It was March 12, 1985. Lakefront Arena on the campus of the University of New Orleans. The night Larry Bird scored 60 points in a single game for the Celtics.
Kevin McHale was there. Nine days earlier, he had scored 56 against the Pistons in a Sunday matinee at the old Boston Garden. When McHale went to the bench with a few ticks still left on the clock, Bird urged him to stay on the court. The record might not last long, Larry insisted.
“We had a lot of guys on that team who could get hot like that,” McHale said from his home in Arizona this week. “Max. Tiny. Robert. Larry. And when a guy got hot, we’d get him the ball. That’s what Larry did for me when I set the record, and we were all helping him that night in New Orleans.”
There has been a lot of noise about Bird’s 60 since Jayson Tatum exploded for the same number last Friday in a thrilling overtime win over San Antonio. The Celtics have 17 championship banners and more Hall of Famers than any other NBA franchise. And now their one-game scoring record is shared by Tatum and Bird.
“I still follow the Celtics, and I saw the end of that one Friday,” McHale said. “He was really on fire. It doesn’t happen that often, but sometimes a player gets in that weird zone.
“I was rooting for Tatum. Records are meant to be broken. But at the same time, I was kind of glad he stopped at 60 so Larry still shares the record.”
Bird was at the height of his powers in 1985. It was the middle of his three-year MVP run, and he could pretty much do anything he wanted. He was on the cover of Time magazine the week he went off for 60. He’d been interviewed by Time’s Tom Callahan on the Celtics’ annual West Coast trip and got along well with the cerebral scribe. Larry allowed Callahan unusual access to family members, and Callahan promised Bird that his feature would be “fair to you.”
Two days before New Orleans, Bird ran in the sixth annual Shamrock Classic, a Celtic-sponsored 5-mile road race starting at the Garden. Bird finished 247th of 1,182 runners, clocking the distance in 33:46, winning the super heavyweight division (220 pounds and over).
For that 1985 game, the Celtics stayed at the Superdome Hyatt in New Orleans. On the 7-mile bus ride from the Hyatt to Lakefront, Bird complained that his legs were achy from the road race.
The drive took us past Brother Martin Prep, which had been the high school of Celtics center Rick Robey, a former All-American at Kentucky. Robey was part of Bird’s first Celtic championship team in 1981, but is best remembered as the guy Red Auerbach traded to acquire Dennis Johnson in one of the great steals in NBA history.
Bird called Robey “Footer” and loved to tease the big fella about Kentucky’s alleged booster improprieties. Bird popped out of his bus seat when he saw Robey’s high school and said, “That’s it right there! That’s where Footer got all them bribes to go to Kentucky!”
The game was played at Lakefront because the Atlanta Hawks couldn’t draw downtown, and a promoter guaranteed them $100,000 per contest to play 12 “home” games in New Orleans. They averaged fewer than 4,000 fans in the college gym, but had a sellout of 10,079 for the Celtics, most of them green-garbed Boston fans.
“The Celtics never have a road game,” groaned Hawks GM Stan Kasten, who later became part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and helped the 2012 Red Sox with the Adrian Gonzalez-Carl Crawford-Josh Beckett salary-dump deal. One of Kasten’s famous partners in the Dodger ownership group is Magic Johnson.
At Lakefront, the Boston press corps was seated at an elevated platform behind the Hawks bench, which gave us a great view of Atlanta coach Mike Fratello arguing with his dissension-plagued squad as Bird torched a chorus line of Hawk defenders. When Fratello got in Rickey Brown’s face for not doing a better job guarding Bird, a small scuffle ensued.
As video attests, Hawks players Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston, and Eddie Johnson were falling off the bench laughing in astonishment when Bird’s shots splashed through the net late in the game. The NBA fined Hawks players for celebrating Bird’s beatdown of their team.
“I think we were trying to stop him, but you really couldn’t tell,” Kasten said from LA this week.
Bird made only one 3-pointer, but a second trey — which triggered some of the antics from the Hawks — was nullified because it came after a whistle. Too bad, because Bird said, “That was my toughest shot of the night.”
When it was over, Kasten came into the Celtic locker room and presented Bird with the ball.
“Lot of good scoop out there tonight, huh, Scoop?” Bird said as he brushed by me on the way out of the room.
There was no load management in those days. And no charter aircraft for NBA teams. The next day’s wake-up call at the Hyatt was at 5 a.m., and we were back in Boston by noon for a Wednesday night game with Phoenix. Bird played 39 minutes and scored 31 with 12 rebounds in a win over the Suns.
Callahan, author of the Time story, was in Las Vegas for a Larry Holmes fight when he heard about Bird’s 60-point outing. Delighted that Larry was making his cover story look good, Callahan mailed a thank you letter to the Celtic legend.
Later that year, Callahan got a return missive from Bird — a note scribbled on a smudged sheet of loose-leaf paper that read, “Dear Tom, Fair to me. Larry Bird.”
When I spoke with Kasten this week, he wondered if Bird still has the basketball from his 60-point game. Doubtful, I told him. Larry was famous for having MVP awards rattling around in the back of his pickup truck.
“I get it,” said Kasten. “I’ve got a partner just like that.”
“The NBA was different then,” said McHale. “The money hadn’t exploded, and we were treated like basketball players, not rock stars. It was more of a ‘we’ league than a ‘me’ league.
“I remember one night Jerry Sichting scored 30 for us, and after the game we were sitting around and Larry said, ‘That’s three times your average. That would be like me getting 100.’
“We all laughed. We enjoyed each other’s success.”
… said the man who was the Celtics’ single-game scoring leader for nine whole days in 1985.