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

BOSTON — When would he smile? That’s all that was left. His team had the NBA championship in the bag — a 22-point lead with 2:20 left — and the Boston Garden fans were on their feet, shrieking like madmen, because Larry Bird, still looking deadly serious, was coming out of the game.

The hair down the back of his neck was wringing wet, dripping the sweat that had begun five minutes into this Game 6 of the NBA final. The place was a steam bath, the game was a burnout, but the Celtics had won, Bird had been magnificent, and now he watched his teammates lope toward the bench — the whole starting lineup was taking a seat — and then slowly, blowing out a lungful of exhausted air, he started after them.

When would he smile? He slapped high fives with Robert Parish, Danny Ainge. No smile. A pat by coach K.C. Jones. No smile. Then he stepped into Bill Walton, he looked up, and there it was, the curl of that blond mustache. The smile.

Boston wins.

“What did Walton say to you?” Bird was asked in the champagne-soaked locker room.

“He said thanks,” Bird said, “because he knows I’ve been carrying him all year.”

He smiled again. And then he laughed.

It was over, this NBA final series, which had gone in people’s minds from no challenge to a bloody challenge back to no challenge. In six games. It had ended on an off-beat note — a 114-97 blowout — but that was no real surprise, was it? These were the Boston Celtics. This was Boston Garden. They’d lost one game here all year. One game.

“I had to call practice off yesterday,” Jones said, champagne dripping from his hair. “These guys were going at each other like Muhammad Ali and the Gorilla. I’ve never seen anything like it. The intensity level was 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 six after one quarter, by 17 at the half. The Celtics’ defense was a stranglehold, a choke. How many times did they steal the ball? Block the shots? Strip a Rocket on the way up and dribble past him on the way down?

The only drama in this game was determining when it really ended.

“When did you think it was over?” someone asked Bird, who scored 29 points before he came out.

“When?” he said. “I thought we should have had a 20-point lead by halftime.”

Well. It didn’t take long. By the start of the third quarter, the Celtics already had 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, in the fourth quarter, Walton tried a behind-the-back pass that Bird took underneath and out to the three-point corner — he actually ran away from the basket, with two Rockets chasing him. He whirled once he reached the border and fired over everybody.

The entire Boston Garden rose with the arc of that shot and when it landed,

when it swished through the net — was there ever a doubt it would? — it was over, finished, blown up in an explosion of hysterical noise. The score, 87-61, was irrelevant. That was Nail Three.

Boston wins.

“Is this the best team you’ve ever been on?” someone asked Bird, the MVP of the series, as he cradled his post-game beer into his soaking wet Boston Celtics T-shirt.

“No question,” Bird said. “I’ve been honored to play on a lot of good teams with some great players. But no question, this has got to be the best.” Nothing worked for Houston

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.

All they had worked for could only be wrapped in the satisfaction that they had not died at home, that they were buried in Boston, like so many other teams. Wasn’t this, after all, the Celtics’ 16th championship in the last 30 years? This was no disgrace, losing, 4-2, was it?

“What about Sampson’s lousy performance?” someone asked Robert Reid, the Rockets’ guard.

“You guys will write that the crowd took him out of the game but they didn’t,” Reid said. “His shots didn’t fall.”

Not only didn’t they fall, they missed by miles. They clanked. Sampson — who became the villain after a fight with Jerry Sichting in Game 5 — finished with eight points.

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. How many “Sampson is A Sissy” signs were there? How many
“Sampson S—-!” jeers? Thousands? Thousands more?

There was only room for one basketball team in this arena. As the game wore on the place seemed to shrink, until the screaming Celtics’ fans in the upper deck were breathing down the necks of the players, close enough to whisper in their ears. The house became one-dimensional. No shadows. One man’s sweat was another man’s sweat. One woman’s scream was another woman’s scream. Everyone held up everyone else’s sign. When the buzzer sound the dam broke. The floor was mobbed. It belonged to the people. Boston wins.

Inside the locker room the Celtics showered with champagne. Walton hugged Kevin McHale. Dennis Johnson waved and hollered. Parish pulled an NBA championship hat over his head. Bird, surrounded by the biggst mob of all, answered questions. He was smiling.

Which could mean only one thing, of course.

Boston wins.

A reporter stuck a microphone in Walton’s face. “Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine you’d be here with the Celtics, 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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