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Steve Aschburner

Despite a stellar Hall of Fame career, Larry Bird is remembered by many for the iconic May 26, 1987 steal against Detroit.
Despite a stellar Hall of Fame career, Larry Bird is remembered by many for the iconic May 26, 1987 steal.
Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images

Revisiting Bird's steal against Detroit 25 years later

Posted May 25 2012 8:55PM - Updated May 27 2012 2:51AM

The darn play happened so fast, Larry Bird said, that all he could do was react. This wasn't genius and it sure as heck wasn't geometry. It was purely see the ball, steal the ball.

"Too bad I didn't plan it out," Bird said some 25 years later. "Then I could take credit for it."

Bird chuckled during a break in his Indiana team's playoff series this week, recalling those precious few seconds from so long ago. It ranks as one of the all-time iconic moments in NBA history -- May 26, 1987 -- which pegged Saturday as its silver anniversary. For Bird, that instant at the old Boston Garden where he flashes in to swipe Isiah Thomas' pass and turn a Celtics-Pistons playoff series is arguably the most memorable play (and frequently seen highlight) of his Hall of Fame career.

Guy scores 25,688 points (regular and postseason), wins three championship rings, averages more than 10 rebounds a game, passes and invents shots like a white Globetrotter and what is he most remembered for? A steal. A hustle play.


"When Larry stole it, I was just like 'Are you kidding me?' " said Danny Ainge, then a Boston teammate, now the Celtics' chief basketball exec. "Not only was it unbelievable anticipation, but people who don't think Larry is athletic, that sort of tells it all right there, who he is.

"Not only his hands, his vision, but his unbelievable anticipation and his mental toughness. ... Nobody else makes that play."

How many really famous steals have there been? John Havlicek stole the ball, Boston's raspy radio man Johnny Most told us back in 1965. The Celtics' Gerald Henderson picked off a James Worthy pass in 1984 to save Game 2 of The Finals in 1984. Michael Jordan batted the ball out of Karl Malone's hands to set up The Shot in the 1998 Finals and sealed His Airness' Chicago Bulls career.

And this one, with just five seconds left and Detroit clinging to a 107-106 lead in the fifth game of the East finals.

The ball had been batted out of bounds off Boston's Jerry Sichting and the Pistons did have a timeout left -- coach Chuck Daly was trying to call one. But Thomas looked past Sichting and saw center Bill Laimbeer deep in the backcourt, to the left of the lane. Strategically, that was the other way to go.

"No doubt that calling a timeout crosses your mind," Laimbeer said in a phone interview, revisiting a play he'd just as soon forget. "However, I'm one of the best free-throw shooters we had, so if we can get the ball inbounds right away..."

To this day, Laimbeer pins half of the blame on himself. Yes, Thomas lofted a lazy pass toward him but, hey, he could have run to the passer too. "I broke a cardinal rule of basketball. I didn't come to the ball," he said. "I felt bad for Isiah taking all the blame, but I was half the problem."

Bird, for the Celtics, was the solution. First he thought timeout. Then he thought foul. But then he saw how much air Thomas put under that pass. "I didn't know if I was going to get there or not," he said.

Bird got there. He flashed in, leaping, and intercepted the pass with his right hand. He batted it to the famous parquet hardwood and grabbed it on the bounce. Most amazing of all, he managed to shift from that lunge, tippy-toeing the baseline as he halted and turned without stepping on or over the end line.

His first instinct screamed "Shoot!" But he was beyond the backboard. The Garden seemed frozen, fans, coaches and players on the bench all on pause, assuming the worst for the home team. On the court, though, Celtics and Pistons were moving. Dennis Johnson, Boston's heady guard, got a half-step on Dumars, acting while the others reacted.

"He made the play, to tell the truth," Bird recalled. "I can remember gettin' it and thinkin' I was gonna shoot it real quick -- I didn't know how much time there was. Then I seen that white jersey dartin' to the basket and I looked up and threw it to him. And after I threw it, I go, 'Oh, it's D.J.'

First the pass, then the recognition? "Things happen so fast, it's all reactions," Bird said. "You go, 'Wow, how'd you do that?' But I always played off reaction. This one went boom! boom!"

Bird snapped his fingers twice, rapidly. That's how long it took for him to shovel a pass to Johnson as he cut up the lane, Dumars chasing, and for the Celtics guard to put up a reverse layup for a 108-107 lead.

Did Laimbeer know what was happening, as the game turned so quickly? "No," he said. "No, you don't see any of that. No. It just happens."

There was one second left and, this time, the Pistons called timeout. But Adrian Dantley's inbounds pass went off Laimbeer and Detroit didn't even get up a final shot. Boston took a 3-2 lead in the series.

"This is one you look back on, and kind of smile," Celtics forward Kevin McHale said in the locker room afterward, "and say, 'Yeah, foot was in the trap but we snuck out of it somehow.' "

The impact of Bird's steal? It didn't cause Detroit to immediately cave, the way the Boston Red Sox did after Bill Buckner's gaffe in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series or the way the Chicago Cubs did after the Steve Bartman unraveling at Wrigley Field in 2003. The Pistons won Game 6 in Detroit 113-105 to pull even at 3-3 in the best-of-seven clash. But the Celtics won it at home two days later, benefiting when Dantley and Vinnie Johnson collided and banged heads near the end of the third quarter in Game 7.

Dantley was carried off on a stretcher with a concussion after scoring 10 points in that quarter. Boston edged the Pistons 36-34 over the final 12 minutes and Bird, playing wire to wire, finished with 37 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, two blocks -- and no steals.

"A brutal loss" Laimbeer called the Game 5 turnaround. "But at the end of the day, there are very, very few people or teams who could eat the stuff that we did -- such as that play, such as the collison and, on top of that, the brutal bad call on Kareem when we lose in The Finals the next year." [Laimbeer was whistled for a notorious "phantom" foul on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Detroit 27 seconds away from a Game 6 clinching victory. The Lakers won and took the 1988 title in seven games.]

"There are very few people and very few teams that are able to overcome those mentally destroying adversities," the former Pistons center said. "Losses like that can destroy a team and destroy a franchise. It didn't happen to us."

Laimbeer's reaction now when he sees the replay of Bird's steal? "[Bleep] happens." Bird said he never has talked with Thomas or any of the other Pistons about the play.

Detroit went on to win league titles in 1989 and 1990. The Celtics' championship run of the Bird era already was over. They lost to the Lakers in six games in the 1987 Finals, then didn't get out of the East again until 2008.

Still, Bird's steal is etched into NBA lore. It gave Bird a chance, too, to tease Most, still broadcasting for the Celtics at that time.

"You always hear of Johnny Most screamin' about Havlicek stealing the ball, right?" Bird said. "After the game he came in and I told him, 'I heard what you said.' He said, 'Yeah, I was really going crazy.' I said, 'Nah, I heard you just said, 'Bird steals the ball. Celtics win.' "

There was nothing calm about it. Ainge gets excited recalling it now, 25 years later.

"I guess you compare it to Dave Henderson's home run for the Red Sox in the [1986] playoffs," Ainge said, "or Kirk Gibson down with two strikes against the best reliever in baseball, hitting a home run when it looks like it's over, when it looks like there's a 99 percent chance you're dead, and you win. That's why sports is great, the history that's made. And it's fun to be part of."

John Schuhmann of contributed to this report.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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