by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

BOSTON — Larry Bird’s hair was dripping champagne. Kevin McHale was soaked to his shorts. Bill Walton was grinning underneath an NBA Championship cap and slapping hands with those high enough to reach him. The Celtics had just won their 16th title, the fans outside were mobbing the Boston Garden floor, and finally, finally, it was time for the big moment. Finally, it was time for . .
. a beer.

A beer?

How long had it been? A long time. For 2 1/2 months Bird, McHale, Walton and Jerry Sichting had stayed dry — no post-game beers, no liquor — as part of a secret pact. An act of dedication. Through the last weeks of the regular season. Through the playoffs. Through Chicago and Atlanta and Milwaukee. Through Houston. How much did they want that NBA title? Two-and-a-half dry months.

“We should do this if we really want the championship,” Walton had suggested, when the no-drinking idea first came up.

“Well, OK,” McHale had agreed. “But we better win it this year.”

They won it this year. They won it Sunday. Won it? They tore it off the wall. They so bedazzled the Houston Rockets in Game 6 that in many ways, the thing was over in the second quarter. Bird was magnificent — he captured the MVP trophy, not surprisingly — McHale banked home 29 points. Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish were all over the place. The Celtics’ defense was a stranglehold, a choke. How many times did they steal the ball? Block shots? Strip a Rocket on the way up and dribble past him on the way down?

For those wearing green, the 114-97 blowout was heaven in a hothouse, a sweltering Boston Garden full of champions past hanging from the rafters, and champions future out on the floor. Hungry champions. Thirsty champions.

How much did they want it? How much Diet Coke can you drink?

“I had to call practice off yesterday,” said coach K.C. Jones, screaming to be heard over the victory celebration. “I just wanted them to shoot around, but these guys went at each other like Muhammad Ali and the Gorilla. I’ve never seen anything like that. The intensity level was just incredible.” A command performance

It carried over into the game. In fact, calling this a game is a misnomer.

How about an exhibition? A clinic? A command performance for the season-ticket holders? Five different Celtics scored the team’s first six baskets. Boston led by 17 at the half. The only drama left was determining when the game really ended.

“Have you ever seen your team so pumped up?” someone asked Bird afterward.

“Never,” he said. “I thought we could have had a 20-point lead by halftime and ended it right there.”

It didn’t take much longer. By the third quarter, the Celtics had already closed the lid of the coffin. They led, 59-45, when Danny Ainge pulled up and fired in a three-point rainbow that raised the crowd like an electric shock. Nail One. Two minutes later, Bird heaved in his own three-pointer from in front of the press table with nary a blink. Nail Two.

Then, early in the fourth quarter, Bird took Walton’s pass and again scampered out to the three-point zone — he actually ran away from the basket, with two Rockets chasing him — and whirled once he reached the border and fired over everybody.

The entire Boston Garden rose with the arc of that shot. And when it fell to earth, when it swished through the net — was there ever a doubt it would?
— this drama was over, finished, blown up in an explosion of hysterical noise. The upper rafters shook. The concrete trembled. The score, 87-61, was irrelevant. That was Nail Three.

Boston wins.

“Are you finally satisfied?” someone asked Bird.

“Well,” he said, cradling a beer — his first? his second? his sixth? —
“as of right now I am. I have a lot of work to do over the summer. I’m going to get a few new moves, and nobody will be able to stop me.”

“Is this the best team you’ve ever been on?” someone asked.

“No question,” Bird said. “I’ve been honored to play on a lot of good teams. But no question, this has got to be the best.”

So the Celtics take it. And what of the Rockets? What could they do? Everything they didn’t want to happen, happened. They wanted Ralph Sampson not

to be rattled by the crowd. He was rattled. They wanted to avoid foul trouble. Akeem Olajuwon had foul trouble. They wanted to avoid a blowout. They were blown out.

The Rockets shot 26 percent in the second quarter. Twenty- six percent? Their guards were missing constantly. Sampson — who scored eight points in 38 minutes — was simply a mess. His shots clanked. His rebounds were stripped


To be fair, it is awfully hard to work in a hell house, when every time you touch the ball you are washed over with a wave of boos so loud it rattles your eardrums. Sampson paid for the fight he had with Sichting in Game 5. How many “Sampson Is A Sissy” signs were there Sunday? How many “Sampson S—-!” jeers?

In the end, all the Rockets could take with them was the solace that they are young and will be back, and that they had not died at home, but had been buried in Boston, like so many other teams. Wasn’t this, after all, the Celtics’ 16th championship in the last 30 years?

“Could any team have beaten the Celtics here?” someone asked Houston coach Bill Fitch.

“It would have been awful tough,” he said.

He is right. And the Celtics knew it. After all, can you imagine having to go the entire off-season without a beer?

“How many have you had?” someone asked McHale, who was grinning impishly during the post-game interviews.

“Oh, maybe six,” he said, grinning some more.

“How will you celebrate tonight?” someone asked Bird.

“Well, I’ll just try to stay awake,” he joked. “You know I’m not young anymore.”

Finally, a reporter stuck a microphone in Bill Walton’s face — Walton, 33, who had once been told his basketball days were over, who last year at this time was without a team, without a future.

“Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine you’d be here with Boston winning a world championship?” the reporter asked.

“This is my wildest dream,” Walton said.

Can you think of a better ending than that?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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