TERRE HAUTE —
Beating Isiah, Ewing & ’Nique
Of all the people interviewed for this story, MacMullan was the one who consistently followed the intended theme and listed several specific iconic on-the-court moments.
In addition to her 1984 NBA Finals memories of Bird, here are a few more from an award-winning journalist:
One occurred in Game 5 of the 1987 NBA Eastern Conference finals against the “bad boy” Pistons, a play that Ainge touched on earlier in this story.
Trailing 107-106 with five seconds left and the Celtics threatening to fall behind 3-2 in the series, Bird stole an inbounds pass from Detroit’s Isiah Thomas and dished it off to Dennis Johnson for the winning layup. Although the Pistons battled back to win Game 6, Boston captured the hard-fought series 4-3.
“The Pistons looked like they were finally going to win and they were finally going to beat the Celtics after years of trying,” MacMullan said. “At that point, because the Celtics were so beat up physically — McHale, Bird, [Robert] Parish, they were all beat up physically — Detroit was probably the better team. But Bird jumped in front of Isiah’s pass to [Bill] Laimbeer and won that game for them.
“The great thing about that particular play was — well, the pass [to Johnson] was beautiful — Larry pretending he was running upcourt. He used to do that all the time. He’d turn to run upcourt like he wasn’t paying attention and jump back in and jump in front of the pass. So that in itself was a great play. But then D.J. was streaking to the basket — and Larry told me and many others years later that he had no idea who it was — and he laid the perfect pass on D.J.’s hands to go in for the layup to win that game.”
MacMullan couldn’t stop there when reminiscing about Bird’s most iconic moments.
“I always loved the ’86 All-Star Weekend when he walked into the locker room and said, ‘Which one of y’all is going to finish second?’ for the 3-point shooting contest,” she said. “That was pretty cool. Then you’ve got to go out and win it, which he did, of course.”
There’s also a humorous gem involving Bird and former New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing from a year that MacMullan couldn’t pinpoint, although she thinks it’s from the 1980s.
“He and Patrick Ewing didn’t particularly like one another, although they ended up becoming great friends on the  Dream Team and they remained great friends,” she said. “But back then, they were competitiors in the same division. One time in Madison Square Garden, Ewing had come down the floor and hit a shot and said something like ‘Face.’ So Larry said, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do to you next time: I’m going to up-fake you. I’m going to spin you to the left. I’m going to come to the right. I’m going to up-and-under. I’m going to score.’ And then he went down and did exactly that. He used to tell guys that all the time, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do to you…’ And then he’d go do it. They just couldn’t stop him.”
And if you’re old enough, who could forget Bird’s duel with Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference finals?
MacMullan certainly hasn’t.
“Larry was 9 of 10 from the floor and had 20 points in the fourth quarter,” she recalled accurately. “’Nique was great that night, too, scoring a lot of points . But you always knew that at the end of the game, if he needed to, Larry could draw a crowd and make the pass to an open teammate. ’Nique was a scorer and Larry was an all-around player. That was the difference.”
For the record, Boston emerged victorious 118-116.
Ainge, who played for the Celtics in that game, hasn’t forgotten it either.
“Larry wasn’t feeling great at that time in his career,” Ainge pointed out. “His back and his Achilles tendons were bothering him.
“Larry used to make a living off what we referred to as ‘a step-back jumpshot.’ He would dribble the ball toward the basket, then jump backward and shoot a fadeaway. It was a patented move of Larry’s that he was able to do consistently [before his injuries]. But that became a little more challenging for him to do because his Achilles tendons were sore and he didn’t have the same lift and balance on his shot.
“So I remember Larry working on a new shot [in early 1988], like a jump hook from about 12 or 15 feet. He was working on it before that game, then he implemented it in that game. I always found that fascinating. Here’s a guy — he wasn’t able to do what he normally does — who finds another way to do something else and be equally effective. Larry was far from 100 percent physically for that game. So for him to still do what he did was incredible.”
Ainge said he wasn’t surprised that this epic showdown happened the way it did.
“They were two of the greatest offensive players in the NBA at that time,” he emphasized. “Dominique did everything he could that night.”