BOSTON — “BIRD STOLE THE BALL! BIRD STOLE THE BALL! BIRD STOLE THE . . .
” The words echoed across the New England airwaves, across cable television stations, they splashed onto morning headlines and morning talk shows and they pierced the hearts of every Detroit Pistons fan alive.

Bird stole the ball! What happened in those final five maddening seconds of this Eastern Conference playoff game? How could it happen? Even here, in the Boston Garden, where they ask for your next of kin when you step on the court, where the Pistons haven’t won in five years, where something always happens
— even here, this was unbelievable.

“I was open at halfcourt, waving my hands,” said Dennis Rodman, who made the play we should have been writing about this morning — a brilliant block on a driving Bird, giving the Pistons possession with five clicks left and a 107-106 lead. “Then I saw Isiah throw the ball in and I saw Bird steal it and DJ make the basket and the whole time I was just frozen, man. It was like a dream. I just stood there. I couldn’t move.”

Who could move? Who could breathe? All the air had been sucked out of this humid arena by that point. “The world should have ended after this,” a Boston writer remarked in the pandemonium that followed. He was right. There were bodies bent, and bodies fouled out, voices gone, fans hanging from the rafters, there were tears and cheers and hearts and dreams all over the place. Life and death. Blood and glory. All that remained was a giant earthquake to swallow us all.

‘The whole play was lucky’ How had it come to such a finish? How had the Celtics grabbed a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven conference final? The Pistons had played their gutsiest game of the season, looking for that lead themselves, desperate to avoid a return here for Game 7. They weathered every Boston eruption, every flurry, every six- and eight-point bulge.

It was like dodging hand grenades. Bill Laimbeer, the house villain, took a fist to the face from Robert Parish that drew blood in the second quarter and no foul was called. Nothing. Every Boston basket brought a deluge of noise, incredible, painful noise, and yet the Pistons fought back with everybody, the rookies, the veterans.

And with 17 seconds left in the game, Isiah Thomas, the star, did what he was always meant to do, dribbled and spun and hurled a top-of-the-key swish over Jerry Sichting, giving Detroit the lead. Shouldn’t it have ended then?

Instead, Isiah grabbed that ball (Rodman’s block that went out of bounds) and lofted that oh, too soft inbounds pass to Laimbeer, even as Chuck Daly raced downcourt screaming for time out as if trying to forestall Armageddon.

“Was it a great steal or a bad pass?” Thomas was asked afterward.

“A bad pass,” he said, his lips tight.

Miracle to manacle. Hero to less-than-hero. The ball floated up, and Bird, who raced toward Laimbeer with the intent of fouling him, found, instead, his destiny hanging about nine feet in the air. “I guess Isiah just didn’t throw it hard enough,” Bird said later. “I was lucky. The whole play was lucky.”

Ha. It is never luck here. It is something else that lives inside these rickety walls. Bird came down with the ball, found himself falling out of bounds, and he dished to a streaking Dennis Johnson, who laid it up — did you even think for a moment he would miss it? — and hearts all across Michigan dropped to the floor, even as those in New England, which still remember when John Havlicek stole that pass to end the Eastern final 22 years ago, were learning a new lyric:

“BIRD STOLE THE BALL! . . . ” Bird’s greatness shows And here, in the post-game locker rooms, was all of sports, every moment, glory and mud, crystallized and polarized and held at their blissful extremes. Here was Thomas, grim, sad, the pain of this hadn’t even hit him yet, answering the same questions over and over. “You can second-guess a lot of things,” he whispered. “Why didn’t I call time out? Why didn’t I throw it to someone else? Why didn’t Bill step up? The end result is still that we lost the game.”

Around him sat his teammates, shell-shocked, deluged by reporters, talking bravely about Game 6 in Detroit. And down the hall, in the crazy Celtics quarters, sat Bird, calm, dressed, answering questions as if it were just another play. Say what you will about this guy. He is simply brilliant on the court. Most players would have been so angry at being blocked on their team’s last shot, they never would have kept their eyes so glued to the ball. Even when he stole it, he was counting seconds in his head. Destiny three, destiny two, destiny one.

“If Johnson wasn’t there, would you have taken the shot, even falling down?” he was asked.

“I would have,” he said, “but it probably would have hit the side of the board.” On this night? In this house? Under these dark green skies?

Nuh-uh. It would have swished.

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