In a previous article, we discussed how the 1984 Finals was the absolute peak of the “Star Wars” between the two greatest franchises in NBA history, the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers. Just about everyone knows who won on the court. But this series was actually much bigger than the outcome of the seventh game. For here, who solidified a coaching legend, and it registered effectively the birth of something called ” free agency.” Exciting? Absolutely. But to fully grasp the outcome, we need only to examine the events that led to the first two games. Then we can understand how terms such as “Tragic Johnson” and the LA Fakers came to fruition. Let’s deal.
How they got there
For the Celtics and Lakers, 1983 had been difficult for different reasons. Out east, for the first time in its history, the Celtics had been humiliated in a 4 game sweep. The Milwaukee Bucks, led by Don Nelson(a former Celtic), would annihilate the Celtics without the benefit of home-court advantage. Out of that rubble came several changes, all of them decisive. Three weeks later, the hard-driving coach Bill Fitch would depart to resurface in Houston. Meanwhile, GM Red Auerbach would engineer a near-criminal trade, acquiring troubled Phoenix Sun guard Dennis Johnson. But the most important transaction lies ahead. For years, the hated New York Knickerbockers wanted to poach young forward Kevin McHale from the Celtics. McHale had angered superstar Larry Bird after the Buck humiliation by claiming he “could hold his head up high” despite the loss. So, with his contract up, Knick management would put together an offer sheet for McHale. But outgoing majority owner Harry Mangurian had other ideas. Even though he was on the verge of selling the team, Mangurian decided to send offer sheets to three Knick players: Sly Williams, Marvin Webster, and Rory Sparrow. The Celtics had no desire for any of these players; the strategy was to keep the Knicks from chasing McHale. The strategy worked, and the Knicks were forced to match the offer sheets. Now, the Celtics were free to resign McHale, which they did. To replace Fitch, they got former Celtic (Washington coach) KC Jones. This hiring was just as important. The Celtics lost nothing, incompetency at the head position, and several Celtics, especially Larry Bird, would consider Jones their best coach. In addition, the even-tempered Jones would prove to be the perfect coach for the often difficult Johnson. Now, the Celtics could focus on the task at hand, which was to replace the hated 76ers as the class of the Eastern Conference. To do that, they beat now fading Washington, the rising(and hated )Knicks, and Nelson’s Bucks to return to the finals for the first time since 1981. But, the path had been a slugfest. Every single series(save the Bucks) had been a slugfest, with each one having at least one brawl. This physical play left the Celtics hungry and hardened on their way to the Finals. But who would they face for the crown? They would have to wait a few days, but they suspected that the opponent would be the Los Angeles Lakers’ ancient days’ rivals.
The path out West
The Lakers also had a challenging 1983 season, but it started decently. For most of the season, they were the thinking man’s pick to win their second straight title. Sure, the Philadelphia 76ers were by far playing better. Still, they’re also feeling within the Laker organization that they were more than capable of topping Philly when it counted the most. That is, until April 10th, 1983. James Worthy would break his leg against (surprise) the Phoenix Suns, the number one pick and super-sub. There was little worry, however, as the Lakers were extremely deep with 7 strong players. But, as the playoffs started, fellow sub-Bob McAdoo would come up lame and miss the playoffs. Then, the final blow happened on May 22nd. Norm Nixon would collide into Andrew Toney and separate his shoulder. Although he would continue to play, he was now ineffective. The Lakers basically started feeling sorry for themselves, and the Sixers delivered the knockout punch. The result was a four-game sweep, and GM Jerry West essentially decided that the fault lie squarely at Nixon. Using the powers of persuasion, he got Nixon to “request” a trade ( this was made through team publicist Lon Rosen; since Rosen would later represent Nixon’s in-house rival Earvin Johnson, this seems more than a little suspicious). Nixon would be traded on his 28th birthday (10-10-83), and while West delighted, Riley had been angry. He liked Nixon, but he didn’t care much for Nixon’s replacement. In West eyes, Byron Scott was a marvelous sharpshooter who was a passers delight on the fast break. He possessed pogo sticks for legs, and he exited with his thunderous dunks. However, in Riley’s eyes, Scott was a one-directional player who couldn’t go left, and he was an atrocious defender(often over gambling). Both men were right, but Scott would become a pawn in a new power struggle between Riley and his close friend West soon enough. In the years to come, Riley would divide the team and alienate Scott with his overcoaching. But in 1984, this was still a workable problem until game 2( more on that in another article). With Nixon gone, the Lakers were also retooled and largely ran away from the West. They swept Kansas City in 3 games, beat newcomer Dallas in 5, and then the Laker hating Phoenix Suns in 6. With that, the greatest rivalry resumed.
P.S.- The next article will deal with the first two games. So far, we see the issues that will affect both teams for the rest of the decade. The Bird/McHale conflict, the growing rift between Riley and West, and just how valuable K.C. really was as a coach. Eventually, who would also question Auerbach’s relationship with Jones? Also, it’s no surprise that both teams would 1984 face the franchises that eliminated their mutual reign in 1990. Stay tuned.