June 7, 1984. I may have known how much trouble the Lakers were in before anyone else.
As luck would have it, I flew back to Boston following Game 4 of the 1984 Finals on the same plane as the Lakers (this was before charters took over).
Logan Airport was chaotic. Boston was in the midst of a heat wave, and the scene was out of a movie. People were moaning about the heat. Babies were crying. Traffic was brutal. And the Staties on duty at Terminal C would not allow the bus sent to pick up the Lakers to park.
So Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson folded themselves into the same cab, heading off to the Copley Marriott.
I saw it all, and I said to myself, “This is definitely not what the Big Fella had in mind.’’
Abdul-Jabbar’s disposition wasn’t going to improve the next day, either. Boston was broiling on June 8. When he arrived at the un-air-conditioned Boston Garden to prepare for Game 5 of a series tied at 2-2, the place was hellish. Game-time temperature inside that building was officially posted at 97 degrees.
Here is what my friend and colleague Larry Whiteside had to say about that night:
“Years from now, nobody will remember the score. Only the heat that made your clothes cling like they do on those dead-of-August days at Hampton Beach. Only the heat. The ferocious heat that reached 97 degrees and made sweat drop like raindrops.’’
It turned out to be the ultimate home-court advantage.
Led by - guess who - the Celtics turned the almost ridiculous conditions into a joyous celebration of basketball. On a night when Kareem was sucking on oxygen, referee Hugh Evans was sidelined at halftime because of dehydration, Robert Parish had to be treated for a second-half leg cramp, and the impish M.L. Carr was walking around with a little dime-store fan, Larry Bird played 42 minutes, going for 34 points and hauling in 17 rebounds while shooting 15 of 20 from the floor. It was the supreme example of mind over matter on a basketball court.
“It was hotter than that back home in the summer,’’ shrugged Bird.
His mates were not so blase.
“Larry sets goals that are unreachable for the rest of us,’’ said Carr. “Then he surpasses them.’’
“Larry is the leader of this team,’’ added Danny Ainge. “Tonight he set the tempo for everybody. That kind of confidence is contagious.’’
There is no way to exaggerate the uniqueness of the situation. Never were so few clothes worn at a game in either Garden. Shorts and halter tops were the order of the day for the ladies. Shorts and T-shirts were the preferred male wardrobe.
It was not a basketball game as much as it was a festival, a private festival to which the chi-chi visitors from the Left Coast were not invited. Truly, the Lakers had no chance, if only because their leader, whose trip to Boston had gotten off to such a miserable start 27 hours or so earlier, was in such a rotten mood.
Asked to describe the situation, Kareem came out with this one: “I suggest you go to the local steam bath with all your clothes on. First, try to do a hundred push-ups. Then run back and forth for 48 minutes.’’
For the record, the Big Fella finished with 19 points in 35 minutes of play, but he went 7 of 25 from the floor.
Another person well-qualified to place the experience in context was the great Earl Strom, one of the premier referees of all time.
“I’ve worked games here before when it was hot,’’ he said. “But this was the worst. I can’t ever recall it being this hot. I’ve seen guys [i.e. officials] leave because of injury, but never heat.’’
Bird played so many tremendous games that it would take from now to July 4 to catalogue them. But this is the one that defined him. He did not merely survive the absurd conditions. He thrived on them. Pat Riley, always one of Larry’s biggest fans, offered a battlefield salute.
“The man who made the difference was Bird,’’ said Riley. “He was just awesome. He made everything work. He was the catalyst, and that’s what happens when great players come to the front.’’
It all took place on a night when, as Dan Shaughnessy wrote, “a Bermuda air mass transformed the Causeway Street train station into a fountain of sweat and Laker sorrow.’’
This happened 28 years ago today, and it could never be repeated nowadays because all the buildings have AC. But go ahead. Ask anyone who was in those stands where this memory ranks, and I’ll guarantee it’s at or near the top.
Larry Whiteside was right. We’ll always remember the heat. The score? Oh, it was Boston 121, Los Angeles 103. Trust me. Larry Bird wasn’t losing that game.