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Shaun Powell

Dennis Johnson and Larry Bird
Two men, with disparate backgrounds, united in a moment for history.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

My favorite moment: Bird steal, DJ layup still resonates


Posted Oct 28 2010 10:11AM - Updated Oct 31 2010 5:46PM

Larry Bird steal, Dennis Johnson layup was not just a basketball play. It was more than that. It was a blueprint for life. That's why it's my favorite NBA moment, because the spirit of the play went beyond basketball, beyond Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals game in 1987, when Bird stole an inbounds pass and found DJ for the winning layup with a second left.

Bird steal, DJ layup was an everlasting message for us all. It can be taught to elementary school kids and embraced by rebelling teenagers, college grads, lonely men and women, folks dealing with the economic hardship or anyone who just needs a jolt of inspiration to get through another tough day. Because the lessons from those blurry seconds, when a certain defeat instantly changed into victory, were many.

Let's set the scene. The young and restless Pistons, anxious to loosen Boston's vice grip on conference supremacy, outplayed the Celtics on the parquet at the old Boston Garden. A changing of the guard seemed apparent. Down 107-106 late in the fourth, Bird went for a layup, which was swatted by Dennis Rodman on a truly remarkable defensive play. The ball went out of bounds off Boston.

Everyone in the building, and at home watching on TV, figured the Pistons would run off the final five ticks for the ballgame and take a 3-2 series lead. With the next game in Detroit, the momentum swing inside a suddenly subdued Garden was palpable. The Pistons' bench was already standing and celebrating. Rodman was going to be the hero. Isiah Thomas aimed the inbounds pass to Bill Laimbeer.

And then: Bird steal, DJ layup.

So much happened on that play. So much was learned.

Bird steal, DJ layup saw cultures unite and blend as one. Bird and DJ came from different worlds, a white man from the heartland and a black man who grew up in Compton. They had different roles and statuses; Bird was already a legend, rightly hailed as an icon and civic treasure in Boston. DJ was an outsider, an aging but proud former star who never felt the same level of love -- who could compete with Bird for that? -- but never expressed an ounce of jealousy toward his teammate. They weren't especially close friends. But there was strong mutual respect. And on the floor together, they were meant to be, like your grandparents' marriage. Imagine if Republicans and Democrats, who are supposed to work toward a common goal, connected like Bird and DJ. What would Washington be like?

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Bird steal, DJ layup was about never giving up, no matter how bleak the situation. And it was a bleak one for Boston. Make no mistake. The Pistons only had to inbounds the ball. And the ball was in the hands of Isiah, one of the smartest players ever.

Still, Bird refused to allow the Pistons a free "pass." He lurked nearby and watched Isiah's eyes. He didn't care about the score or the morale-crushing blocked shot by Rodman a moment earlier or the shadow of defeat. He had one more chance. How many players, in that situation, would've simply gone through the motions or at least aimlessly taken themselves out of position? How many people in everyday life, faced with long odds or tough situations, surrender to those forces? How many just give in and give up?

Bird steal, DJ layup was about offering help. The steal was nothing without the layup. No matter how alert Bird was on the steal, the moment never would've happened if DJ snoozed on the play. Once DJ caught sight of Bird snatching the ball and leaning off balance, as if to fall out of bounds, and looking for someone to pass to, DJ raced toward the basket. Almost by instinct, he came to Bird's rescue. He helped.

Isn't this another one of life's issues? How many of us, in the past, have found ourselves teetering on the edge, as Bird was on his heels, looking for a hand? A little help? How often were you hoping that someone, without much advance notice, would appear and pull a DJ?

Sure, you can say Bird stole a pass and DJ made a game-winning shot and leave it at that. Or argue whether it was even the biggest steal in Celtics' history (Havlicek?) or the most important game-winning shot in Celtics' history (Don Nelson's lucky ricochet in the 1969 Finals?). Or you can recall that, had the Pistons listened to coach Chuck Daly and called timeout, perhaps a mistake would've been avoided. Or remind everyone that, while the Celtics won the series over the Pistons, they lost the 1987 championship to the Lakers.

Or you can remember how Bird, this summer in Springfield, Mass., helped present DJ posthumously to the Hall of Fame and repeat how DJ "was the best teammate anyone could ever have."

On a steamy night in Boston back in 1987, we discovered why.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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