You shouldn’t hang me on a hook. My father once hung me on a hook. Once!
— Danny Vermin, “Johnny Dangerously,” 1984
The Golden State Warriors are on rare air as they head into Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals. Not only do they have a chance to win their fourth NBA championship since 2015; You have the chance to do so on the home ground of the Boston Celtics.
Such is Beantown’s playoff dominance over the decades that only one team — the 1985 Los Angeles Lakers — has ever won an NBA title at Boston’s home stadium, which was then the historic Old Boston Garden. Such circumstances are rare given the Celtics’ overall endgame excellence. Although this is Boston’s 22nd Finals appearance in franchise history, Thursday marks only the ninth time the Celtics have been eliminated in the Finals at home. Eight of the previous nine times, Boston either fended off elimination or won the championship on its home soil.
The only blemish came in ’85. And it revolved around the fate of the Lakers franchise.
Despite their Hall of Famer pedigree with players like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s, the Lakers were 8-0 for life in finals games against Boston, which came in 1985.
After picking the overall pick in the 1979 draft, Magic Johnson converted the Lakers and led them to two titles in his first four seasons. But LA was coming off a heartbreaking seven-game final loss to the Celtics the year before, after heartbreakingly giving away Game 2 in the dying seconds and then being overrun in Game 7 at the Garden. Writers dubbed Magic Johnson “Tragic Johnson” for his subpar game.
Coming to Boston 3-2 in Game 5 after a 120-111 win over the Celtics at the Great Western Forum, the Lakers were determined not to let history repeat themselves.
“In the back of our minds, we all remembered what had happened the year before,” recalled Mitch Kupchak, a key reserve player for those Lakers teams and now the Hornets’ president of basketball operations and general manager. “We should have gone back to LA at two. But we didn’t. … I say that because we went back to Boston in 1985, 3-2. That demon was there, right? We must not allow that to happen again. A big part of that was how we lost the year before. We felt like we gave it away…
“And (the other) part was the Celtics vs Lakers rivalry. The Lakers had never defeated the Celtics (in the NBA Finals) until this 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 papers. To this day, Jerry probably carries that around with him. It was like a silent demon we had to exorcise. …and then there’s the normal motivation of just trying to win a ring, right? We never talked about how the Lakers had never beaten the Celtics because that was in the ’60s. This is the 80’s. But it was in the paper every day and we all read the paper. It was on the news.”
Then there was what every team of visitors who came to the old garden expected.
“Four showers, only two worked,” Kupchak said. “There was no air conditioning. We had to install air blowers. The locker room was big enough for seven people; we had 15. We just felt that this was all Red Auerbach’s doing, his way of trying to gain a competitive advantage.”
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 the tip, “Remember, with the (then) 15 world championships the Celtics have, they’ve only been beaten once in a world championship series, and that was 27 years ago on a guest pitch in St. Louis,” when the then St. Louis Hawks, led by Hall of Famer Bob Pettit, gave Bill Russell his only NBA Finals loss in 12 games.
“The hardwood floor has been magical for the Celtics over the years,” Stockton said. “Let’s see if it goes on.”
After taking an early lead, the Lakers were unable to retire. The first half was hard fought with 18 draws. Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar were each slowed by three fouls in the first half and both sat for the final 2 minutes and 30 seconds of the second quarter. With James Worthy picking up the points load, the Lakers reached a tie with the Celtics on 55 points.
“But I think the advantage is with the Lakers because they had Magic Johnson and Kareem on that bench for an awfully long time and that fatigue that we talked about shouldn’t affect those two players later on,” CBS said. Color commentator, Hall of Famer and former Celtics player and coach Tommy Heinsohn.
This premonition turned out to be correct. LA took over the game in the third quarter, beating Boston 27-18. Abdul-Jabbar made his first two shots of the quarter and the Lakers led 82-73 after three. But Johnson canceled his fifth foul early in the fourth. The Lakers had to turn to their 38-year-old center Abdul-Jabbar – who was humiliated in Game 1 of the Finals in the acclaimed 148-114 “Boston Massacre” on Memorial Day. But Kareem bounced back, recording 30 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists in a game-changing Game 2 win at the Garden.
“He played like he was 25,” Kupchak recalled.
In Game 6, Abdul-Jabbar scored eight of his 29 points in his team-best in the final three minutes of game four, with his iconic double fists raised in celebration after throwing in another sky hook with a minute left, symbolic of the moment was intended for him and his team. Johnson had a triple-double with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, but Abdul-Jabbar was the unanimous choice for NBA Finals MVP.
“Unusual sight – Celtics lose a championship at home,” said Heinsohn, who won eight titles as a player in Boston. “You have to have character to win on the street. … when you win away there isn’t much applause, but you appreciate the guys on the bench.”
In the same tiny, airless visitor’s dressing room, champagne now flowed freely.
“This removed the most obnoxious phrase from the English language,” Lakers owner Jerry Buss told CBS afterwards. “You can never say again that the Lakers never beat the Celtics.”
(Photo of fans in front of TD Garden: David Butler II / USA Today)