Commentary

25 years ago, it was off the hook

Magic's 'junior, junior skyhook' in the 1987 NBA Finals still a fresh memory

Updated: June 9, 2012, 1:50 PM ET
By Mike Downey | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

I'm doing a thing for the 25th anniversary of one of the great basketball games of all time. Any memory of it you'd care to share?

Mychal Thompson (he played for the Lakers in it): "We pulled one of those Oklahoma City comebacks, where it looks like the other team has it all sewn up, but it doesn't. Sorry, Celtics."

Hugh Evans (he and Earl Strom officiated it): "Earl and me, we just kind of got out of the players' way … those guys were that good."

Randy Pfund (he coached beside Pat Riley in it): "We were lucky to face a Celtic team that was tired and injured after a tough series with Detroit. I think we cruised through the Western Conference very easily."

Lesley Visser (she sideline-reported it for CBS): "I remember Mychal Thompson said the Boston Celtics retreated faster than Custer at Little Big Horn."

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson and Larry Bird
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Magic Johnson-led Lakers and the Larry Bird-led Celtics met in the NBA Finals in 1984, '85 and '87.
OK, I'm down with all that. Let's go to the replay.

June 9, 1987, the Garden, the parquet, a Tuesday, a 9 p.m. tipoff, Magic, Bird, Kareem, McHale, Big Game James, Chief … wait, I'm not done … D.J., Danny, A.C., Byron, Coop, Kite … Kite? Yeah, Kite … because Walton was too hurt to play (of course) … oh, and Riles and K.C. coaching it … Boston boss Red with a big cigar, L.A. boss Buss with a smokin'-hot babe … golden oldies Mr. Hearn and Mr. Most at the radio mikes … and, for the win, "the junior, junior skyhook."

Oh, it was some game.

Best NBA Finals game of all time? Mmmm, nah, maybe not. (Game 5 Suns-Celts from 1976? Game 4 Lakers-Celts from '84?)

Best NBA Finals game-winning shot of all time? Hmmm, no, not necessarily. (Jordan's jumper versus Jazz, 1998? Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook for Bucks, '74?)

It was right up there, though. Great athletes, great arena, great rivalry, great crowd, great comeback, great ending. I am not entirely sure what more a fan could have asked for at Boston Garden that night, except maybe Joker Nicholson thrown off the roof by Batman.

Memories play tricks, so let's go even farther back in the wayback machine to a kick-ass NBA season, 1986-87.

I forgot a lot. That it was Dr. J's last season. That the Jordan kid scored 37.1 points per game. (But the Bulls still went 40-42.) That the Warriors had a winning record, the Spurs a losing record. (Surprise.) That the Clippers went 12-70. (No surprise.) Chuck Person was rookie of the year. Mike Schuler was coach of the year. Fat Lever was second-team All-NBA. (Really?) Tom Chambers was the All-Star Game's MVP. (Really?) That game was at the Kingdome. (Before it went boom.) L.A.'s foes for the West championship were the SuperSonics. (Before they went boom.)

WORST game of all time? I vote for Feb. 4, 1987, at the Forum in beautiful uptown Inglewood, when the always electrifying Sacramento Kings came to town and … did not put a shot in the hole in the whole first quarter! Four free throws, that's it. The points were 29-0 at one point. The Lakers led 40-4 at the horn. Derek Smith of the Kings said they "toyed with us like we were little kids."

Yep, that was a Rambo-Terminator-Crocodile Dundee manly-man '80s band L.A. had, no doubt about it. On the other hand, Billy Thompson got into 59 games for that team, Wes Matthews 50, Frank Brickowski 37, Mike Smrek 32, Adrian Branch 32. (Remember them?)

By the playoffs, the Lakers were red-hot and totally cool. A season record of 65-17. A late-season pickup of Mychal (with a Y) Thompson at the trade deadline, to give 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a chance to take a break, catch his breath, go to an AARP meeting, whatever.

"It was a Thursday afternoon and I'm in San Antonio and I go down to the arena to do my usual routine for that night's game," Thompson recalls for me. "This was the era before cell phones and email. I took a nap and took my phone off the hook. So nobody from the Spurs could let me know they'd traded me. I get there for the pregame. The trainer looks at me and he says: 'What the bleep are you doing here?' I say, 'What do you mean, there's a Spurs game tonight.' He says, 'Yeah, but you're not a Spur.'"

The '87 playoffs: L.A. sweeps the Nuggets in three (by a combined 82 points), wears down the Warriors in five, smokes the Sonics in four.

Opposite end of the land: Boston gets by Jordan's Bulls, then outlasts the Bucks in seven, then the Bad Boy Pistons in a damn hard seven more.

"I think we won all our games in the Forum big," says Pfund, who was one of Pat Riley's assistants and would later be a Lakers head coach. "It might have been a much different series without the home court."

True. L.A. laid 126 points on the Celtics in the opener, 141 in the next. Showtime was quite a show … basketball at a breakneck pace, go, go, go.

"It was like Starlight Express to the basket," says Visser, reviving a Broadway musical done on roller skates.

The pace was fierce. "You had to be in shape to do those games," says Evans, the ref. "What did the Lakers score in that one game, 140? Some people said, 'That's because they don't play defense.' Like heck. Michael Cooper? Magic? You try going out there against them, see how hard that team played defense."

Games 3 and 4 turned meaner. Boston won one, needed both. Greg Kite brought his brawn to it. He floored James Worthy to the parquet at one point. There were near-fights, double T's, fired-up fans. A hot night for a Garden party. Would the players need oxygen tanks? (As had happened there before.) Would the building's power go out? (As would happen there in years to come.)

The talent on the court was to die for. Hard to believe, looking at a YouTube video from Game 5, but CBS's James Brown alluded to how the Celtics were hanging in there, even though they were seen to be "inferior to the Lakers in terms of talent." A lineup of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge that is inferior in talent? Whoa.

Gamesmanship, one-upmanship, it was all a factor between these teams. Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the boxer, was a Celtics guy. So naturally Sugar Ray Leonard, his rival, came to the Garden, went on TV and picked the Lakers. You didn't go to a neutral corner … you chose your sides and stood your ground.

As for sportsmanship, well, hell.

"Back then, there was none of this friendly, touchy-feely stuff you've got now," Thompson says. "Everybody's friends now. They need a little more animosity out there. They need to go back to the way it was."

Boston was up by 16 points in Game 4. Toughness was what Riley required at this stage … smashmouth, not showtime. He went with Thompson at center, Worthy and A.C. Green up front, Cooper and Byron Scott in the backcourt. By the time Magic and Kareem returned, L.A. was within three.

A mere 2:09 to go, though, and the Celts were back up 103-96.

Thompson, a free throw. Cooper, a 3-pointer. Worthy, a fade. A screen by Coop, an alley-oop and a Kareem swoop to the hoop, and the old man dunked because he still knew how. Lakers 104-103 with 29 ticks on the clock.

To save the day, Bird, even with Worthy tugging on his shirt, made a trey. Boston by a deuce 106-104. Bill Walton giving five to teammates by the bench. (His feet were no good, but his hands were fine.)

Abdul-Jabbar is fouled. He makes a free throw, misses the next. A couple of gangly Minnesota Golden Gophers go for it … McHale and Thompson, grappling like a pair of Jesse Venturas … a push turns to a shove … out of bounds it goes … Lakers ball, Strom calls.

Red Auerbach goes ballistic.

"'Earl, you got no b----!' Red was screaming," Visser observed from her side of the sideline.

He thought Thompson pushed McHale.

Thompson also thought so. "Of course I pushed him," he freely admits. "You bet your life I pushed him."

So, now what? A last shot for the purple and gold, a last stand for the green and white, so here we go. A skyhook by Kareem, surely. The chirping sound of Chick Hearn at the L.A. radio mike. The gravelly voice of Johnny Most at the Boston mike.

Hearn: "Cooper takes the ball out of bounds, baseline. Kareem and Worthy to the left. Worthy now comes to the right. To the left goes Magic. He's got it. He didn't shoot it. Five seconds left. Magic down the middle. Just what I thought. A hook shot from 12 … GOOD! Two seconds left! The Lakers take the lead on Magic Johnson's running skyhook!"

Most: "Magic sets around. Magic is going in. Magic throws up a hook. It's good."

CBS invites Chickie and Johnny two days later to review both of their calls, with Brent Musburger between them.

"Chick, you DO get excited," Most rasps with a laugh.

By then, everybody's talking about Johnson's postgame description of the game winner, his "junior, junior skyhook." And the Bird's-eye view of it, Larry saying: "You expect the Lakers to beat you on a skyhook, but not by Magic."

Everybody's still talking about it, re-rerunning it a thousand times, particularly now that it's the silver anniversary of that shot.

"Well, that's all well and good," says Thompson, "and I'm glad he made it. But I think it should be pointed out to everybody that if Magic hadn't made that shot, it would have been perfectly OK."

Say what?

"You saw it, right? Parish and McHale and Bird all go after Magic, wasn't that what happened?"

That's what.

"Let me make it clear then," he says. "Nobody blocked out Kareem on that play. He was all by himself for a putback. Go look at that replay again. They always show the Boston guys going after Magic, but look where Kareem is, try to find him. If Magic had missed, Kareem would have just dunked that ball, game over, we win."

A senior, senior moment.

MIKE DOWNEY is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist.

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