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Book excerpt: Remembering the first Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals of the Larry Bird era

Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, and Cedric Maxwell celebrated after the Celtics won the 1984 championship.John Blanding/Globe Staff

The Celtics host the Lakers Friday night at TD Garden, and any renewal of one of the great NBA rivalries always conjures memories of their historic matchups.

With that in mind, this has been excerpted from “Wish It Lasted Forever — Life With the Larry Bird Celtics” by Dan Shaughnessy. Copyright ©2021 by Dan Shaughnessy. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The Bird-Magic Finals of the NBA’s golden 1980s — the Celtics and Lakers met three times in a stretch of four seasons between 1984-87 — were like the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier title fights. The first of the three Bird-Magic bouts came in 1984 after the Celtics beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, while the Lakers advanced in the West against the Phoenix Suns.


CBS was ecstatic. Boston-LA meant that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would be meeting in a championship event for the first time since NBC set unbreakable ratings records with its broadcast of the Bird-Magic NCAA Final in 1979. At least one of them had been in the NBA Finals in each of their first four NBA seasons, but this was the first championship series featuring both.

The Celtics and Lakers were the Yankees and Dodgers of pro basketball. They’d played in seven NBA Finals from 1959 to 1969 with Boston winning every one. Lakers fans were haunted by the 1962 finale, when Frank Selvy’s potential series winner clanged off the rim at the Boston Garden. LA general manager Jerry West experienced what he called the low point of his life when the Lakers couldn’t beat Boston in 1969. A Celtics-Lakers Final in 1984 meant that the league’s two showcase franchises accounted for 60 percent (23 of 38) of all NBA crowns in the first four decades of the league’s existence. (In the COVID summer of 2020, the LeBron James Lakers won their 17th NBA crown, finally tying the Celtics for most championship banners.)


Globe Sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy writes about covering Larry Bird in his upcoming book.

Celtics-Lakers also represented a clash of cultures easily framed by media outlets. It was ham and cheese versus sushi, stationary bikes versus Italian ten-speeds, meaty-faced Celtics fans versus Rambis Youth — a cult of slender teen boys wearing yellow T-shirts and nerdy Clark Kent glasses.

Like the city they represented, the Celtics were gritty, tough, arrogant, and loud. Their game was pass, move, pick, and block out. Their coach was a rugged ex-player who’d been a defensive specialist.

The Lakers were fashionable, fast, and sprinkled with glitter. Their coach, Pat Riley, looked and dressed like a movie star.

“They were the Thoroughbreds and we were the Clydesdales,” said M.L. Carr.

LA had celebrity fans Jack Nicholson, Michael Jackson, the Fonz, and Rod Stewart. To sing the national anthem, the team invited Jeffrey Osborne, Stevie Wonder, and Dionne Warwick. Their promotions staff bombarded the senses with Laker Girls and halftime entertainment. In contrast, the national anthem at Celtics games was performed by a cornball trumpet/snare-drum jazz duo. According to an official Celtics press release, the Boston Garden’s halftime entertainment featured “ballboy rolling out ball carts.”

Themes of race were underscored. Boston’s fundamental game versus LA’s showtime. Suburban versus urban. The Celtics had three white stars: Bird, Kevin McHale, and Danny Ainge. Except for Kurt Rambis, all the Lakers who played significant minutes were Black. It was never stated by anyone in authority, but the Celtics were white America’s team while the Lakers were the favorites of the Black community. Players on both teams were aware that many people in Boston’s Black community wanted the Lakers to beat the Celtics.


“The country was split,” Magic told ESPN. “If you were white, you cheered for the Celtics; if you were Black, you cheered for the Lakers … We go to Boston and me and Coop [Michael Cooper] see these five African-American men and they stop us and say, ‘I hope you kill ‘em. All of us in Boston, we live in Roxbury and we want you to beat the Celtics.’ ”

“That didn’t just start with Celtics-Lakers,” said Gerald Henderson, who came to Boston when Bird arrived in 1979. “I got a sense of that the first day I came to the Celtics. Traveling around the country in my first days, we were always ‘the White Team’ against ‘the Black Team.’

“It was always like that. But the big difference was that we had some white boys that could [expletive] play. In 1984, LA had the damn ‘Showtime.’ It was sparkling and fun to watch and good-looking. It was the hot thing in the NBA, and we were just these guys from around the block. And the Black-white thing really took hold with a lot of the country.”

Cedric Maxwell was acutely aware of the racial undercurrent. When he first played for Boston in 1977, he was stunned when friends told him to steer clear of South Boston. He sometimes spoke of a sweet, yet awkward, encounter with McHale’s mom in the 1980s.


“The players on our team, we all loved each other,” Maxwell told NBC Sports Boston. “It was a very unique family bond. We were so close, and when we’d see somebody else’s parents, we’d just grab them and hug them like they were our mom. I remember seeing Kevin’s mom — and I was close to Kevin — and I go up and I was like, ‘Hey, Mrs. McHale, how are you doing?’ And I go in and give her a big hug, and I remember to this day Mrs. McHale cringing. Because I knew it was the first time a Black person had ever probably hugged her because she was from Hibbing. They’d probably never seen Black people except on TV.

Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis in Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals.AP Photo

“In 1984, people of color weren’t rooting for the Celtics against Magic and Kareem,” continued Maxwell. “It wasn’t just a Boston thing. I had friends asking me, ‘What was wrong with you?’ I have talked to James Worthy and Michael Cooper about it. Basically, it was Black and white. Being a Black guy on a ‘white’ team was tough. We never got any credit as players. We had great Black players, but we were identified as a white team, and it was so unfair. We were just a team, but the public perception was that we were a white team. All of us who were there felt that way, except maybe M.L. He played both sides of the coin.”


Apart from its racial flavor, the matchup featured an unusual contrast of basketball pedigrees. Most of LA’s best players were products of blue-chip NCAA programs: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, and Swen Nater had attended UCLA. Worthy and Bob McAdoo were North Carolina Tar Heels. Magic (Michigan State) and Byron Scott (Arizona State) were from power conferences. Boston’s starting five hailed from Indiana State (Bird), Centenary (Robert Parish), North Carolina–Charlotte (Maxwell), Virginia Commonwealth (Henderson), and Pepperdine (Dennis Johnson). Anybody could build an NBA powerhouse with the best players from the blue-chip conferences.

Building a champion with players from no-name schools was another tribute to Auerbach’s genius. Red bristled at any mention of a Lakers dynasty. He had fourteen championship rings and wore the one from 1969 — the one that hurt LA the most.

The Celtics prevailed in perhaps the greatest NBA Finals series of all time, a two-week, frequent-flyer, seven-game special that featured two overtime games, Henderson’s steal, a 137-104 Laker rout, McHale’s violent takedown of Rambis, Bird’s tour de force in the hottest game ever played in the old Garden, and Maxwell delivering the goods after telling teammates to “hop on my back” before Game 7 in Boston. Here the author describes the moments immediately after Bird and Co. won Flag No. 15 in Game 7 at the Garden on the night of Tuesday, June 12, 1984.

Celtics assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers, left, and head coach KC Jones celebrate the team's NBA championship.John Blanding/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

It marked the first time the Celtics had won a championship in the Boston Garden since 1966, Red’s final game on the bench. After midnight, I ducked out of the champagne-soaked room, gathered my computer and notes, and made my way toward the Garden’s upper-level pressroom, where I needed to file a late-edition story. Walking down the corridor toward the ancient, smelly stairwell, I heard a woman’s voice and high-heel shoes clicking behind me. When I stopped and turned around, I was face-to-face with a super-agitated Nancy Parish.

“Dan Shaughnessy, let’s talk,” she spewed. “What are you gonna write about this game, huh, Dan? You made an ass out of yourself.”

I hemmed. I hawed. “Um, gee. Chief sure had a good game. Okay, have fun. Gotta go.”

Mrs. Chief still wanted a piece of me, but security approached and I was able to get on my way, hearing echoes of “You made an ass of yourself! You hear me?” I wasn’t quite sure whether her grievance was specific or had to do with my coverage throughout the season.

While I was getting an earful from Mrs. Chief, Bird and Quinn Buckner were in a van driven by assistant equipment manager Joe Qatato, bound for Hellenic College. Frustrated and impatient with the celebratory gridlock on Storrow Drive, Bird ordered Qatato to stop the van. The two players hopped out, vaulted the median, and started walking back toward Faneuil Hall amid the clogged traffic and honking horns. The Celtics stars were instantly recognized and picked up by astonished fans, who drove them to Chelsea’s.

“I have a vague memory of that,” said Buckner. “Storrow Drive is quite a place to stop a van, but we were going where we were going, and Larry got us there. Beating Magic was really important to him and that was a special night.”

After Chelsea’s, a group of Celtics players went to the Winchester home of former team promotions director Mike Cole for an all-night party. Bird stayed out until the sun came up, did a telephone interview with a Boston radio station, then went home to Brookline to sleep it off, telling friends, “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me.”

Maxwell made it home to Cabot Estate near Jamaica Pond, then woke early and trudged downtown for a sunrise appearance on the CBS Morning News. Abdul-Jabbar was already on the set when Maxwell arrived.

“When Kareem saw me, he got up and said, ‘You guys got the [expletive] winner here, so I’m gone,’ ” remembered Maxwell. “It was pretty cold.”

After his TV gig, Maxwell went to Boston City Hall to get his marriage license, then got a haircut. It was his excuse for skipping the trip to the Reagan White House. Cedric and Renee Maxwell honeymooned in Nassau, where they ran into Magic Johnson. Years after his divorce, Max said, “I wish I’d gone to Washington with the team that day. It would have saved me a lot of money in the long run.”

The Celtics were honored at the Rose Garden after winning the 1984 title. From left, Greg Kite, Danny Ainge, Gerald Henderson, coach K.C. Jones, President Ronald Reagan, NBA commissioner David Stern, Red Auerbach, and Dennis Johnson.Frank O'Brien, Globe Staff

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 13, nine members of the World Champion Celtics boarded the Eastern Airlines Shuttle bound for National. Casual inspection told me that Greg Kite, Scott Wedman, and Ainge were the only players not hungover. Wearing Blues Brothers sunglasses, Ainge grinned and said, “I heard Nancy Parish went at you last night!”

Nancy Parish wasn’t on the trip. Neither was the Chief, Bird, or Maxwell. Little mention was made of it. In 1984, Red’s cigar was just a cigar, and a no-show at the White House was no big deal.

“It was a late night and I’m sure they were very tired,” General Manager Jan Volk said with a shrug when I asked about it.

“If you look at those pictures from the Rose Garden, you can see that Quinn Buckner is sleeping standing up,” said Joe DiLorenzo, a team official who’d been at Chelsea’s and Cole’s after-party. “We couldn’t believe any of them made it there.”

It was brutally hot in the Rose Garden as Reagan bumbled his way through a five-minute speech. Auerbach presented Reagan with a Celtics starter jacket, and DJ spoke, wiping sweat from his freckled face, concluding with “Mr. President, I just have one question. How do you stand out here and don’t sweat?”

Celtics guard Dennis Johnson presented an autographed basketball to President Ronald Reagan in the Rose Garden at the White House.Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff

“The White House thing sounded like a good idea at the time, but I don’t know if it was,” McHale said decades later. “We’d never been to the White House before. We had a lot of fun at night, but we always got back at it the next day. We were a resilient group. So we went and did it, but I was never so happy to be flying back to Boston. Talking about the going to the White House was a lot better than actually doing it.”

Six days after Game 7, Sport magazine presented Bird with a Pontiac Trans Am for winning the Finals MVP Award.

“It’s always good to receive something that you feel you deserve, especially after they gave it to James Worthy after the second game of the series,” Bird said after the presentation at the Boston Ritz-Carlton. He gave the car to his brother Eddie in exchange for Eddie’s promise to cut Larry’s lawn at the new house back home in Indiana.

Sport’s MVP car presentation was a championship finals tradition, started when the magazine honored Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Johnny Podres after he was named MVP of the 1955 World Series. The NBA got in on the deal a decade later, and Bill Walton (1977 Trail Blazers) and Moses Malone (1983 Sixers) were recipients before Bird.

One Finals MVP who never got a car was the ever-disrespected Maxwell, MVP of the 1981 Finals.

“It was always a car or a trip to Disney or something like that,” Max recalled in 2021. “I got a [expletive] watch. I actually had to go to New York to the Waldorf, I thought there was going to be more, but when I came outside the Waldorf, there was just a Yellow Cab waiting and I remember thinking, ‘This is some [expletive].’ I complained to David Stern years later and he said, ‘Whoa, dude, we had a different sponsor then.’ It should embarrass anyone in the NBA. Larry got a car. I got [expletive]. That’s what I got.”

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.