Tuesday, June 9, 1987. Steamy, Sultry, creaking, clamorous Boston Garden. Game 4, NBA Finals. It is Year 26 of the great Boston Celtic-Los Angeles Laker rivalry. Woven into the tapestry of the confrontation between the teams is the thread of a long-running duel between two individuals, for this is also Year 9 of the Bird and Magic Show.
Larry Bird, 6'9", undeniably white. Earvin (Magic) Johnson, 6'9", undeniably black. Does this matter? Hell, yes. It is part of the fun. "It's, hard to look at a white man and see black," Magic will say later, "but when I looked at Larry, that's what I saw. I saw myself." And what was it that Laker center Mychal Thompson said? "Magic and Larry are the co-kings of this league. You might say they're the salt and pepper of this league, because they spice it up."
It is very late in this crucial game. The Lakers lead the series two games to one. They have come from 16 points behind with 17 minutes to play and lead by one, 104-103, with 29 seconds remaining. The Celtics have the ball.
Bird is about to spice up this game.
The ball goes from Dennis Johnson to Robert Parish to Danny Ainge and, finally, to Bird, who is stationed in the deep left corner. No sooner does the ball touch his hands than it is launched skyward. Swish. Three-pointer. Celtics lead 106-104.
"You've got balls, taking that shot," says Earl Strom, the referee who has seen it all and seen them all.
"There are a lot of players in this league who play the game, but only a few who play in the final six minutes," says Magic. "It's a different game then. Shots that guys will take in the rest of the game, they won't take here. Only a few will. Larry will."
Now there are 12 long seconds left before the buzzer. Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is fouled. He makes the first free throw, but when he misses the second, neither Parish nor Kevin McHale can control what might be the game-clinching rebound for Boston. The ball goes out of bounds. Los Angeles is alive with seven seconds left.
It is Magic Johnson's turn to spice up the game.
Taking a pass, Magic drives from left to right across the lane, and now he is in the air 15 feet from the basket, where he is confronted by the Celtics' hallowed Big Three—Bird, McHale and Parish. He launches a 1955-style hook shot out of the Bob Houbregs playbook. The ball flies true and sweet and directly into the hole. Lakers lead 107-106. But there are two seconds to play.