40 Mays ago, another NBA Finals would be played, and at the center of it had been the greatest franchise and the man who would become the final multiple MVP at the center position to date. However, this particular matchup (the Boston Celtics vs. the Houston Rockets) wasn’t supposed to really be exciting for the following reasons.
1.) The 1981 Eastern Conference Finals– The Celtics played against their eternal rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers. This rivalry was so bitter that Celtic president Red Auerbach tried to get the University of Massachusetts to ignore its greatest player, 1981 league MVP, and face of the league Julius Winfield Erving II.
2.) In 1980, the Celtics had reshaped their frontcourt (adding Kevin McHale and Robert Parish) to compete with the 76ers(if not defending champion LA, with ageless Kareem Abdul Jabbar). That’s how bitter the rivalry would be(though Boston-LA was more celebrated, Philly- Boston was more bitter).
3.) Moves and countermoves led to the conference finals. But through 4 games, the Celts could not beat the formidable 76ers and league MVP Erving. But, in games 5 and 6, the “Ghosts of Celtic” past reemerged, and in-game 7, the most emotional game of the CBS era emerged, with the Celtics prevailing.
After this, the Celtics would face the Houston Rockets, who were considered a joke. Why? (a.) Because the Rockets carried a ridiculous 40-42 record b.) Moreover, the Celtics had owned the Rockets, having swept them in 1980 without McHale or Parish. So they didn’t figure to challenge them in the Finals. But…….
A man named Moses
Before he would become a key in the Celtic-76er rivalry, Moses Eugene Malone detested Boston. In reality, he hated coming up short against the glamour team of the NBA. However, despite that bad record, the Rockets were a battle-tested, warrior-like team. They had nothing to lose, and through the first 4 games, Moses was the best player in the Finals, and Houston had managed to tie the series at 2. So………..
After game 4, the laconic Moses commented that he “could get 4 guys for St. Petersburg” and beat the Celtics. The statement was widely perceived as disrespectful, but in reality, Moses had taken the Rockets this far with an inferior talent to the Celtics. In addition, second-year superstar Larry Bird had been shooting awful throughout this series(he was rebounding and playing great defense, however). So in this game, the Celtics came out and had a 22 point halftime lead as they cruised to a dominating win (109-80) and broke the all-even tie, But it gets interesting.
Calling the game for CBS was Gary Bender, Bill Russell, and Rick Barry( who last played for the Rockets). Though a brilliant mind( and player), Barry had been a source of controversy. One of the “White Hopes” of the previous generation, Barry had been respected(and admired) but not embraced by the predominately black NBA (surprisingly, his greatest NBA moment had been under the respected black coach Al Attles), who correctly viewed him as spoiled. Even worse, he was equally detested by the owners of the NBA for his jump to the rival ABA, which drastically raised salaries; Barry compensated by becoming a “teacher’s pet essentially” for CBS, which loved his personality and commentating(admittedly, Barry was brilliant and highly professional, not at all buffoonish like the coming generation). This earned Barry money and prestige in the cash-strapped 70s, but it didn’t earn him friends around the league(who viewed him with suspicion). Bill Russell, in particular, didn’t care much for him. Which, in retrospect, explains what happened next.
Barry was excellent, but he commented on irony. 1981 was the 25th anniversary of the 56 Olympics that Russell and his soulmate K.C. Jones dominated. CBS sports showed a picture of Russell with a smile, and the southern-born Barry made what was widely perceived as a racial slur(it won’t be repeated here; Russell forgave the statement, though he detested Barry in part for the other aforementioned reasons). So, with Boston comfortably ahead, CBS was now in a position of controversy, which was bad business. Barry would be dismissed(although he and Russell would later work together on USA TV basketball). For his part, Russell achieved what was in effect a pyrrhic victory. His style of commentating, which had been perfect on ABC (with Keith Jackson), was now boring and uninspiring. Russell, a philosophical writer, was now like an uninterested genius speaking to an audience who mores he privately held in contempt. In short, it was the start of a reclusive Russell, which went in full bloom by the 90s until he reinvented himself after the death of his frienemy Wilt Chamberlain. So, while a new generation of Celtics were once again conquerors of the NBA, Russell himself would become near archaic, even if at the moment he was still being celebrated (in 1980, at NBA 35, he would be voted the greatest player over the 1st 35 years, as he was in 1970.) The Celtics won almost anticlimactically 109-80.
Postscript: After the game 5 route, the quiet Malone once again exploded. He doubled down on his comments and all but cursed the Celtic’s easy win (The Celtics are not that good, and I am speaking from the heart now.)
PSII: At the Celtic forthcoming victory parade, Larry Bird spotted a sign that says “Moses eats s…” and said, “Moses does eat s…”.
Salute to the revival of the Celtics.