"It's amazing when you think back to the years when it was always us and them in the Finals. We kind of took it for granted. I don't think it's that way anymore. I think we appreciate what we had. The Finals is what we're working for. It would be a big accomplishment for us, no matter who we got in against. But it'd be sort of nice to get to play the Lakers agin. That'd be fun, me and Magic agin."
Bird and Magic sensed that they were the only two members of a very, very special NBA club—those players who had won championships and MVP awards throughout the 1980s and were still active and starting. Julius Erving was gone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was gone, Moses Malone was on Atlanta's bench and Michael Jordan still hadn't won the big one. Membership in that club mandated praise from the other member. It was part of the ritual. Their mutual-admiration society wasn't focused on the past, because Bird and Magic could still play the game, but it was not without its nostalgic element, either. The best player in the NBA was clearly Jordan, not Magic, but Bird would not admit it. Magic was his choice, he said. And why not? Together they had forged an identity for themselves and for the NBA and it bound them together for eternity. Bird and Magic, Magic and Bird.
A few weeks before, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was working on a story about the NBA stars who would be playing for the U.S. in the 1992 Olympics. Magic would not consent to pose for the cover photo unless Bird was included. Informed that Bird had said at the time that he had no interest in playing in the Olympics, Magic still insisted on a few dozen rounds of phone calls to determine that Bird would not be offended if he, Magic, appeared in the photo. Bird, who has since changed his mind and has been named to the Olympic team, could have cared less—and Magic probably knew that—but club ties were strong, the ritual inviolate.
The story of this Celtic-Laker game was not Bird or Magic, however. It was Parish. He was unusually fired up. Los Angeles center Vlade Divac had been quoted a couple of days earlier as saying the game against Boston was "an exhibition," and he made a few other comments suggesting that the Celtics did not present the stiffest opposition. Jon Jennings, one of Boston's assistant coaches, made sure that the Celtics, and Parish in particular, were aware of the story. Such motivational gimmicks are usually pooh-poohed by Bird, McHale and the other veterans, but they are, in fact, quite common in the NBA. Teams that are in need of energizing often turn the most innocent comments into fierce challenges, altering the context and scope of mildly negative articles so drastically that by game day, no one has any idea what actually was said, but they know it was real bad. And in this case, Divac was a great target. He was young, unproved, foreign, and he had his own razor commercial to boot. Parish had a terse response when Jennings told him about Divac. "Well, screw Vlade Divac," said the Chief.
And then he went out and did just that. Parish scored an incredible 21 points in the first period, forcing Laker coach Mike Dunleavy to remove Divac halfway though the period in favor of Mychal Thompson, who fared no better. Considering Parish's age and disinclination to carry the scoring load, the performance defied belief. It was like Bird scoring, say, 35 in one period, or McHale getting 30. It did, in fact, take something out of Parish for the next two periods, but he returned with a vengeance in the fourth, grabbing key rebounds and shutting down Divac, who, apart from a spectacular reverse dunk off a fast-break pass from Magic, had just an average game.
"Vlade got his reverse dunk," said McHale after the game, "and Robert got 29." Bird had trouble scoring against James Worthy, an underrated defensive player, and took at least a half dozen of the worst shots known to man, off-balance lefthanders, leaning half hooks from 18 feet, trash that even Bird couldn't convert into points. Yet with 4:54 left, he came down on the left wing, stopped at least 1½ feet behind the three-point line and launched a rainbow set shot that swished. It gave the Celtics an 11-point lead, and in typical Los Angeles fashion, the crowd began to leave.
The star of the 98-85 Boston victory was Lewis, who had 26 points and zero turnovers, but after the game all he could talk about was Bird. "How about that three-pointer Lahr-ree took?" said Lewis, employing his rather strange pronunciation of Bird's name. "Like all great ballplayers, he always does something. No matter how bad he's been shooting, he does something." Inside, perhaps, Lewis was wondering if he could be that type of player someday. To Lewis, Bird was respected not because of his shooting ability, which is considerable, but because of his gutsiness, his insistence on taking the big shot and making it when the game was on the line.
Working the room after the game were a number of Hollywood types, Kevin Costner foremost among them. With a slew of Academy Award nominations for Dances with Wolves, Costner was absolutely the brightest star in the Hollywood sky at the time, yet one sensed his shyness when he went over to introduce himself to Bird. They shook hands and talked for only a moment before Bird got up to leave.
"Hey, Kevin!" McHale shouted to Costner.
"Oh, hi, Kevin," Costner said, making his way to McHale's corner.