The following column is Larry H. Russell's debut column for CLNS Radio: Re-published from March 15th, 2012
22 years ago today, March 15th 1992: Boston Celtics 152 Portland Trail Blazers 148 in double overtime. Larry Legend 49-14-12 including an insane three pointer to force the first overtime that needs to be seen to be believed. Of course, if you’re a Celtics fan you don’t need to see it to believe it. Every Celtic fan of all ages will tell you exactly where they were on that gorgeous Sunday afternoon in mid March when that game happened.
Yes, even 15 year olds who weren’t even born yet will tell you they jumped a mob pile at their friends’ house after Gamble hit a baseline buzzer beater to force a second overtime. That game was literally that epic and is cherished by almost every Celtic fan as much as any game the last 20 years save for 131-92.
Read that last sentence again: “That game was literally that epic and is cherished by almost every Celtic fan as much as any game the last 20 years save for 131-92.”
And you know what? It’s true, which makes it that much more amazing. The Boston Celtics are the greatest franchise in the history of professional basketball (sorry LA fans, but the scoreboard still reads 17-11.) Not only have they had the most championship success but also no franchise has been involved in more memorable games.
From the first true NBA classic, Game 7 of the 1957 Finals, to “Havlicek stole the ball!” to the ‘Greatest Game Ever Played’ (that’s the 3OT thriller vs. Phoenix in Game 5 1976 Finals, and you’re not much of a Celtics fan, let alone NBA fan if you don’t know that), to “And there’s a steal by Bird….” and right down the rest of the laundry list of NBA classics the Celtics were involved in.
For a franchise so rich in success, usually Celtics fans don’t cherish many moments that did not happen in the post-season. After all, that’s usually reserved for fans of lesser franchises to harp on regular season buzzer beaters, and to hang division banners. But not only was it the greatest regular season game in basketball history, but it was the final legendary performance submitted by a mortally wounded warrior/legend/basketball god.
For those that need their mind refreshed a bit, or for those who (gasp) don’t know much of this momentous occasion, well, I guess it’s necessary for a rundown. 20 years ago today, March 15th 1992 the 35-29 Celtics took on the first place 46-18 Portland Trail Blazers on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in mid-March in Boston in a nationally televised broadcast on NBC. Following the Celtics’ 1991 playoff loss to Detroit, (the third time they lost to their rivals from the Motor City in the last four years), it was clear that the Celtics of Bird-Parish-McHale were no longer true contenders. The Blazers came into the Garden smoking-hot, and even worse, steaming mad. They had just gotten humiliated in the marquee match-up of the year on national television against Chicago two weeks to the day prior.
The Blazers were clearly the cream of the Western Conference, winning the conference two seasons prior, and choking it away to Magic's Lakers in ‘91. Magic Johnson retired right before the season, which left absolutely no legitimate threat to the Blazers to regain the Western Conference throne.
The Blazers had two all-stars (one Hall of Famer) in the absolute peak of their careers (Drexler and Porter), and a stocked supporting cast full of future or former all stars (Cliff Robinson, Danny Ainge, Kevin Duckworth, Buck Williams) who all played at high levels. They had one of the best coaches in the game in Rick Adelman.
Following the beat-down in Chitown, the Blazers ripped off seven in a row, firmly established their position as the clear cut favorites in the West, and went into their nationally televised broadcast against the Celtics to make a serious statement to the whole league.
The Celtics on the other hand, limped around the ’92 season as a team that struggled to stay above .500. To put it bluntly, Boston was just about dead meat for this match-up.
Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird, in the summer of 91, got off-season back surgery to remove a disc. Following games in the ‘92 season, Bird was virtually paralyzed. Bird said that he played in “total agony.” Bird was in the twilight of twilights of his career.
Here’s how bad it was for Bird: he could never have his back in any other position but vertical. He either had to be standing up straight or lying down. He could never sit on the bench on the sideline (or anywhere); he could only lie down stomach-first. Following games, he had to spend hours upon hours in a full-body brace to recover, either at home or in a hospital bed.
It was utterly excruciating for Celtics fans to not only know they would probably never see their legend perform like, well, a legend again. But it was equally excruciating to watch Bird go to war for the Celtics franchise and Celtics fans with six bullet wounds to his body. Heck, there were even debates during that season that the Celtics may have been better without Bird even PLAYING.
While NBC certainly advertised the game as a marquee match-up between two of the top teams in their respective conferences, the game had little hype in Boston as many Celtics fans expected the Blazers to come into the Garden and take care of business and dispatch the Celtics. However, fortunately for Celtics fans and anyone who appreciates the game of basketball in general (and ESPECIALLY executives at NBC), the game went a little differently than expected.
For the first 47 minutes, the Blazers clearly proved their point to the league. Boston came out of the gates hot and took an early lead, but from the middle of the second quarter on, Portland was working with a comfortable lead all game.
Bird grinded and battled through the unimaginable back pain and was dialing up a virtuoso 1985-like performance, hitting fadeaways in the block, making three pointers, finding the open man, and getting rebounds on the defensive end firing a quick outlet.
However, even that was not looking like it would be enough. But Bird’s performance alone, by far his best of the season, actually kept the Celtics within striking distance of the far superior, far more talented, and far more athletic Portland Trail Blazer team.
Clyde Drexler (tallying 34 points in regulation) was stellar himself, and the Blazers were well on their way to that statement victory on national television they talked about. Portland was sporting a five-point lead with 20 seconds to go after Drexler was 1 of 2 at the line. The Celtics faithful began heading for the exits, Marv Albert began reading off the credits of those who at NBC who helped bring the game to a national audience and thanked them for their efforts, and the tens of millions of figure skating fans around the country (uh, yeah I exaggerated that a bit) were anxiously awaiting the conclusion of the game to watch NBC’s coverage of the World Figure Skating Championship.
Bird and the Celtics kept battling, scoring on a reverse layup, but Portland tacked on two more free throws, so it was back to a five-point lead with 14 seconds left and Boston didn’t have any timeouts. But Bird scored again, and the game kept going on, much to the chagrin of all eight of the American figure skating fans. With seven seconds left, Jerome Kersey was fouled and only needed one to ice the game. After missing the first, all of a sudden, 47 minutes of soundly dominating the Celtics very well was about to come down to one free throw.
Marv Albert and Mike Fratello felt it, and so did the fans, who let out a “holy crap, if he misses this, we get the ball down three and Larry’s cooking today” type of cheer.
As soon as Kersey released it, he knew it wasn’t good. Worst of all, what he did was the worst of scenarios that could happen for Portland: Kersey was called for a lane violation for stepping into the paint before the ball hit the rim. It stopped the clock (again Boston had no timeouts), and the Celtics got it side-out in Portland’s backcourt (rather than having to grab a rebound in traffic with a running clock AND go the length of the floor.)
Immediately, what was left of the Garden crowd let out a deafening, and familiar “Larr-y! Larr-y!” cry, hoping for one more miracle moment to improbably send the game to overtime. The moment had the perfect build-up. All of a sudden, the fans that left the game frantically returned to their seats. After finally getting it across the frontcourt, the ball got to Bird and the Garden faithful gasped as soon as he got near the three-point line. The Blazers had him covered like a blanket as they had Bird looking like he was playing on roller skates. There was nothing left but an absolute desperation, one-handed shot-put heave at the rim – a ball that had utterly no arc and went towards the basket like a screaming line drive off the bat of Wade Boggs.
The ball barely cleared the rim, then all of a sudden, rattled around, and in. The Garden was set off like the Celtics just won the championship, and the Blazers were absolutely stunned. Overtime was a formality.
Throughout the overtime, the Blazers seemed to restore order. The Celtics rode the adrenaline of the home crowd to stay close with the Blazers, but Portland seemed to gain control. Incredibly into the overtime, Bird was still dealing, hitting a tough fadeaway to tie the game early in the session, and then using one of his trademark moves that only he could do. While being doubled posting up at the elbow, he took a fadeaway and drew two Blazers in the air. Then, incredibly, at the last second he changed his mind and fired a no-look bullet strike to a cutting John Bagley for a layup which was his 10th assist of the afternoon, and secured the improbable triple-double by a player who was virtually flippin’ handicapped.
After Bird missed a potential go-ahead three pointer that would have very well brought the Garden to the ground had it gone in, Portland had the ball up two with under 30 seconds. Once they secured an offensive rebound with four seconds, all they needed were two free throws to ice it once again.
However, IT happened again. What has always plagued Rick Adelman teams. Buck Williams at the line missed the first one horribly, and the Garden crowd once again sensed it with an “uh oh, here we go again” cheer. He missed the second, and Bird secured the rebound and Boston had life.
Once again, the crowd began calling for another vintage Bird moment, and the millions of people who tuned into NBC expected it as well, (except for those figure skating fans who at this point were tweezing their scalp hair out.)
But this time Bird was a decoy as Chris Ford drew up a perfectly executed play (hey, imagine that, a Celtics coach who draws up a play at the end of games rather than giving the ball to their best player 40 feet from the hoop and let him do some work while four other guys do nothing.)
Kevin Gamble inbounded the ball to John Bagley, who penetrated, drew the Blazer defense and then kicked it back out to Gamble who at this point slid uncovered over to the baseline 15 foot from the hoop. Gamble nailed it. At this point the Garden was absolute bedlam. Celtics fans around Boston and the rest of the world were delirious watching this final curtain call for their aging team and their crippled star.
The NBA world and the rest of the national audience could not believe what they were seeing. Bird and his Celtics may have been fading from the basketball picture, but they sure as hell weren’t going down without a fight. At this point, there was a good chance that the dozens of figure skating fans began patting oil on their bodies to potentially light themselves on fire.
When the game was headed for a second overtime, Bob Costas was back in the NBC studios. He apologized that the game had cut into the World Figure Skating Championship coverage, but then saying that it was very well worth it as we were watching possibly the final masterpiece of a legend. Marv Albert echoed similar tones, telling his NBC audience that we were witnessing a “regular-season classic.”
This time in overtime, the Celtics were just too much for Portland. The Blazers were self-destructing and Boston and Bird had their adrenaline going roughly a zillion miles an hour. Bird (again) pulled off his trademark move on the elbow. Faking the shot on the fallaway and then hitting Eddy Pinckney under the hoop for a reverse jam.
Quick tangent: Here’s the list for those in the debate for the title of greatest passer of all time: Magic Johnson, Pete Marvich, and Larry Bird. That’s it. That’s the list. Don’t let anyone try to argue someone like John Stockton, Jason Kidd, or even Rajon Rondo being the best passer ever. It’s one of those three, period.
But Portland wouldn’t go away themselves. After Bird hit a home run pass to Rick Fox for a dunk, Danny Ainge (who scored 19 off the bench for Portland) hit a 38 footer to keep the Blazers’ faint hopes alive. Five points in about two and a half seconds, just another wrinkle to this gem of an NBA game.
Portland was forced to foul down two with just 15 seconds left, and Clyde Drexler gave the foul, his sixth. He fouled out with the line of 41-8-11. And in something you’ll never see in an NBA game again, the fans at the Garden universally got on their feet and gave Drexler a rousing ovation for his valiant performance. No knock against the fans who go to the New Garden today, but the patrons at the old Garden were some of the most highly educated fans in any venue in any sport.
What made Drexler’s foul-out even more remarkable was that he was the sixth, yes SIXTH player to foul out. Each team had three aside, and every one of them were All-Stars or former All-Stars (Portland: Drexler, Buck Williams, and Kevin Duckworth. Boston: Reggie Lewis, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale.) The chance of that happening today? Somewhere between 0 and 0%.
By contrast, after Dwayne Wade fouled out of the Heat-Lakers game played on March 4th 2012 that was the first Heat player to foul out in 88 games. Yes, you read that right. The Blazers-Celtics classic fouled out three Hall of Famers and three All-Stars. The present-day Heat haven’t had one guy foul out since the Renaissance, or something like that.
After Eddy Pinckney made one of two free throws to make the score Celtics 152 Blazers 148, the final buzzer sounded just a few seconds later. And it was over. Amidst an exuberant crowd, the whole basketball world saw one of the greatest basketball games ever played. And after 58 minutes of basketball, it was over just like that.
The 49-14-12 line from the borderline-paralyzed Bird, who played 54 of the 58 minutes, with the worst back anyone since the death of Christ has played basketball with. Drexler with 41-8-11. Nine players with 15+ points. Six foul outs. Two buzzer beaters. An 18-14 score in the 2nd OT (that’s usually a score for most quarters in NBA games these days.) But it was all worth it. In my mind, and many others, we just saw the something we’d never see again.
The victory turned the Celtics season around. Following the miraculous victory, the Celtics would only lose three games the rest of the year and would crawl all the way back to steal the Atlantic Division title from the Knicks. The game ended up truly being Bird’s final curtain call as he was not much apart of the Celtics’ furious finish to the '92 season, missing all but a few games.
He never even played a playoff game until Game 4 of the East semi-finals against Cleveland. But while the 1992 campaign surprisingly ended up being an enjoyable one after months of frustration, we all look back on that Sunday in March.
I remember exactly where I was for that game, and all the memorable moments that transpired during that game. Almost every Sunday, my family and I ate at the Union Oyster House. The Celtics almost always played on Sundays back then, and a good portion of the time, they played in the afternoon on NBC. That was no different on that day. When the Celtics had the ball down three with seven seconds left in regulation, everyone there was glued to the small television that was over the bar. Even the grannies who were eating in the restaurant with the rest of their family, just enjoying a Sunday in downtown Boston were reacting to every play as diehard fans, and soaking in every last final great moment of Larry Bird’s masterpiece.
For years, this game used to be replayed on the old Classic Sports station (and later ESPN Classic), and every time it did, I always called any friends that I had and demanded that they stopped whatever they were doing and turn on some obscure channel to watch an NBA game played in 1992. Whenever someone argued with me what Bird’s position was amongst the all time greats, (when I was a younger, more irrational fan, I always argued to anyone that Bird was the greatest player ever, which as I know right now, he’s not… I think.) This was the game I’d show them. “Watch Bird’s passing, look at his will to win, watch his smooth as silk setshot, and do you know he’s doing this with his body as stiff as a board?” And now, 22 full years has passed.
As the old, and lame saying goes, time sure flies by when you’re having fun. Too bad, we could go another 50 years without ever seeing what we saw on March 15th, 1992.
Excerpt from the Legendary Performance:
When you have the time, I suggest watching the whole game from start to finish. Here’s the game:
(One final and totally unrelated point: How can you watch that and not see how horrific ABCs coverage of the NBA. Hopefully the folks at ABC watch that. Look at NBCs lead-in. THAT’s a lead-in, folks. You get the entire feel for the game, and NBC makes it feel like something epic is going to happen, which ended up being the case. ABC does none of this, usually using some lame music video to open their games that has no relation to the game or basketball in general. Heck, the music that NBC uses for the starting freakin’ lineups in this Celts-Blazers game is actually superior to whatever Pussy Cat Dolls, or horrible Led Zeppelin covers of classic songs that ABC uses to lead-in to games. When does the contract for the NBA on ABC end again?)