite each other.
By morning, Magic had been saddled with a new nickname (Tragic) and so had his team (the Fakers). That was humiliating enough, but something gnawed at LA’s normally ebullient star beyond that, something he wouldn’t even share with his trusted confidants. “It was losing to Larry,” Magic admitted later. “That was the most crushing part. It was my first time in an LA-Boston series, and he got the best of me.”
Three miles from Magic’s hotel, in a team van driven by the Celtics’ assistant equipment manager, Joe “Corky” Qatato, Larry Bird and teammate Quinn Buckner were mired in the celebratory traffic. Their plan was to ride in the van to Hellenic College in Brookline, where their cars were parked, then drive back downtown to join the team celebration at Chelsea’s, a watering hole in Faneuil Hall. But the traffic wasn’t moving, and Bird was impatient. He reached across the driver’s seat and thrust the van into park.
“C’mon, Quinn,” Bird said. “We’ll get our cars later.”
The MVP of the ’84 Finals leapt out the van, crossed over by foot to the other side of Storrow Drive, and began hoofing it back downtown. A bemused Buckner followed, chuckling at the absurdity of their actions. It was only a matter of seconds before they were recognized. A car with three fans driving inbound stopped in amazement when they spotted their franchise forward striding along the curb.
“Larry Bird?!!!” the driver asked.
“Shhh,” Bird answered. “Listen, you got any room in there for Quinn and me?”
The young man opened the door and motioned for his companions, resplendent in their Bird team jerseys, to move over for two of the city’s newly crowned champions. As Buckner and Bird crammed their oversize basketball frames into the back of the economy car, the passengers howled with delight and astonishment.
“Larry Bird is in our car!” shrieked the driver, pounding the steering wheel for emphasis.
“Oh, my God, are you kidding me?! This is unbelievable!! I’m wearing your shirt!!!” howled the passenger in the rear seat.
“All right now, calm down,” Bird said. “If you want us to stay, you gotta keep quiet.”
They tried. But as they weaved through traffic with the object of every Celtics fan’s desire lounging in the back seat, it was impossible not to holler out “MVP!” or “Lakers suck!” They were traversing the heart of downtown Boston with the most famous and popular athlete in the city.
“So, Larry,” said the driver, as they approached Chelsea’s, “can we come with you?”
“Sorry, champions only,” declared Bird, punching Buckner in the shoulder.
When Bird and Buckner reached Faneuil Hall, they thanked their blue-collar chauffeurs and skipped through the roped security entrance to Chelsea’s. Inside, the two players clinked beer bottles and toasted their title. Larry, normally reserved in victory, disarmed Buckner with occasional gleeful outbursts of “We did it!” Hours later, amid the singing and the drinking and the reveling, Bird grabbed Buckner and slung his arm around him. “I finally got him,” Larry said. “I finally got Magic.”
Since both Magic and Larry had already won an NBA championship, dethroning each other became the seductive subplot of the 1984 Finals. Magic was tired of hearing about the “gritty” Bird, and Larry was sick of the “dynamic” Johnson. By playoff time, each star was aggravated by comparisons and questions regarding the other.
“It was annoying,” Magic said. “We were both trying to carve out our own niche, and everyone kept linking us together. I didn’t like it. I kept telling people, ‘I’m nothing like him.’ We didn’t even play the same position.”
Los Angeles stunned Boston 115-109 in Game 1 of the Finals behind a brilliant performance from 37-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who submitted 32 points, eight rebounds, and five assists despite a searing migraine that had him vomiting throughout the morning. Although Abdul-Jabbar had rightfully stolen the headlines, it was Magic who left Larry concerned. “Magic picked us apart that night,” Bird said. “He got his guys easy baskets. I didn’t like what I saw.”
Magic was on the verge of leading the Lakers to victory in Game 2 when a seemingly minor miscue in the final seconds led to a series of gaffes that haunted him for the remainder of the series. The Lakers held a 113-111 lead with 20 seconds to play when Celtic Kevin McHale, a 78 percent free-throw shooter, stepped up to the line, his knees wobbling, and missed both. Magic snared the rebound, and all he had to do was take the ball up the floor and run out the clock to preserve a 2-0 series lead for the Lakers. Instead, he inexplicably called timeout, enabling Boston to set its defense against the ensuing inbounds play. Coach Pat Riley had instructed Magic to call timeout if McHale made both free throws to tie the game. He had not given the same instructions in the event McHale missed.
“I’m to blame,” Riley said. “It was the biggest mistake of my career. I was so busy on the sidelines talking to my players and preparing for the final seconds, I never even looked up to see if McHale made the free throws. I just assumed he did. Earvin did what he was told.”
The Celtics face-guarded the Lakers on the inbounds. James Worthy floated a sloppy cross-court pass to Byron Scott, Celtics guard Gerald Henderson intercepted it, streaked in for the layup, tied the game, and permanently cemented himself in Boston’s sports annals as a true Celtics post-season hero. LA still had a chance to pull out the win with 13 seconds left, but Magic’s swagger had dissipated. There was too much noise, too much pressure, too many scenarios to consider. He carefully dribbled the ball up the floor, searching for the open man, and with three seconds to go realized with horror he was almost out of time. He quickly fired a pass to Bob McAdoo, but McHale, his long, gangly arms outstretched, prevented McAdoo from getting a shot off.
The Boston crowd was incredulous. Thirteen seconds to go and Magic couldn’t deliver a shot for his team? The error was further magnified when a Scott Wedman base-line jumper sealed the win for the Celtics in overtime, knotting the series 1-1.
Bird contends that Magic may have been a victim of a Celtics home-court advantage. In 1984, shot clocks were not positioned atop the baskets, as they are today. Boston relied on huge electronic boxes on the floor displaying how much time was left on the shot clock, but more often than not they were obstructed. “It seemed like someone was always sitting in front of them clocks,” Larry said. “I bet Magic couldn’t even see how much time was left. I never could. What I used to do was check the time during the timeout, then count down in my head once I got out there.”
The Lakers flew home to Los Angeles with their humbled point guard in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in his career, Magic found himself -- and others -- dwelling on his mistakes.
Riley urged his shaken point guard to push tempo in Game 3, and Magic responded by dishing out 21 assists. The Lakers demolished Boston 137-104, leaving an agitated Bird branding his teammates “sissies.”
The Celtics countered in Game 4 with a physical win highlighted by Kevin McHale’s clothesline takedown of Lakers forward Kurt Rambis. LA blew a 5-point lead with under a minute to play and lost the game in overtime when Magic went to the line with 35 seconds left and missed two free throws. “That’s when I knew we had ’em,” Bird said. Boston sealed the win when Cedric Maxwell and Robert Parish each set a pick on Lakers defensive specialist Michael Cooper, who slipped trying to fight through the double screen for Bird, forcing Magic to switch over and cover his rival. It was what Larry had been waiting for: the Celtics trailing 2-1 in the series, on Magic’s court, and the two of them in the trenches to decide the game. It was Bird’s chance for redemption from 1979, when Johnson had shattered his dreams in the NCAA championship. “At that moment,” Bird said, “I knew I had to make that shot.” He lofted a soft fallaway jumper over Magic’s head that dropped through the strings without a ripple.
The series was tied, 2-2.
Game 5 featured a brilliant performance by Bird (34 points, 17 rebounds) in the midst of a heat wave that left temperatures in the antiquated Boston Garden hovering at close to 100 degrees.
The Celtics led 65-59 at halftime of Game 6 in Los Angeles and were so convinced they were about to win the championship that they began encasing their lockers in plastic in anticipation of the champagne-soaked post-game celebration. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar submitted 30 points and 10 rebounds, and Byron Scott, who had spent an entire season auditioning for his Laker teammates, hit four clutch jumpers down the stretch to force the inevitable Game 7.
In the wee hours the following morning, after the Celtics had taken a red-eye from Los Angeles to New York’s LaGuardia and were waiting for a shuttle to Boston, general manager Arnold “Red” Auerbach sidled over to Bird to gauge his mood. “What do you think?” Auerbach asked.
“No question we’ll win this one,” Larry answered.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss engaged in a similar conversation with his own young superstar as they traveled back to Boston. Even though LA had won Game 6, Buss sensed that Magic seemed distracted, a little down. It was a side of Magic that Buss had never seen before, and it worried him. “Usually Earvin shook off
mistakes pretty well,” Buss said. “But this was different.”
Buss was right. It was different. Magic had always been a winner -- in high school, in college, in his first season as a professional. He was frustrated by his uneven results, which were exacerbated in his mind by the clutch plays Bird had made. It was bad enough that the Lakers had faltered in a series they should have already won, but to blow it to the Celtics and Larry Bird in the men’s first-ever head-to-head Finals was an unbearable notion.
In the Lakers huddle just before Game 7, Magic surveyed the faces of his Lakers teammates. Abdul-Jabbar, as always, was a blank page, impossible to read. Yet when Magic looked into the eyes of the rest of the starters, he saw the one thing he dreaded most: doubt. “I knew then we had lost our edge,” Magic said. Ninety-four feet away in Boston’s huddle, Bird took a mental inventory of his team. What he saw was a group of veterans who were loose and confident. Maxwell announced, “Jump on my back, boys,” then ripped off 24 points with eight rebounds and eight assists. Larry submitted 20 points on another mediocre night of shooting (six of 18), but he was a perfect eight for eight from the line and hauled in 12 rebounds. The score: 111-102.
As Bird and his teammates mobbed one another at center court, Magic retreated to the visitor’s locker room, where he sat on the floor of the shower next to Cooper for half an hour with water spilling over him. “I don’t think I ever recovered from Game 2,” Magic conceded later. “I never felt in control after that. It was the first time I failed in a big situation.
“I handled it the wrong way. Instead of just saying, ‘That was one game, I’m moving on,’ I kept thinking about it. I couldn’t let it go, and it carried through the whole series.”
That night, Magic opened the door to his hotel room and dropped his boombox on the dresser. Aguirre and Thomas trailed him into the room, and while Magic appreciated their friendship, he desperately wanted to be alone. “When they finally left, I cried like a baby,” Magic said.
Ten miles away in Winchester, the Celtics had moved their celebration from Chelsea’s to the home of team marketing director Mike Cole. Bird stayed until the sun came up, basking in the thrill of eliminating the “Fakers.” “It was one of those nights that you wished would never end,” Larry said.
On the morning of June 13, 1984, Magic Johnson stood in the lobby with his bags packed. It was 6 a.m., but he was wide awake. In fact, like Bird, he never really went to sleep. “It was the worst night of my life,” Magic said. “I told myself, ‘Don’t ever forget how you feel right now.’ ”
The morning after Boston’s celebration, Bird finally went home for a little shut-eye. Around midafternoon, Buckner, who was experiencing his first-ever NBA title, drove to Bird’s Brookline home with the hope of celebrating all over again. Larry’s wife, Dinah, informed Buckner that Larry wasn’t there.
“He was out running,” Buckner said later. “When he got back, I said to him, ‘Man, what are you doing?’ ”
Bird looked at him quizzically before he
answered: “I’m getting ready for next year.”
Larry Bird played 13 seasons with the Celtics, while Magic Johnson spent 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackie MacMullan is a sports columnist, formerly with the Globe. Send comments to
Excerpted from When the Game Was Ours by Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson with Jackie MacMullan. Copyright © 2009 by Magic Johnson Enterprises and Larry Bird. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.