With basketball season here, this year marks the 30-year anniversary of the most excellent stretch of hoops ever played. It occurred on the biggest stage evolved from Naismith’s game —the NBA finals — and in a spotlight that might have puddled lesser men in their own sweat.
After showing all the road-wear of his career in Game 1 in that pesthouse known as Boston Garden in a 114-148 loss that came to be known as the Boston Massacre and cast him as the Willie Mays of roundball, stumbling on the downside of a hill, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar rebounded, inexplicably, manhandled the most formidable front line of all time — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were in their primes, to boot — and broke the quarter century-old Boston Curse.
“You can’t win if you don’t learn how to lose,” he once said, and it was never more true than in this series.
Several months ago, repatriated Cleveland superstar LeBron James averaged 35 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists in a losing effort against Golden State. The performance set pundits to gushing and resurrected an age-old question: What’s the greatest finals performance in the annals of the sport?
There have been many, but etch these figures into your brain before throning James: 39 and 68 percent. That’s what The King shot from the field and free throw line against the Warriors.
Following are some exquisite clutch runs:
- 1969: In a losing, seven-game performance against Bill Russell’s Celtics, Laker Jerry West averaged 38 points, nearly 5 rebounds and 7 assists. He remains the only player from a losing team to win the finals MVP;
- 1986: Larry Bird almost averaged a triple double (24 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.5 assists) as the Celtics dispatched the Houston Rockets in six. That year was probably the summit of Larry Legend’s career. He was the best player on arguably the best team ever;
- 1987: Bird served as Magic Johnson’s thermometer — and vice-versa — so, heating things up, and playing in a lather, “Buck,” as teammates called him, notched some pretty impressive numbers: 26 points, 8 boards and 13 assists per outing. The Lakers extirpated the Celtics’ in six;
- 1993: Michael Jordan, at the peak of his powers, averaged 41 points, 8 caroms and 6 dimes on the way to the third of his six titles against Phoenix, a team resigned to a bovine stupor in the presence of this Rushmorian figure;
- 2000: Shaquille O’Neal crested to the height he should have reached on a yearly basis during his tenure in the Association, posting stats fit for a video game: 38 points and 16 rebounds a game.
There were other notable acts. Hakeem Olajuwon, Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant deserve mention, and how about Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain? They put up numbers that will never be equaled. What with the burgeoning of analytics, context and variables have gotten short-shrift. Yet they matter.
Where to start?
Had you not listened on the radio to broadcaster Chick Hearn’s imagistic descriptions of West and Elgin Baylor falling short in seven finals against the men in green, you probably cannot conceive of the supercilious Celtics, of the unsportsmanlike Red Auerbach and his malodorous cigars, of that invertebrate company man Johnny Most, whose nom de plume for plucky Angelenos became “Johnny Least.”
Had you not endured, during four more Celtics’ titles in the 1970s and early ’80s, the hagiography of Boston Globe reporter Bob Ryan, had you not suffered through 1984, feeling as beaten as Winston Smith in Orwell’s masterpiece, you could not have known how important and daunting ’85 was.
Game 2. June 9. We Angelenos were poised for slaughter.
It turned out to be, inarguably, the most significant game in our franchise’s history, and we were thinking, “Oy, we’ve got an oblong, balding, hospice-bound has-been in the hole. If we go down 0-2, it’s a wrap.”
Then it began. The Lakers ran onto the parquet floor and might as well have been animal fodder in ancient Rome’s Colosseum. Very quickly, however, Jabbar, the ghost of Game 1, gave Bird, McHale and Parish — or was it Perish? — the business. They couldn’t handle him in the post and were peeking over their shoulders on the other end, positively paranoid, because he was everywhere.
Final score: 111-100.
Jabbar’s line: 30 points, 17 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 blocked shots.
Next game: 26, 14, 7 and 2.
He was traversing the lane from the help side to serve up Spalding sandwiches at key moments. Parish looked worried and worn. McHale flailed. Bird turned… how to say it? The palest man on the planet was red with rage. The Lakers broke the hex. There’s a necropolis in Boston metropolitan of Lakers who were defeated and blingless: Baylor, Frank Selvy, Rudy LaRusso and many more.
Jabbar would not be added to the sum. He went for 36 in Game 5 and 29 in the finale in the pesthouse.
“He defies logic,” Lakers coach Pat Riley said at the time.
In the five games following the Massacre, he averaged 28 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. He could have averaged 35, but he would have been less sniper-like, less apt to aid teammates with open looks. A decade past his prime, he shot 60 percent from the field and 77 percent from the charity stripe.
The game changed for the worse in the latter part of that decade and into the 1990s. Paint-play was reduced to rank wrestling and, at times, butchery.
Something should be said about the elegance of Jabbar — agile, refined, calm, concentrated, confident. Parish, McHale, Bird? With all due respect to that Hall of Fame threesome, they were beneath him, a nuisance, like mosquitos, for five games in May and June of ’85.
They say you can’t turn back the hands of time anymore than you can alter autumn. It wasn’t true for a spell that spring.