Bird’s Rookie Year — Game 50 vs. the Clippers

Celtics (36-13) vs. San Diego (27-28)
January 27, 1980
Boston Garden

Larry Bird exploded for 36 points — a new career high — as the Celtics regained their edge at the Garden and sent the Clippers away with their sixth straight loss by defeating San Diego, 131-108.  Bird added seven rebounds, three assists, and three steals.

The Celtics controlled the boards, out-rebounding the Clippers, 55-38.  Rick Robey fought through a pulled groin muscle to deliver 23 points and 14 rebounds, and Cedric Maxwell added 13 boards.  Though the Celtics committed four more turnovers than SD, it was a product of their passing.  Led by Tiny Archibald’s nine assists, the Celtics compiled 14 more assists than the Clippers.  Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe captured the connection the Celtics’ fans had for their team:

To Larry Bird, it was the logical thing to do. Give the ball up on a two-man breakaway with 3:38 remaining and the Celtics leading by 21? No big deal.  Pass up a chance to pad his career high of 36 points so that teammate Eric Fernsten could go in for a dunk?  You know, what are friends for?  Well, the Garden crowd of 15,320 couldn’t have agreed less.

And so as Joe Bryant was responding with a 15-foot jumper, they stood and cheered. In fact, as play continued for 30 seconds, they cheered.  They were telling Bird they appreciated his thought process as well as his skill.  In fact, this little display of emotion on the part of the crowd signified a lot more.  It was their way of telling the Celtics that they appreciated their style, that they preferred the Celtic team approach to the game, as exemplified by Bird, to the stomach-turning, every-man-for-himself basketball embodied by the San Diego Clippers.  And when Bill Fitch had the wisdom to remove Bird from the game 34 seconds after his generous gesture, they really let loose.

The Clippers received their offense from Lloyd Free.  In addition to shooting 11-20, Free drained thirteen of his sixteen free throws for a total of 35 points.

Lloyd Free

The man going against Robey in the paint was former UCLA star Swen Nater.  In an article for ESPN.com, former teammate Bill Walton (injured and unable to play against the Celtics in this particular game in what would become a lost season for Walton) detailed some of Nater’s unique past, calling him Mr. Clipper:

As the young family’s economic condition deteriorated, Swen, the middle of three children, and his older sister, Rene, were dumped at the door of the local orphanage when he was 6 years old. Of the 60 other children at the orphanage, Swen and his sister were the only children there whose parents were still living.

For three long, lonely and isolated years, Swen had literally no contact with his parents who had fled their homeland for the USA and a chance to start anew. They settled in Southern California. Some of their new friends in America finally learned of the plight of these struggling immigrants. And as can only happen in America and Los Angeles, Swen and his sister were reunited with their parents on the Hollywood set of “This Is Your Life.” Swen’s parents were lured to the show on false pretenses as members of the audience. When they were unexpectedly called up on stage, imagine their surprise when their two young children — whom they had had no contact with for years — came walking out of a makeshift windmill, specially constructed for the reunion.

Swen Nater

Now 9 years old and in the fourth grade in a new country, Swen spoke not a word of English. He had also never seen, much less heard of the game of basketball. Because of Swen’s daily struggle for survival, what little he knew of the world of sport revolved around soccer, the national sport of his homeland.

Growing, adjusting and assimilating rapidly before the eyes of the world, Swen was soon the tallest lad in school. Someone eventually told him about basketball. Now a junior at Long Beach Wilson High School, Swen tried out for the team. He was unceremoniously cut and told not to come back.

Now a high school graduate, Swen was pursuing his dream of mathematics at a new Community College in the Southland, Cypress, a school in just its second year of existence.

While walking to math class one day, Swen — now a strapping 6-foot-10 — was spotted by the assistant basketball coach, Tom Lubin. Swen was hustled into the office of Cypress’ head coach Don Johnson, who just happened to have been an All-American basketball player for some of John Wooden’s early teams at UCLA in the 1950s.

Going into the game, the Globe’s Leigh Montville wrote that Nater thought he could overpower Robey:

After filling Cowens’ spot quite nicely for one win over the Detroit Pistons last Wednesday, Robey had stumbled against the Washington Bullets on Friday. In pregame warmups, he had pulled a groin muscle. He had limped and gimped through the game, finishing with eight points and four rebounds. The Bullets had rolled, 118- 107. The pulled muscle had felt terrible.

“It didn’t feel much better yesterday in practice, either,” Robey said. “I couldn’t really run, couldn’t move.”

Time for the wires. Time for the batteries. Time for the little box of controls.

In addition to the familiar treatment for a pulled muscle – a lot of ice – Robey was put on this different, electric treatment. The wires are attached to electrodes. The electrodes are taped to the skin above the injured muscle. When the controls are turned, a slight electric charge is sent into the muscle.

“It feels like an electric shock,” Robey said. “Not a bad one. A tingle.”

The shock, the electricity, somehow short-circuits the nerve connection between the injured muscle and the brain. The muscle no longer can send the word “pain” to the brain. Robey felt better.

“It’s not exactly a new treatment,” Celtic trainer Ray Melchiorre said. “The Dallas Cowboys have used it for maybe three years. A lot of teams have used it. We’ve used it here for Dave’s foot, for Larry Bird’s ankle, and now for this.”

A difference this time, though, was that Robey wore the electrodes during the game. He had kept feeding electricity into the muscle Saturday night and yesterday morning, before the game. He simply kept the electrodes taped to his thigh, the wires hanging out of his basketball pants. During timeouts, during the other times he came out of the game, he simply was hooked onto the controls again and given another boost of electricity.

“The bionic man,” he said.

How did it work? Zzzzzzzzzzzt. He had a long and productive afternoon. Playing against San Diego’s Swen Nater, the second leading rebounder in the league, he compiled some starting-center numbers. He scored 23 points. (Nater scored 9.) He collected 14 rebounds. (Nater collected 11.) He took control of the offensive backboard, jumping and tapping at the loose rebounds and knocking people out of the way.

“Early in the game, I heard Nater tell the other guys on his team, Don’t worry about the rebounds – I’ll get all the rebounds,’ ” Robey said. “I decided to just go as far as I could, not worry about anything. And I felt good. I ran as if I were 100 percent.”

In addition to Boston’s win, Philadelphia lost in Phoenix.  This put the Celtics a half game ahead of Philly in the Atlantic Division standings.

The Celtics returned to action on Tuesday at the Chicago Stadium against the Bulls.

 

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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.

  • Rick Mc

    That passage is a little long to be fully quoting.

  • RowdyRoddy

    Youtube has highlights of the game.

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