Watching a sporting event is a curious thing, isn’t it? Some of us are diehard fans, and watch each and every game. We have friends who wake up in the middle of the night to go watch soccer matches. It happens. Football is a few months every fall. An event like the Kentucky Derby is once a year, and lasts for all of 3 minutes. But that’s not really one of our sports.
It can be tough to follow a basketball season, because there are so many games. It’s also, much like baseball, a lot more exciting come playoff time. During the season, players are traded, are injured, leave teams, skip games to rest and recover, and some games can, quite frankly, be boring.
Not that we would consider any sport boring.
But the NBA Playoffs bring a welcomed jolt of excitement back to the hardwood. Every team in contention and every player with a chance to contribute does their best to win the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. In case you were wondering, O’Brien was NBA commissioner from 1975 until 1983, and was LBJ’s Postmaster General. Why it’s not the “James Naismith Trophy” is beyond us. Although Naismith was a Canadian, but that’s for another post.
Who can forget the 1980 playoffs? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still a dominant force, and the Lakers were excited about their prospects and the charisma of their young rookie, Magic Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar was injured early in the playoffs, and as the team boarded the plane for their upcoming away game, he didn’t even leave Los Angeles. Johnson boarded the plane and quietly took the seat normally occupied by the Lakers’ center. Looking at the coach, he said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” Not only did Johnson capture the opening tip-off as the back-up center, he eventually played every position on the court.
A generation earlier, Boston Celtic Bill Russell showed his strength by dominating the Lakers with 30 points and a whopping 40 rebounds. In the era before the shot clock, little man Bob Cousy ran out the clock, dribbling in circles for minutes, all with his right hand. We had yet to invent the “crossover.”
The Jordan era was a boon to highlight reels. During Michael Jordan’s second year with the Chicago Bulls, his team faced the domination of the Larry Bird-era Boston Celtics. In Game 2 of their NBA Playoff series, Jordan drained 62 points, leading Bird to comment, “He’s the most exciting, awesome player in the game. I think it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Jordan would hit big again in 1989. Challenging the Cavaliers, Jordan would take an inbound pass, drift to the top of the key, and then float a nothing-but-net game-winner, and create a basketball moment that’s been featured in every highlight reel since.
He would cement his “larger-than-life” status in 1997. Struggling with the flu in their series against the Utah Jazz, many were uncertain whether Jordan would actually play. As the game began, he slowly made his way onto the court. During game breaks, his teammates would help him to the bench, where he would sit, eyes closed, chugging fluids, gasping for air. He made his 39 points and then collapsed into the arms of Scottie Pippen.
He wasn’t the only one to make clutch shots in the playoffs. In 1970, Jerry West of the Lakers drained a 60-foot half court shot to tie the game 102-102 and send it into overtime. The Lakers lost to the Celtics, but wow!
The 1970 NBA Playoff series is probably most memorable for the heroics of New York Knick Willis Reed. Even those not alive in 1970 have heard of this:
Facing Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers, Reed was not supposed to play. He had torn a muscle in his leg, and couldn’t walk, much less drag Chamberlain up and down the court. As the teams took to the floor, there was no sign of Reed. At the last minute, he appeared, slowly limping onto the court for the opening tipoff. The Lakers looked as if they had seen a ghost as Madison Square Garden erupted in cheers. He took the tipoff from Chamberlain, scored the first two buckets for the Knicks, and then limped to the bench. He never retook the court, but his being there inspired his team to a 113-99 victory and their first NBA championship.
They don’t make them like Willis anymore, do they?