To the chagrin of several flight attendants, Pat Riley had established position near the first-class galley of TWA Flight 846, the widebody that was whisking the Los Angeles Lakers to Boston for Sunday's sixth game of the NBA championship series. He had posted up some reporters, and he wasn't budging one inch. "We're not going to be careful," said Riley, whose Lakers led the Celtics three games to two, and now had two chances to close out the series in Boston Garden. "We're going to be carefree. If they thought we ran last night...."
The stewardi weren't looking. Riley stuck his hand into a nearby ice bucket, dug out a cube and popped it mischievously into his mouth.
"...they're going to see us run some more. Sometime in the course of the game one team is going to crack. And if we push it, it's more likely to be them.
"Hey, if it's meant to be"—and Riley believed it was, having already made much of how the Lakers would atone, after their loss to Boston in Game 7 of last spring's finals—"why not go back to Boston and win it there?"
We now know that Riley spoke a prophecy at 36,000 feet, and the man who made it come true was 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His skyhook, the supersonic shot with the turboprop pedigree, made the difference in the six-game get-back setback the Lakers dealt the Celtics.
Boston did crack, 111-100, right there in its own Garden, losing the final game of a championship series on the parquet for the first time ever. And after the Lakers had banished the demons of their eight straight championship series losses to the Celtics dating back to 1959, only Abdul-Jabbar was old enough to invoke the most felicitous analogy. "It's like the Dodgers beating the Yankees in 1955," he said. "Celtic pride was in this building, but so were we."
The Lakers, if you please, would like to make one thing clear: The Celts didn't just lose, they succumbed to L.A.'s relentless pressure. Take an ice cube, suck on it, clamp your teeth down, and it's only a matter of time before it cracks. "I'd seen that they were tired all over their faces," Magic Johnson said. "Riles kept making that point. 'Hey, Bug, keep pushing it.' Even if we pushed it up and didn't score, my job was still to push it up. To keep pushing it till they'd break."
Charley Eckman, the folksy former coach of the Fort Wayne/ Detroit Pistons (1954-58), used to say there are only two great plays: put the ball in the basket and
. And in their only certifiable must-win game of the season, the Celtics shot horribly. They began the series by shooting a record 60.8% from the field in Game 1. They ended it with a miserable 38.5% effort in Game 6.
Their guards, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, clanged 25 of 31 shots Sunday. Their series studhorse, Kevin McHale, hit 11 of 18 from the field and 10 of 13 from the line for 32 points, but was forced to spend his sixth personal foul with 5:21 to play. And while Abdul-Jabbar was the unanimous choice as the playoffs' Most Valuable Player, Boston's Larry Bird, the regular-season MVP, never did bust loose. "I thought I'd have a great game today," said Bird, for whom 28 points on 12-for-29 shooting isn't great at all. "I can only dream about the shots going in that didn't."
"We made 'em lose it," Magic said.