You shouldn’t hang me on a hook. My father hung me on a hook once. Once!
— Danny Vermin, “Johnny Dangerously,” 1984
The Golden State Warriors are in rare air entering Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals. They don’t just have a chance at capturing their fourth NBA championship since 2015; they have a chance to do so on the Boston Celtics’ home floor.
Beantown’s playoff dominance over the decades is such that only one team — the 1985 Los Angeles Lakers — has ever captured an NBA title on Boston’s home floor, which was then the historic old Boston Garden. Such circumstances are rare, given the Celtics’ general finals excellence. Even though this is Boston’s 22nd finals appearance in franchise history, Thursday marks just the ninth time the Celtics have faced finals elimination at home. Eight of the nine previous times, Boston either staved off elimination or won the championship on its home floor.
The lone blemish came in ’85. And it turned around the fortunes of the Lakers franchise.
Despite their Hall of Fame pedigree, with the likes of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain on their roster throughout the 1960s, the Lakers were 0-8 lifetime in finals appearances against Boston entering ’85.
After being taken first overall in the 1979 draft, Magic Johnson had transformed the Lakers, leading them to two titles in his first four seasons. But LA was coming off a gut-wrenching seven-game finals loss to the Celtics the year before, having given away Game 2 in heartbreaking fashion in the final seconds, then getting overrun in Game 7 at the Garden. Writers dubbed Magic Johnson “Tragic Johnson” for his subpar play.
So when the Lakers came to Boston up 3-2 after beating the Celtics 120-111 at the Great Western Forum in Game 5, they were determined not to let history repeat itself.
“In the back of our minds, we all remembered what happened the year before,” recalled Mitch Kupchak, a key reserve on those Lakers teams and now the Hornets’ president of basketball operations and general manager. “We should have been going back to LA up two. But we didn’t. … I say that because we were going back to Boston now in ’85, up 3-2. That demon was there, right? We can’t let that happen again. A big part of it was the fact of how we lost the year before. We felt like we gave it away…
“And (the other) part was the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. The Lakers had never beat the Celtics (in the NBA Finals), up until that year. I think they had lost seven or eight (editor’s note: eight) times. Jerry West was the GM, and he never mentioned it, but it was always in the paper. To this day, Jerry probably carries that with him. It was like a silent demon that we had to exorcise. … and then, there’s the normal motivation of just trying to win a ring, right? We never talked about that the Lakers had never beaten the Celtics, because that was in the ’60s. This is the ’80s. But it was in the paper every day, and we all read the paper. It was in the news.”
Then there was what awaited any visiting team coming to the old Garden.
“Four showers, only two worked,” Kupchak said. “There was no air conditioning. We had to bring in, like, air blowers. Locker room was big enough for seven people; we had 15. We just felt this was all Red Auerbach’s doing, his way to try and get a competitive edge.”
Before Game 6 in 1985, CBS studio host Brent Musburger and play-by-play man Dick Stockton each alluded to the Celtics’ historic playoff dominance at home. Stockton noted just before tipoff, “keep in mind, with the (then) 15 world championships that the Celtics have, they have been beaten only once in a world championship series, and that was on a visiting court in St. Louis 27 years ago ,” when the then-St. Louis Hawks, led by Hall of Famer Bob Pettit, handed Bill Russell his only NBA Finals defeat in 12 appearances.
“The parquet floor has been magic for the Celtics over the years,” Stockton said. “See if it continues.”
After running out to an early lead, the Lakers couldn’t pull away. The first half was fiercely contested, with 18 ties. Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar each were slowed by three first-half fouls, and both sat the last 2 minutes, 30 seconds of the second quarter. With James Worthy taking over the scoring load, the Lakers got to the half tied with the Celtics at 55.
“But I think the advantage turns to the Lakers, because they’ve had Magic Johnson and Kareem on that bench an awful long time, and that fatigue that we were talking about should not affect those two players down the stretch,” said CBS’ color commentator, Hall of Famer and former Celtics player and coach Tommy Heinsohn.
That premonition turned out to be correct. LA took over the game in the third quarter, outscoring Boston 27-18. Abdul-Jabbar made his first two shots of the quarterback and the Lakers led 82-73 after three. But Johnson picked up his fifth foul early in the fourth. The Lakers had to turn to their 38-year-old center, Abdul-Jabbar — who’d been humiliated in Game 1 of the Finals, in the celebrated 148-114 “Boston Massacre” on Memorial Day. But Kareem recovered, going for 30 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists in a breakthrough Game 2 win in the Garden.
“He played like he was 25,” Kupchak recalled.
In Game 6, Abdul-Jabbar scored eight of his team-high 29 points in the last three minutes of the fourth, with his iconic double-fists raised in celebration after dropping in another sky hook with a minute to go emblematic of what the moment meant for him, and his team. Johnson had a triple-double, with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, but Abdul-Jabbar was the unanimous selection for NBA Finals MVP.
“Unusual sight — Celtics losing a championship at home,” said Heinsohn, who’d won eight titles as a player in Boston. “You have to have some character to win it on the road. … when you win it on the road, there’s not a lot of applause coming your way, but you sure appreciate those guys on the bench.”
In that same tiny, airless visitors’ locker room, the champagne now flowed freely.
“This has removed the most odious sentence from the English language,” Lakers owner Jerry Buss told CBS afterwards. “It can never be said again that the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics.”
(Photo of fans outside TD Garden: David Butler II / USA Today)