On Saturday afternoon, NBA TV broadcast Game 7 of the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals between Boston and Cleveland, played at the Richfield Coliseum on Sunday, May 17. The defending champion Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan would take on the survivor.
Living in northwest Ohio as a young diehard Larry Bird and Boston fan, I made the trek to northeast Ohio to see this climactic game, sitting in the highest reaches of the sold-out stadium. My Cavalier fan friend’s dad got tickets and drove us to the much-anticipated contest.
As we neared the Coliseum in Richfield, almost 21 miles and 30 minutes south of Cleveland (out in the middle of nowhere actually), homemade signs that local fans had erected along the road came into view.
As I gazed out the window I read that it was “Larry’s Last Game”, “RIP Boston”, “Bird’s Last Stand” and other such ominous signs dotting the side of the road.
Larry did not even play in the Cavalier series until Game 4 on Mother’s Day, a costly 114-112 overtime loss that evened the series 2-2. Cleveland then took control of the series with a 114-98 fifth game win.
There were whispers that Boston was better off without Bird, who had not even played in 37 days since an April 3 loss at Indiana, in his home state. In the Game 4 and 5 playoff losses, a rusty Larry came off the bench and in a combined total of 37 minutes, shot 7-15, totaling 17 points.
But as long-time NBA coach and 1992 NBC analyst Cotton Fitzsimmons said during the Game 7 telecast, “Anyone who thinks the Celtics are better off without Larry Bird knows nothing about basketball – or Larry Bird.”
In game 6 on May 15, the proud Bird answered his critics with a virtuoso performance in what turned out to be his last game at Boston Garden. Inserted back into the starting lineup by ex-teammate Ford, Larry Legend put on one of the great passing displays of his career with 14 assists, many of the spectacular variety.
Celtic broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn exclaimed that class was in session, and Professor Bird was showing the Cavaliers he was not yet done. He added 16 points and six rebounds in 37 minutes as the Celtics rolled to a 122-104 win. The Garden rocked as it never did again that Friday night.
No one knew what to expect in Game 7 at Cleveland. Conventional wisdom said if it was close, the veteran Celtics would find a way to win in crunch time. Bird and Boston were always so clutch…yet if the younger Cavaliers could make it a fast-paced, running game they would have the edge, especially at home.
What unfolded was pretty much unforeseen on that warm mid-May Sunday afternoon. The Cavs came out smoking hot and led early 13-6, and the intense crowd was relentlessly loud and rabid after years of losing. A fan seated near me blew a conch shell with incredible volume above the din after almost every Cavalier field goal throughout the game.
Cleveland led 35-21 after one period, and never was truly threatened. Only Kevin McHale, back in his original sixth man role, could get anything going on offense, yet it was not nearly enough to stem the extremely sharp Cavalier attack.
Boston looked slow and sluggish while the younger Cavs moved with much more energy and speed, buoyed by the hungry crowd – and perhaps by the knowledge they needed to build a big early lead to take the pressure off of them.
Boston, after all, had been through every conceivable playoff situation during the extremely successful 13-year Bird era. Meanwhile, Cleveland had barely won a playoff series during his career.
Yet the vaunted Celtic frontline of Bird, McHale and Robert Parish was hobbled by injury and averaged 36 years of age. Hampered by an ankle sprain and sore knees at 38, Parish was the oldest player in the league at the time, and could barely run the floor.
A banged-up Bird was 35.5 and McHale, also slowed by foot and knee issues, was 34. If they could make it a half court game of execution, if the Cavs could be made to feel the pressure, then and only then would the Celtics have a chance.
But while fans expected the Cavs to cool off and for the veteran Celtics to inevitably heat up, instead Cleveland kept its feet on the accelerator while Boston sputtered. Their only young starter, Reggie Lewis, began by shooting 0-4 and did not score until the second period.
Larry’s lone highlight came in transition off along Parish outlet pass when off the dribble, he circled the ball left to right around his back in traffic before swishing a 13-foot pull-up shot. But even then, the NBC cameras almost missed the flashy play in real time and never even ran it one time on replay as the Cavs rushed the ball right back at Boston.
Lewis then hit three shots in a row at one point to get the Celts within striking distance, yet a three-pointer by Craig Ehlo stopped the momentum and propelled the Cavs to a commanding 65-47 halftime edge. Hounded by Mike Sanders, Bird scored just six first half points and had puzzlingly few touches.
What struck me about Bird at the time, and upon seeing the game again Saturday on NBA TV, was how the referees let veteran journeyman Sanders, an underrated but far inferior player, hang all over Larry as he looked to pass on the few times he got the ball, often beyond the top of the key in bad position to do much.
Whenever Bird got the ball far outside, the deceptively strong Sanders would lean right into Bird’s body, one hand on his side as the other hand waved in Larry’s face. Meanwhile the Legend desperately looked for non-open cutters as the team’s point forward, unable to fully flex his splendid passing muscle and vision.
I cannot believe the NBA would allow Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant to be manhandled in such a way in potentially their last game. But they disrespectfully allowed it to happen to Bird, who never complained about the treatment.
And the Cavs knew they could crowd Bird and force him to drive, which he could not do well at the time with his balky back – and while being jammed so hard that he was almost leaning backward under the weighty pressure of Sanders.
Larry buried a right side 19-footer to score Boston’s first points of the second half, but they came almost four minutes into the period. The Celtics needed to come out strong to start the third quarter in order to have a chance to rally, yet it was Cleveland who began the half on a run to stretch the lead to 71-49.
Bird hit two more shots, including a short right side banker high off the glass, and a left wing 20-footer. After over 25,000 regular season and playoff points, those were his last made baskets in NBA play. Meanwhile, the red-hot Cavs continued to torch the nets at well over 60 percent from the field.
They even got the shooter’s roll on a few lucky shots and stretched the lead all the way to 95-71 after three periods. The crowd howled even louder, pleasantly surprised at the margin and knowing the series was all but in the bag.
When Bird went out of the game midway through the fourth quarter with Boston still down by over 20 points, NBC play by play announcer Tom Hammond wondered aloud if it was the last time Larry Bird would be seen playing on an NBA basketball court.
At the time, there was widespread speculation that Bird was going to retire, but he would not commit to that publicly. He wanted to see how he felt after playing for the original Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics. But it was widely felt that Bird was very likely to retire after that season.
Had the Celtics made one final, miraculous Game 7 run he would have gone back in for a last hurrah. But the run never came, and Ford did not put Larry back in for a cameo to get an ovation – perhaps cognizant that his former teammate was not one for public sentiment.
Ford also had to sense that the home crowd might not give Bird such a pleasant send-off, in spite of the wide margin and his superlative career accomplishments. Cleveland fans had suffered too many jokes about their city, too many sports disappointments over the previous 25 years or so, to be very gracious.
The NBC cameras panned on an impassive but alert Bird as he sat on the bench, showing no emotion as he watched the final minutes tick away. When the final buzzer sounded he walked off the floor to little or no fanfare as the giddy Cleveland crowd celebrated its win with little or no regard for him.
There was no NBC post-game interview, no histrionics or emotion from Bird. It had to be a bitter ending, but you could not tell it by looking at Bird’s face – yet if you looked closely, you could see a note of defiance in his gait as he walked off the Coliseum court.
The other thing that struck me was how little Boston went to Bird, who was being guarded so closely by Sanders that he could barely move without the ball to get in a rhythm. The Cavs had seen in Game 6 what could still happen if they allowed Larry to get going and pick them apart with pinpoint passing and shooting.
Under the swarming Cavalier defense, Boston resorted too much to one on one play, something that only McHale, Lewis and Dee Brown excelled in at that time.
Cleveland demonstrated incredible interior passing and teamwork, traditional Celtic hallmarks. Time and time again the Cavaliers made the extra pass and found the open man for an easy shot or dunk. The Cavs played a nearly perfect game as they assisted on 42 – 86 percent! – of their 49 baskets.
By contrast, Boston amassed just 20 assists on 43 made hoops. Daugherty dominated Parish, out-pointing him 28-2 to lead all scorers. Daugherty added nine rebounds and six assists to just three boards by the laboring Chief, 10 years his senior.
Brown scored 18 mostly meaningless points off the bench, and sixth man McHale added 15.
All five Cav starters scored at least 12 points, and sixth man John “Hot Rod” Williams netted 20 points. Cleveland played with emotion and skill, while Boston seemed to be completely spent. They played with no emotion and little energy, as if shell-shocked by the impressive Cleveland display of shooting, passing and defense. They had no answers.
Bird’s final, final NBA stat line read: 33 minutes played, six field goals made in just nine attempts. Nine shots…zero free throw tries and no three-point attempts show how little legs he had left as he could not free himself to drive with his customary fakes, ambidexterity and creativity. Five rebounds and four assists. Two turnovers and one foul…12 points.
The early Cavalier onslaught seemed to rob Gang Green of any juice they had, while also spurring the younger Cavs on. For Celtic fan, Bird-lovers and NBA fans all over the world, it was a sad day, and an anti-climactic ending to a fine series. It felt like a letdown, almost like a wake.
After such a hard-fought series, almost everyone expected a close game and a better Boston effort in Game 7. Their fabled history almost demanded a fantastic denouement. But maybe they just had nothing left to give after their great showing at home in Game 6, an emotional victory less than two days before.
In addition, Cleveland played its very best game, peaking at the absolute right time. The Celtics looked like sleepwalkers from the start, as if they were suffering from a basketball version of PTSD.
I remember filing out of the rocking Coliseum numb myself from the relentless noise, the shocking blowout and the prospect of Bird’s probable retirement. I refused to believe Larry would retire until I saw it on ESPN one evening. His body just had been completely worn down by injuries in a lifetime of basketball, from pushing himself to be the best.
Of course, a few months later Bird would go out on top as a member of the gold-medal U.S. men’s Olympic team in Spain. Yet interestingly, he went out with a goose-egg in the scoring column in the gold medal rematch win over Croatia.
It was much like the fourth quarter of his last NBA game at Cleveland, where he did not take a shot and sat out the last six minutes or so, helpless on the sidelines. One has to think he pretty much knew it was his last formal game, and perhaps the stage even got to someone as stoic as Bird, almost paralyzing him.
A few weeks later, despite the efforts of Celtic president Dave Gavitt to cajole one last season out of Bird with a huge contract as a sixth man playing only in home and close road games he could drive to (flying irritated his back), Larry made it official – he was retiring.
The last few years had been, as Fitzsimmons said on NBC, “murder for Larry” dealing with constant back injuries, full body braces, being unable to perform at the level he was accustomed to, and the pain.
An understated press conference was quickly set up and Bird retired without fanfare or a self-serving farewell tour, things he deserved after basically saving a reeling league from possible extinction 13 years before.
As he announced the official decision, his voice trembled a bit but Bird’s clear face illustrated the relief that not playing anymore in constant pain ultimately gave him. He no longer bore the burden of carrying the Celtics and the now-prosperous league on his bad back. Larry also had the satisfaction of knowing he had given it his all, and his body could give no more.
By the time he left the NBA as arguably its greatest all-around player ever, the league was in great shape, but it really has not been the same ever since Bird retired.
Not only did he lift the play of his teammates to maximum levels with his skills, leadership and intangibles, he also brought out the very best in Boston’s opponents, thereby raising the overall quality of play throughout the league to arguably its greatest heights.
Boston was already a major lightning rod for fans and opponents due to their winning ways and past, but the intensity of Celtic hate (or as I like to call it “Green-is envy”) ratcheted up even further in the Bird era. Every team tried its hardest and best to try and beat Bird/Boston, but they rarely succeeded.
To his credit, Larry rarely if ever backed down from a challenge, even when hurt and at reduced physical effectiveness. He adjusted by being even smarter, and made no excuses when he and Boston came up short.
He navigated the tense racial minefield of the NBA as a burdened minority white superstar without incident over 13 intense years, and emerged with virtually every player’s respect.
He was the rarest of superstars – the one who, despite massive pressure and build up coming into the pros, actually managed to far exceed even those great expectations.
The quality and intensity of play in the NBA suffered for 25 years or so after his retirement, due also in part to over expansion and an overall decline in fundamentals. There was no measuring stick quite like Bird and Boston for the league to shoot at or aim for as motivation to reach higher.
No player has really approximated his unique breadth of skills, basketball IQ, determination and other intangibles since he retired. Bird’s legacy has only grown after his fine coaching and front office efforts following his retirement.
Bird coached Indiana to three straight conference finals in his three years at the helm, and got them to their only NBA Finals appearance in 2000. All this even though it was discovered he had atrial fibrillation and nearly fainted on the sidelines during a game with the Bulls. In the two years right after he left, the conference champion Pacers barely made the playoffs as the eighth and final seed.
His main contemporary rivals (Earvin Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and Julius Erving) have each stumbled mightily in their post-playing basketball careers as coaches and front office executives – as well as off the court.
But because he was so unique and highly successful at all levels of the game – while maintaining a publicly mysterious and tight-lipped privacy (how did he became the best many still wonder?) – Bird’s basketball legacy continues to burnish ever more brightly.
To contact the author, you can email Cort Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.