Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 37 vs. the Lakers

Celtics (28-8) vs. Lakers (26-13)
December 28, 1979
Great Western Forum

Just like in the NCAA championship, Larry Bird’s team walked in with the better record.

Magic-Bird

And, just like the national title game, Earvin Johnson’s team walked out the winner.

The Celtics would struggle all night to stop Los Angeles, allowing the Lakers to score at least 30 points in three of the four quarters, and lost 123-105.  For LA, as Bob Ryan wrote in the Globe, the game met the hype.

And so the Celtics were welcomed to sunny Los Angeles for the single most awaited regular-season game in Laker history.  The Forum had been sold out for weeks, and everyone from Pacific Palisades to Pomona wanted to be on hand when Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird, accompanied by such satellite stars as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Jamaal Wilkes and Cedric Maxwell resumed their rivalry…

Though the Lakers began the evening as a second-place team in the NBA’s Pacific Division by a half-game (26-13 to Seattle’s 25-11), in the mind of the local populace this game was to be a clear confrontation between the best in the East and the best in the West.

The game also allowed for the continued rivalry of Dave Cowens and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Cowens’ shooting woes continued, and though he did contain Abdul-Jabbar offensively to just 15 points, Kareem added 18 boards and 7 assists all from his perch in the paint.  Just like Bird was out-dueled by Magic, Abdul-Jabbar got the better of the man who delivered one of the greatest Game 7 performances ever in NBA history with 28 points and 14 rebounds to bring home a record twelfth NBA championship for the Celtics.

Kareem-Cowens

In his finale as Celtic in LA, Big Red ended the night with four points, three boards, but managed to collect 9 assists in a foul-plagued 27 minutes.  The Celtics received major contributions from Tiny Archibald (8 assists), Cedric Maxwell (10 boards of the offensive variety), Chris Ford (two more three-pointers), and M.L. Carr (16 points in 24 minutes).

“Although we scored over 120 points,” Lakers coach Paul Westhead told the LA Times, “and shot the eyes out of the basket, the difference clearly tonight was our defense…It was our best defensive effort of the year and when the team got going the defense just became contagious.”

With so press coverage for the game, Bird actually held a press coverage before tip off.

Lakers

[Bird] came prepared to correct an impression of brashness caused by a statement he had made in front of an NBC camera during last Saturday’s “Sportsworld” show.  In that interview he had jokingly referred to Magic as “the second best player in the world,” the unspoken implication being that he was the best.  What he meant, of course, was “best in the college world last year.”

“I knew they’d ask me about that,” Bird explained.  “I was ready for them.”

Steve Aschburner added on NBA.com that tempers flared between Bird and Magic in their first professional contest.

Look, they didn’t even exchange words late in the fourth quarter when Bird, his Celtics hopelessly behind, put himself between Johnson and the basket for a bone-jarring collision. The two rookies glared at each other, according to the New York Times’ game account. “He just looked at me and I looked at him,” Bird said.

The funny thing is, that memory stuck with Bird more than anything else from that night — other than the miserable loss it hung on the Celtics two games into their five-game, post-Christmas, Western Conference trip.

“There had been talk about it in Boston for a few days, so I was ready for it,” Bird said by phone last week from the office he keeps as the Indiana Pacers’ president of basketball operations. “I knew that if I had a chance to knock him on his ass, I was taking it.”

Both men were rookies and, looking back now, so very young. Bird, who false-started his college career at Indiana before transferring to Indiana State, had turned 23 on Dec. 7. Johnson, who had left Michigan State after his sophomore year and that NCAA championship game over Bird’s Sycamores, was just 20. They were lugging heavy expectations from their respective teams, from the league, from fans both East and West. Yet they were, in many ways, still getting their pro legs under them.

“I was just feeling my way around then,” Bird said. “This was a West Coast trip, so it was all new to me. It was very exciting to be heading out there for the games, and I remember Dave Cowens telling me — just like it was yesterday — that we needed to be in shape because we were going to be running. In Boston, we played a halfcourt, slow-it-down type of game, but at that time, you had teams like Phoenix and Denver playing fast, and if you didn’t run against the Lakers, you didn’t have a chance to beat them. You could slow ‘em down late in games sometimes, but not for the whole game.

You knew when you went to L.A. that it was different. You’d see our fans who couldn’t go to games in Boston. You’d see a lot of green in their building.”

Bird shot well from the field but, with only four rebounds and three assists, was unable to dictate the pace of the game.  Johnson and his Laker teammates controlled the boards — a 49-39 advantage — and controlled the flow from the opening tip-off.  Aschburner detailed how Bird refused to buy into the game’s hype:

“A special game,” Johnson called it, playing along. Fitch labeled it a “glamour game,” while Bird called all the hype stupid. Afterward, he hadn’t changed his view: “The NBA has got to do it to get publicity, and I think they’re blowing it out of proportion,” Bird said.

Think maybe the result had something to do with his orneriness? Bird was hampered by foul trouble in the first half and pestered defensively by L.A. forward Jamaal Wilkes for most of the night (Bird and Johnson, playing different positions, almost never guarded each other). The Lakers erased Boston’s early lead and never were seriously threatened again, using a 12-2 run deep in the third quarter to push the score to 105-87.

Johnson led the Lakers with 23 points and had eight rebounds, six assists, four steals, seven turnovers … and plenty of help. Wilkes scored 22 points, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grabbed 18 rebounds and backcourt mate Norm Nixon led with eight assists. Boston’s Cedric Maxwell had 19 points and 16 boards, Cowens had nine assists and Bird wound up with 16 points, four rebounds, three assists, four steals and two turnovers in 40 minutes.

“Tomorrow we’ll forget about this game,” Bird said in the visitors’ locker room. “We’ll be so far away from here. … In a few days we’ll be home, and we won’t even know what night we played the Lakers.”

Except that 30 years later, because of all that followed, we know exactly what night they first played.

The Celtics returned to action the following night to play Golden State.

 

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About Justin Barrasso

Justin Barrasso has worked in the Boston sports scene in various different capacities since 2001, including writing for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com.