Each week of season two, we’ll be looking back on the newest episode of HBO’s “Winning Time” and fact-checking or adding more details on some of the key and bigger plot points with much of the help coming from the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.
After teasing it in the first episode, the season finale of “Winning Time” circled back to the 1984 NBA Finals and gave us one of the best episodes of the series so far. There was quite a lot packed into this episode so in an attempt to parse through everything, we’ll split up our explainers this week into one solely focused on the series itself and one on everything else that was going on.
And we’ll start with the games because, boy, there was drama in this series. Realistically, aside from the opening game of the series the Lakers won 115-109, every game had a defining storyline.
And to the credit of the show, there wasn’t much exaggerated in this episode mainly because the drama itself was better than anything that could have been fabricated.
Magic and Worthy’s awful Game 2 ending
The Lakers should have been up 2-0 heading home from Boston. They had the lead, the ball and the shot clock turned off. Make some free throws and you’re in a dominant position. Instead, James Worthy tossed the ball away for an easy Celtics layup and Magic Johnson inexplicably dribbled out the clock to end regulation and it was a 1-1 series heading to LA.
While the specific scene and conversation between Magic and Jerry West wasn’t real, the relationship between the two that summer was real. In West’s memoir “West by West,” he quotes Magic about that summer that followed those Finals.
“I think Jerry knew I needed a hug and just a shoulder to lean on and he became that shoulder every day, saying some words to uplift me and giving me a pat on the back.”... “It was the worst summer I had ever had,” Magic said. “I had never failed like that in a pressure situation before, in a championship series......[Jerry] was there for me, gave me things to think about..... and I was so glad to get another shot the following year and redeem myself when we finally beat the Celtics in 1985.”
The sissy Celtics
Knowing they gave a game away, the Lakers had a big response in Game 3 back home. The 137-104 beatdown represented one of the biggest margins of victory in a Finals game in league history at that point and still stands as a historic beatdown.
Magic, himself, bounced back in a big way, too. He not only notched a triple-double but set a Finals record that still stands with 21 assists.
After the game, Larry Bird was...upset. And, as detailed in Dan Shaughnessy’s book “Wish it Lasted Forever,” he let his team have it postgame.
“It’s embarrassing, no doubt about it,” said Bird. “We got some great players on this team, but we don’t have the players with the heart sometimes that we need. And today when you see Magic slapping high fives and guys going behind their backs and shooting layups on us all day long, it seems like someone would try to put a stop to it, but until we get our hearts where they belong, we’re in trouble... If we keep playing like this, Red’s going to be switching to cigarettes..... We played like sissies.” How do you change it? we asked him. “You go to the hospital and get twelve heart transplants.”
Message sent and, as we would see, message received.
With a chance to take control of the series, the Lakers got baited. It’s not a stretch or hyperbole to say Kevin McHale’s clothesline changed the series. It made things personal, which Boston wanted and the Lakers played into.
Instead of closing out a game they led by double digits to take a commanding 3-1 lead, their focus changed to revenge and the Celtics continued baiting them into it, as Shaughnessy detailed:
“You could feel the whole thing turn,” McHale said. Minutes after the takedown, Bird tangled with Cooper as Bird tried to inbound after a Lakers basket... There was no whistle. Seconds later, Bird and Abdul-Jabbar went jaw-to-jaw in the same spot where Rambis was upended. “Kareem said, ‘I will f--- you up, white boy,” Maxwell recalled. “I was two feet away, and that is exactly what he said.”
The result was Boston coming back, Larry Bird buried a game-winner over Magic and the Lakers, who very realistically could have swept the series at this point, were tied 2-2.
After the game, Riley was livid. In one fell swoop — or clotheslines — McHale had changed the whole tenor of the series, as Pearlman explained.
Afterward, Riley came unglued: “What Boston did was the equivalent of two gang warlords meeting the night before a rumble and deciding the weapons. They both bare fists, and one of them shows up with zip guns. We’re not going to lower ourselves to the level of a Kevin McHale and his tactics. But I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’ll be ready for anything. What they did is they came into our territory, a neutral zone, and decided to use zip guns. Weapons that we didn’t plan on using, because this is a game of basketball. We understand the physical part. We want to win. They want to win. It takes something like what McHale did to change the whole mood of physical play. Now it’s Katie-bar-the-door that’s all. McHale’s play changed the whole mood of the thing. That’s the mood it’s gonna be for the next three games. Now it’s an ugly situation.”
Red Auerbach’s antics
With the series firmly up for grabs, Red Auerbach stepped in. The Boston Garden was not air-conditioned. So, when temperatures reached nearly 100 degrees with exceptionally high humidity on the day of Game 5, the Celtics prepared for it...and left the Lakers hanging.
Pat Riley wrote about the “Steambath Game” in his book “The Winner Within:”
Lakers had prepared a lot of things - ball movement, hard fouls, what to expect from the referees - but didn’t think about the weather. Celtics knew it was going to be well over 100 degrees, with humidity around 95%. They brought in air conditioners and powerful electric fans for their locker room. They supplied each player with three fresh uniforms. They ordered hundreds of pounds of extra ice so their players could grab a chilled towel any time there was a break in the action.
The Lakers had none of that. They did have oxygen masks on the sideline, though, which Kareem was shown sucking air out of. Maybe it all was the deciding factor in the game, maybe it wasn’t. The end result, though, was the Lakers now trailing in the series.
Prior to Game 6, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — who had suffered from migraines for years prior — received an IV and was vomiting because of a migraine. Stress amplified his headaches and he was suffering them daily in the 1984 Finals. Set to take the floor in front of thousands of screaming fans under the brightest of lights and there were few places worse to have a migraine than in The Forum on that day.
He then walked out onto the court and scored 30 points on 14-26 shooting with 10 rebounds and five assists to force a Game 7. It was the sixth time in his career he had 30-10-5 in a Finals game and only LeBron has more games reaching those marks than Kareem.
After all the criticism from the 1983 Finals directed at Kareem, he bounced back in 1984 by averaging 26.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.1 blocks on 48.1% shooting. And also a quick shoutout to Worthy who, in the second year of his career, averaged 22.1 points per game in the Finals.
Inherently, Game 7s carry a lot of extra pressure. Game 7s between the Boston and Lakers, especially in 1984 when the latter hadn’t beaten the former, felt life-altering.
In this one, it was Boston who controlled things. As it looked like they were going to win going away, though, the Lakers stormed back from down 14 points with just under 8 minutes left to pull all the way to within three points in the final minutes.
But untimely turnovers from Magic, perhaps some questionable foul calls and fans who literally could not wait until the final buzzer to storm the court all proved too much for the Lakers to overcome.
Before the final buzzer even sounded, the court was engulfed with fans. Kareem really did have his goggles ripped off his head. Kurt Rambis really did punch a fan who would sue him.
Initially, the fan — named Paul Baribeau — tried to claim he was sucker punched. Decades later in an article for the Boston Herald, he admitted he wasn’t so innocent.
Paul Baribeau claims he was sucker-punched by the hulking Rambis as soon as the game 7 ended and fans flooded the court in 1984...Fans flooded the court, ripping down the baskets and surrounding the players. Fueled by pals and ramped up by the win, Baribeau saw Rambis and decided to go for the ultimate souvenir. “I wanted to get the shirt off his back,” said the 49-year-old Lynn resident. As Baribeau tugged on the back of Rambis’ jersey, the 6-feet 8-inch power forward swung at him, breaking his nose and giving him a shiner on his left eye. “They say you shouldn’t try and take the cape off of Superman’s back,” Baribeau said, referencing the mustached Rambis’ nickname. “I should have listened.”
In the Boston locker room, a gleeful Auerbach, who already needed little motivation to talk some smack, joked about a so-called Lakers dynasty. The mood was much more solemn in the other locker room.
Magic described in his book sitting in tears in the shower of the Boston Garden. The Lakers controlled large portions of the series, perhaps were the more talented team and yet were flying home without a ring and with Boston having the last laugh.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.