When the league’s three biggest stars -- LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, hoarders of the last five MVP awards -- meet in The 2017 NBA Finals, they will be renewing a legend that never grows old.
“If you did a ranking of who the best players were,” said Jan Volk, who was GM of the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, “then Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were in the top three, and order them as you like.”
In 1984, when Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers and Larry’s Celtics launched the NBA’s defining rivalry by meeting in three NBA Finals over a span of four years, there were 11 current and future All-Stars dominating their rosters. Three decades later, the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, who won the title at Cleveland’s expense in 2015, are reuniting in The NBA Finals with similar firepower: They also total 11 All-Stars.
The circumstances are different, of course. Johnson and Bird had been opponents in the 1979 NCAA championship -- the most-watched basketball game in history -- while the Lakers and Celtics had met in seven NBA Finals (1959-69) before their rivalry was renewed in 1984.
Unlike Boston and L.A., the Cavaliers and Warriors had been stigmatized by years of failure just before their current runs of success. Even so, the anticipation for this Finals feels very much the same as for those of the ‘80s.
Ever since James collapsed in tears at the end of Game 7 last June in Oakland, having recovered from a 3-1 deficit to earn Cleveland’s first pro sports title in 52 years, the NBA’s global audience has been looking forward to a rematch. Durant's offseason move via free agency from the Oklahoma City Thunder to Golden State has only deepened cries for an encore, in sync with the heightened performances of LeBron throughout this postseason.
There may never be an NBA rivalry of more importance and drama than Celtics-Lakers. But Cavaliers-Warriors has popped up, just now, as an intriguing runner-up. Their unprecedented run of three straight NBA Finals has emerged as a milestone -- one that that shows how much the league has changed since the ‘80s, when the NBA was just beginning to recognize its own potential.
All-time talents pave way in 1980s, today
“To compete at that point in time, I felt that you needed three or four All-Star talents and maybe a couple Hall-of-Famers to compete,” said Volk, who began assisting Red Auerbach in the front office in 1976. “And for most of those teams from the early 1980s through to the early ‘90s, that holds true.”
Volk, never one for hyperbole, was understating the depth of talent. During each of the three Boston-L.A. Finals (‘84, ‘85 and ‘87) there were at least seven future Hall-of-Famers in the starting lineups -- Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson for Boston and Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy for Los Angeles. Three more passed through along the way -- Bob McAdoo and Jamaal Wilkes in ‘84 and ’85 for the Lakers, and Bill Walton in ‘87 for the Celtics.
The current NBA Finals features three likely Hall-of-Famers -- James, Curry and Durant -- based on the fact that every NBA MVP resides in the Hall of Fame. But the door is open for several teammates to join them.
Depending on their play in this and future NBA Finals, isn’t the Hall of Fame a reasonable goal for Klay Thompson and Draymond Green of the Warriors, as well as for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love of the Cavaliers? Could Deron Williams, once known as the NBA’s top point guard, earn the ultimate honor with a decisive performance for Cleveland? Could the same be said of Golden State’s Andre Iguodala, the MVP of the 2015 Finals?
Like the Lakers and Celtics, the Cavaliers and Warriors were built primarily through the Draft. James (apart from his mid-career stop in Miami), Irving and Tristan Thompson were top-four picks by Cleveland. Curry, Thompson and Green were drafted by the Warriors.
The Celtics augmented their roster with shrewd deal-making at the expense of the Warriors, who in one regrettable 1980 trade provided Boston with Parish as well as the Draft pick that became McHale. In that same year, West was completing a trade with Cleveland that would provide the Lakers with the No. 1 pick in 1982 -- to be spent on Worthy.
And so, if not for the Warriors and Cavaliers, there would have been no Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the 1980s.
Different free agency, different way to build
In those days when players routinely spent three or more years at college -- Johnson, who left Michigan State as a sophomore, was the exception -- the Celtics and Lakers had confidence in the Draft. Not so anymore, insisted West.
“Everyone gets so enamored with all these young kids coming into the Draft today,” said West, who in recent years has helped build the Warriors as a highly influential consultant. “I kind of laugh sometimes. They’re not ready to play, and they’re not ready to help you win. So many people in the lottery fail, it’s a joke. The teams that need help, they expect to get a star -- and a lot of times they get guys that are gone from the league in a few years. Today there are No. 1 Draft picks that have failed. Obviously, everyone forgets about it, but I don’t.”
This era of teenagers entering the NBA has skewed the traditional perceptions of age. James is only 32, but the minutes he has played in 14 regular seasons are equivalent to those posted by 36-year-old Abdul-Jabbar. James has already totaled more postseason minutes than Abdul-Jabbar, who retired at 42.
In addition to drafting more experienced players -- Bird was a 23-year-old rookie - there were fewer limitations to building a roster in the 1980s, when there were only 23 NBA franchises. “No question that expansion diluted the talent,” said West.
But prosperity has also played a dismaying role. No one who works in the NBA can criticize the windfalls of revenue that have overhauled basketball’s economy and raised salaries exponentially over the last quarter-century. At the same time, that new money has created layers of financial rules and other complications that didn’t exist in the simpler 1980s.
“Everyone thinks the game is so much better today,” West said. “The thing that makes it so different to me is that there is so much more publicity now. In the 1980s we had an All-Star team. We had seven or eight guys that were really good. When you put some guy in the game off the bench, you’d say to yourself, this doesn’t bother me. Now when you see teams substitute, you know it’s going to hurt them.”
The ‘85-86 Celtics roster would include six current or future All-Stars, five of them Hall-of-Famers. In 1985, when L.A. beat Boston in The NBA Finals for the first time, the Lakers were bringing McAdoo and Wilkes off the bench.
“Today you have so many different variables,” said West. “You may not even be able to take a player because of his contractual situation.”
Boston and L.A. weren’t in fear of losing Bird or Johnson to free agency. The salary cap, an invention of NBA commissioner David Stern, was implemented in 1983 after the core of the Celtics and Lakers dynasties had already been assembled.
“When they first started it, they hoped it would be something that would bring equality to the league,” said West, with no little irony. “I remember what it was. It was $3 million.”
That is correct: The salary cap in 1984-85 was $3.6 million per team. The current $126 payroll of the Cavaliers is 35 times larger than that original ceiling. James earns more in two months than all of the old Celtics and Lakers were being paid throughout the season.
Unlike today, fans of the 1980s had no reason to be obsessed with player salaries. “Now you look at somebody making $5 million and you feel bad for them,” said Volk. “How did that happen?”
“There was a predisposition toward caution when dealing with teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Knicks -- teams that might have all been over the cap at that point, or at least were limited by the cap. The other teams didn’t understand what we had to deal with as much as they should have.”
In those first years of the salary cap, only a half-dozen “high-salaried” teams -- including the Celtics and Lakers - were affected by the new financial rules. “In some ways we benefited from the fact that we were quickly limited by it,” said Volk. “Because we were forced to learn it and test it out and make it work earlier than the other teams.
“The rest of the folks didn’t have to learn it for quite some time, and I think it hurt them from the respect that they didn’t have to learn it. I found it very difficult to deal with those teams in trade situations. The teams I was talking to didn’t have the limitations we had, and they didn’t understand my limitations. They would make proposals that simply couldn’t be done.”
The GMs of smaller-market teams in the 1980s were like so many fans calling into talk-radio shows with trade proposals that make sense in terms of talent -- but cannot be made because the salaries don’t meet approval with the collective bargaining agreement.
“There was a predisposition toward caution when dealing with teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Knicks -- teams that might have all been over the cap at that point, or at least were limited by the cap,” Volk said. “The other teams didn’t understand what we had to deal with as much as they should have.”
Media, players interact in close quarters
For the next two to three weeks, the Cavaliers and Warriors will stay at top hotels in San Francisco and Cleveland. In the 1980s, when the Celtics made a habit of visiting glamorous Los Angeles, they stayed for all three NBA Finals at the LAX Airport Marriott.
“Keep in mind the Marriott at that point in time was very committed to athletic teams,” Volk said. “They had the 24-hour coffee shop, and they were very competitive on price.”
“The LAX Marriott for many years was like a destination resort for many of us,” said Brian McIntyre, who ran public relations and communications for the NBA from 1981-2010. “It was not your typical NBA hotel. It had a swimming pool. I never got to the beach, but you were three miles from beach. I remember taking my family for vacation in LA and we stayed at the Airport Marriott.”
Players and coaches routinely stayed in the same NBA Finals hotel as the media in the 1980s, in part because superstition dissuaded their franchises from reserving in advance. “The teams didn’t know when they were going to get into The Finals until they made it,” said McIntyre. “I’d book extra rooms thinking the teams might need some.”
The NBA Finals was not the destination event that it has become today. “I remember when the Philadelphia hotel canceled us in 1982,” said McIntyre. “I was on my way to the game in San Antonio (where the Lakers were sweeping the Spurs in the Western finals) and the hotel we booked for the NBA Finals in Philadelphia said, ‘Sorry, we sold your rooms.’ I said, ‘But we’re using those rooms!’ They said, ‘Sorry, we had a convention coming in.’ So we had to put everyone into the Bellevue-Stratford.”
The Bellevue-Stratford Hotel had struggled to fill its rooms since 1976, when it served as the site of the “Legionnaires’ Disease” outbreak that killed 29 people.
When McIntyre arrived at the NBA, Stern was not yet commissioner and the NBA was not in charge of running The NBA Finals. (The host franchise took responsibility, for better and often for worse.) At that time NBA players and coaches flew on the same airlines as the beat writers who covered them daily for their local newspapers.
“When everyone traveled commercially and stayed at the same hotels, there were so many moments to interact and opportunities to build a relationship,” said McIntyre. “Today those opportunities have evaporated. If you were a player and you were in the hotel with the media that was covering you regularly, you would go down to breakfast and see them in the coffee shop. You would come in late at night and the writers would see you, and when they didn’t write anything about it, it would build a rapport.”
Hospitality room pranks and fire alarms
By 1984, in line with his goal of raising the league’s profile, McIntyre was operating a small NBA Finals hospitality room for the media at the LAX Airport Marriott.
“It was the room that never closed,” McIntyre said. “It was open 24 hours a day. Some people that didn’t have rooms would crash there. The teams would come down and share a beer with the media. I remember Kevin McHale and Larry Bird came in to have a beer -- although one year they gave up beer for the playoffs. We saved a lot of money on beer that year. Just kidding.”
But things got out of hand, naturally, and the alcohol had something to do with it. One night at The 1984 NBA Finals, at the hospitality room in Boston, someone came up with the unoriginal idea of repeatedly filling a bucket with water and propping it upon the half-opened door to the NBA Finals hospitality room. One after another the writers would arrive for their free beer and be doused.
“Then Pat Riley came down,” said McIntyre.
Riley, the young coach of the Lakers, was on his way in for an after-dinner beer when he sensed something wrong amid the leering grins of the writers facing him from the other side of the door. He held back from entering -- but his companion, John Hall of the Orange County Register, did not. Hall walked through and the bucket not only soaked him but also opened a gash on his nose requiring several stitches at the local hospital.
“That might have been the last time Riley came into the hospitality room,” McIntyre said.
Far more upsetting to Riley were the electrical problems that afflicted the Marriott Copley Place, a newly opened hotel that served as headquarters to the NBA Finals in Boston. The fire alarms sounded at least 10 times during the Lakers’ six-night stay.
“As we were leaving to go back to L.A. (for Game 3), we were on a DC-10 on American Airlines,” said McIntyre. “I had the last seat on the aisle of the plane, and I had just realized my seat wouldn’t go back. I’m upset because I really want to sleep on the flight to L.A. when I feel a hand forcefully going down on my right shoulder. Pat Riley’s face is an inch from mine and he’s saying, ‘We’re never staying at your hotel again.’ ”
Players continued to visit the hospitality room until The 1988 Finals, when a series of prank calls were made in Los Angeles. “A bunch of guys got drunk and called up the Pistons in the middle of the night,” said McIntyre. “[Pistons coach] Chuck Daly said, ‘We’re not staying in your hotel anymore.’ It was going to end eventually, but it ended sooner because a bunch of guys sitting around like sophomores in high school ruined a good thing.”
Memorable cross-country flights
In June 1984, Leigh Montville filed his column for the Boston Globe from Game 6 of the NBA Finals at the Fabulous Forum, where he had watched the Lakers win Game 6 on a Sunday. Montville left the arena that night to boarded a redeye flight back East with the Celtics. There was no time to waste. Game 7 was scheduled for Tuesday.
“They flew overnight to New York, and then they switched planes to Boston,” Montville said. “That was the flight they could get.”
Montville, as he preferred back then, was seated in the smoking section of the flight from Los Angeles. “You’re always wondering who you’re going to sit next to on a flight across the country,” he said.
“I got to my seat and there was a gorgeous woman sitting there. Spectacularly pretty. Right away I knew she was a model or a movie star or something. So I sat down, and you always wonder, could I talk to a movie star or a model? Could I get the words out? She was smoking Pall Malls, I remember. We were talking back and forth. She hadn’t been in Sports Illustrated yet and nobody really knew her. She was just very pleasant.”
She said her name was Elle Macpherson. At that time she would have been 20 years old. A TV reporter from Boston offered him a microwave oven -- a relatively new technology -- if Montville would switch seats, but the offer was refused.
“I bet I remember more about traveling with her than she remembers about traveling with me,” Montville said.
“One thing that has changed for sure is the media crowd. In ’84 we couldn’t have had more than 400 media.”
This was the ninth Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals, and traveling between L.A. and Boston had been -- with the occasionally memorable exception -- a nightmare exacerbated by the 2-2-1-1-1 format. Almost 3,000 miles in the air, back and forth, every other day, while deciding the most important games of the season.
“I remember going back to L.A. in 1969 in Bill Russell’s last season,” Montville said. “Russell was the coach, and he finally switched the flight from United to American because he said, ‘I can’t watch those movies again.’ The movie that was playing each way was Bullitt. Steve McQueen. I bet I saw it 6 times. Russell changed the flight because he wanted a new movie.”
One change alters landscape
After the 1984 NBA Finals, Stern, the new commissioner, changed the format to 2-3-2. “I remember David asking what I thought -- would we get more media to cover The Finals?” McIntyre said. “I called people up and I found out we would get a lot more. But the primary reason for the change was to give the players more time to rest. They were getting to the sixth or seventh game and sometimes you could see they were wiped out. Why not give them the best conditions? It was a good thing to cut back on the unnecessary travel.”
Stern has said that he made the change after hearing traveling complaints from Auerbach. Volk does not remember it that way, however. He was convinced the format was changed in order to market The Finals to a larger media following.
“They were never concerned about how the Lakers and Celtics felt about it. They never asked us,” Volk said. “When it was voted upon, I remember talking to Jerry West about it: We were looking around at the Board of Governors and I said to him, ‘There aren’t three people other than the Lakers and Celtics who have any idea how this will change things.’ ”
In the 1987 Finals, the 2-3-2 scheduling essentially forced the Celtics to win three straight at home in order to upset the Lakers. They lost Game 4 on the “junior, junior sky hook” by Johnson in the final minute. The Lakers clinched the series in Game 6 in Los Angeles -- a game that would have been played in Boston under the traditional format.
“I didn’t like it in the first place, even though there was an excessive amount of traveling,” said West. “Having said that, there is the argument that the really good teams can win everywhere.”
At the end of Stern's 30-year term as commissioner, NBA owners voted to change the format back to 2-2-1-1-1 starting with the 2014 NBA Finals. By then teams had been chartering their own flights for decades. More charter flights were arranged to serve the media as well as NBA staff.
“One thing that has changed for sure is the media crowd,” McIntyre. “In ’84 we couldn’t have had more than 400 media.”
That number has grown five times larger. The horde includes 265 media workers from outside the U.S. who will be covering The Finals, with 16 international TV and radio networks live onsite. In 1982, when McIntyre was making his own debut, he can remember only one foreign journalist - Giorgio Gandolfi from Giganti Del Basket in Italy.
In short, 'a magical time’
During their classic 1984 NBA Finals, the Celtics and Lakers totaled 42 attempts from the 3-point line over seven games. The Cavaliers and Warriors have shot that many 3s in 13 games this season.
“It was almost a gimmick play,” Volk said. “Larry was very good at it. But look at the number of attempts he made.”
Bird -- the self-declared “3-point king” -- totaled 4 of 6 from the arc throughout the ’84 Finals.
“Coaches have changed the game by using the 3-point line as more of a weapon,” said West. “It has allowed smaller players to be involved in the league. The game is not nearly as physical as it was before. It’s a completely different game today.”
Though the 190-pound Curry may not have thrived in the big-guard era of the 1980s, the fluid pace of his Warriors recalls the fast breaks of Magic’s Showtime Lakers. Which means that James will have to emulate Bird in this sense -- he must corral Golden State and control the pace if his less-athletic Cavaliers are going to prevail.
“With San Francisco vs. Cleveland, there’s a little bit of the same juxtaposition that you had with L.A. vs. Boston,” said Volk of the cultural differences between the two cities. “You’ve got the high-flyers and the lunch-pail guys. Though I do not view LeBron as a lunch-pail guy -- he’s a very hard worker who is a high flyer too.”
All of the best Lakers and Celtics in the 1980s could move the ball artfully. Today the Warriors have an across-the-board edge as a passing team. But the Cavaliers have their own advantage in LeBron, who is a more athletic amalgamation of Larry and Magic.
While there has been much complaining of bullying by today’s Finalists -- the Warriors and Cavaliers were a combined 24-1 in their conference brackets -- the end to the NBA postseason tends to justify the means.
The 1980s were dominated ruthlessly by the Lakers, who reached eight NBA Finals, and the Celtics, who played in five. One of them, at least, appeared in every Finals, and they won all but two of the championships that decade (Detroit and Philadelphia won the others). And it is because of their charismatic dominance that the decade of Magic and Larry is celebrated as the NBA’s golden era.
“It was a joyous time,” said McIntyre. “The days were incredibly long, you weren’t getting sleep, it was nonstop -- but it was fun. There wasn’t a lot of negativity going on. We hadn’t reached that point where we were so successful that people say, OK, it’s time to bring them down a notch. Everyone was caught up in it, and it wasn’t just the people in the league -- it was the media who covered us, the fans, they were all part of something that was growing and enjoying incredible success and acceptance. It was a magical time.”
Will the mood be renewed? We will know soon enough.
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