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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."