When Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics faced off against Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals three times during the 1980s, it was more than just a competition. It was, according to the NBA’s Web site, “a clash of many opposites. East versus West. Tradition versus New Wave. Hollywood versus Beantown. Showtime versus Shamrocks. Celtics Pride versus L.A. Cool.”
In 1984 Bird went up against Magic on the game’s biggest stage for the first time. History favored the Celtics, who had triumphed in each of the seven Finals they had previously played against the Lakers. Making matters worse for Los Angeles, center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was stricken with a migraine headache just hours before Game one. The Boston Garden crowd would never have guessed, however, as the 37-year-old recorded 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal and led the Lakers to an upset 115-109 victory.
The Lakers could have taken a 2-0 series lead back to the West Coast had it not been for Magic. Although one of the game’s greatest players ever, even Magic wasn’t immune from the occasional mistake. Such a mistake occurred with less than 20 seconds left in Game 2 when Magic, thinking he was following coach Pat Riley’s instructions, called a timeout after the Celtics’ Kevin McHale missed two free throws. However, Riley had ordered Magic to call timeout only if McHale had made the shots. The timeout gave Boston the opportunity to set up its defense.
Inbounding at mid-court, Magic passed the ball to James Worthy, who attempted to pass it to Byron Scott. The Celtics’ Gerald Henderson intercepted the pass and converted it into an easy layup. Magic failed to take a shot before time ran out and the game went into overtime, where the Celtics triumphed 124-121. "What will I remember most from that series? Simple. Game two,” Riley said. “Worthy's pass to Scott. I could see the seams of the ball, like it was spinning in slow motion, but I couldn't do anything about it."
After the Lakers thrashed the Celtics 137-104 in Game 3 it was Boston’s turn to be upset. Bird was vocal in his frustrations after the game. “We played like a bunch of sissies," he said. "I know the heart and soul of this team, and today the heart wasn't there, that's for sure. I can't believe a team like this would let L.A. come out and push us around like they did. Today I didn't feel we played hard. We got beat bad, and it's very embarrassing." The fact that his rival Magic set a Finals record with 21 assists undoubtedly made him feel even worse.
The Lakers took an early lead in Game four when McHale struck the Lakers’ Kurt Rambis with his elbow on a breakaway layup, inspiring his team to play with an increased physicality. Trailing by five points with less than a minute to play, the Celtics forced overtime and emerged with a 129-125 victory. "We had to go out and make some things happen," Henderson said later. "If being physical was going to do it, then we had to do it. The fourth game, that was the turnaround. We had to have that game or we were going to be down 3-1."
“Home-court advantage” is a popular term in basketball, but rarely has it meant as much as it did in Game five at Boston Garden. While the teams were still in Los Angeles a heat wave had hit Boston. “We're talking high 90s with accompanying East Coast humidity,” columnist Bob Ryan remembered in a 2009 Boston Globe article. “Logan Airport was chaotic. There were cars and taxis everywhere. There were people sweating, babies crying, miserable, angry, and frustrated people all over. If you ever saw "The Year of Living Dangerously," you know what I'm talking about.” The Celtics were used to the fact that their arena had no air conditioning. The Lakers, however, were not, and with a game-time temperature of 97 degrees they were hardly in the best condition to play basketball.
Ryan called Bird, who scored 34 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in the Celtics’ 121-103 win, one of the great forces that night. The other was the fans. “Rather than bemoaning the heat, those savvy people celebrated it, realizing that the Lakers were feeling sorry for themselves because they were used to the creature comforts of the palatial Forum,” Ryan wrote. “Here was the message: Watching a game in an old, cramped, steamy building and sitting on those hard seats, why, that's what we do here in New England. We don't need your cushioned seats and we don't need no stinkin' air conditioning. We leave that stuff to you West Coast wusses. And, by the way, your team is soft.”
Back in the air-conditioned Forum for Game six, it was the Lakers’ turn to demonstrate a new physicality, which they did when Worthy shoved the Celtics’ Cedric Maxwell into a basket support in the first quarter. After shooting seven-for-25 and needing to suck on oxygen in Game 5, Abdul-Jabbar scored 30 points as the Lakers won 119-108 and evened the series. It was now down to one game. Could a Hollywood scriptwriter have written this series any better?
Before Game 7, Maxwell told his teammates he would carry them, then went out and proved it by scoring 24 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. Bird, meanwhile had 20 points and 12 rebounds, Robert Parish recorded 14 points and 16 rebounds, and Dennis “DJ” Johnson scored 22 points. Unfazed, the Lakers reduced a 14-point deficit to three with little more than a minute left in the game. DJ knocked the ball out of Magic’s hands, but the Lakers’ Michael Cooper recovered it. Magic again had the ball and tried to pass to an open Worthy under the basket, only to have Maxwell knock the ball away again. The Celtics recovered it, and after being fouled DJ made both shots. When the final buzzer sounded, the Celtics had a 111-102 victory and their 15th championship in franchise history.