BOSTON — The leprechaun dies. He went stiff at the very moment he usually rises; the final seconds of a Celtics’ playoff thriller. The people who filed quietly out of Boston Garden Tuesday night, rubbing their eyes, clearing their hoarse throats, these same people who just seconds before had been at the top of their lungs, sure that the magic was there, well, they were silent now, quiet as a funeral. The championship series was not over. The innocence was. Lakers win. The leprechaun dies. How many times had we seen this before? Here were the Celtics, leading, 106-105, with eight seconds to go, and already the writers were dashing off another homage to the Boston Garden mystique. The home team had played poorly in the final minutes, had lost the ball three times, and yet somehow Larry Bird wound up in the corner — this is getting a little old, isn’t it? — and he hoisted a rainbow, and down it came. Insanity! Celtics lead by two, 106-104.
“I was standing under the hoop when he put that up,” said LA’s Magic Johnson, who at that moment did not know he would be dubbed the prince this evening. “I knew it was going in. I saw it come down and I said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ “
Oh my goodness. The Celtics do it again? They would really tie this series at two games apiece — despite all the talent and speed and depth advantage the Lakers’ held? They would? Really?
Not really. With that narrow lead, the call went up for the blessed dust that usually coats the Celtics, and assures them only good things in this rickety building.
The call went unanswered. No dust left.
The leprechaun dies. No rebounding from no rebound How did it happen? Here is how it happened: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tried a shot and was fouled by Kevin McHale with eight seconds left. He made the first but missed the second, and all Boston needed was to grab the rebound and run out the final seconds. Simple. Easy. Automatic. But McHale and Robert Parish both went for the ball, and neither came away with it. It rolled out, was ruled Lakers’ ball, as the green bench went crazy and Red Auerbach began a boil that would culminate in him chasing the officials down the tunnel. Afterward, few people noticed Magic Johnson looking at the ball, clapping his hands yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Perhaps, he knew what awaited him. Surely no one else did. Following a time-out, the Lakers got the ball to Johnson, he half-faked a jump shot —
“I’m not much of a jump shooter anyway” he would later say — then took a big dribble and began the golden steps toward the end of Boston Garden mystique. With McHale defending him, he drove to the lane, and unleashed a hook shot that went up and dropped though, kissing the net hello and the Celtics goodby on the way down.
“What do you call that shot?” Johnson was later asked. “A sky hook like Kareem’s?”
‘That’s a junior, junior, junior, sky hook,” he said, flashing that famous smile.
“Did you know it was going in?”
“I never even saw it,” he said. “I hooked it, someone jumped in my face, then I was on the floor.” How the mighty fall — noisily The Garden crowd went eerily quiet. Here was a game that looked like Boston again, the Lakers could never get their running untracked, the physical was beating the speedy, the crowd was its usual hellfire, and at one stage the Celtics led this thing by 16 points. Sixteen points? Over the Lakers?
And yet in the end, Boston made the mistakes, the bad plays. “Two bad passes in the final minutes killed us,” said Celtics coach K.C. Jones. “I’m very disappointed with the officiating. It seemed like Earl Strom was wearing a Lakers uniform out there. He really did a job on us.”
This is how far the Celtics had fallen so fast. K.C. Jones complaining about the officials? Well. Yes. You knew things were different when, with two seconds left, the crowd still reeling from the Magic Hook, Boston managed to get the ball to Bird again. No! Couldn’t be! Up he went, the ball came off his hands, another high arching shot.
“I was under the hoop again that time,” said Johnson, “and at first I thought it was going in and I say ‘OOOOOHHH!’ and then I saw it was strong, I could tell, and I said, ‘We got it!’ “
It was strong. It clanged off the rim and ricocheted backward. The buzzer sounded. The Lakers lept in the air. They had won, 107-106. They had broken a jinx. Won only the third game by a visiting team in the last 88 games in this building. They lead this series, 3-1. By all rights it is over.
“It was such a good game,” Johnson said. “It was almost a shame someone had to lose.”
Almost. As the crowd filed out, it was so quiet, you could hear the sound of an ambulance siren from somewhere in the night out on Causeway Street. No doubt who it was coming for. Prepare a very small stretcher. The leprechaun was dead.