Best untold Lakers-Celts memories (cont.)
This one is obvious because you've seen 100 replays of it. Game 4 of the '87 Finals in the balance at Boston Garden. Lakers trail 106-105. Magic has it near the sideline. He fakes a 20-footer and takes it toward the middle. My press seat was on that baseline, and I can still see the play unfold in my mind's eye. McHale and Robert Parish pick up the Lakers' point guard as he goes into the lane, and even Bird takes a step toward him before retreating to his own man, guarding against a Johnson dish. Johnson releases his hook shot, smooth as silk, and in it goes to give the Lakers a 107-106 victory and a 3-1 lead that becomes a championship in Game 6. I can still hear Magic gleefully riffing on the Abdul-Jabbar specialty and describing the shot: "It was the junior, junior skyhook."
Had the Celtics and Phoenix Suns not gone to three overtimes in an incredible Game 5 in 1976, I would call Game 4 of the '84 Finals the best championship series game ever. But it was the best I ever saw, ending in a 129-125 Boston victory in L.A. that paved the way for the Celtics' eventual seven-game victory. What everyone remembers was McHale's clothesline of Lakers forward Kurt Rambis, but what I remember was the person who helped Rambis off the floor -- one L. Bird. He must've thought, "Whoa, that was a little much even for this rivalry." Then again, by that time Bird had already mixed it up with Abdul-Jabbar.
As soon as the Celtics had routed the Lakers to win the title in '08, I thought of my story idea: Boston GM Danny Ainge. He had been the subject of the first story I wrote as an SI staffer, way back in 1981, when he was trying to latch on as a third baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays.
"Any chance you'll be in the office tomorrow morning?" I asked Ainge on the TD Garden floor after the game, as the delirium went on all around us.
"Come by at 11," he said.
He was already there, waiting, when I showed up, and we reminisced for two hours, his mind a steel trap for facts from two decades earlier. A follow-up story was never easier or more enjoyable.
The relationship of these two superstars has been laid out completely in recent months, in Jackie MacMullan's book, When the Game Was Ours, and an HBO documentary on their on-court rivalry. But their deep friendship was never that apparent when I was covering them in the 1980s, the height of their rivalry. They respected the heck out of each other, but it wasn't like they wasted much time tossing mutual accolades -- accolade-tossing not exactly a Bird specialty anyway.
But I remember interviewing Magic in Barcelona during the 1992 Olympics and asking him what he remembered most about the aftermath of his announcement that he had the AIDS virus, which had occurred about nine months earlier.
"I remember how much it affected Larry," he said, tearing up just a little.