Nique vs. Bird: An Oral History of the NBA's Greatest Playoff Duel

by Micah Hart

Twenty-five years ago on May 22, 1988, two Hall of Famers staged what is widely considered to be the greatest one-on-one battle in NBA Playoff history. In a game that lingers in the minds of NBA fans everywhere (and seemingly can be seen on NBA TV at any given time), Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird put on a show nonpareil, a can-you-top-this clinic of offensive basketball that captivated all involved spectators -- players and coaches included. This is the story of that afternoon.

"It’s a duel. Who’s going to blink first?" -- CBS analyst Tommy Heinsohn

THE LEAD UP

The Hawks and Celtics occupied much different places in the NBA pecking order in 1988, but the tide was turning. Boston won the title in 1986 with what some consider the greatest team in NBA history, but lost in the Finals to the Lakers in 1987 and faced challenges from up-and-coming squads in Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta. The Hawks finished the 1987-88 season 50-32, and after dispatching the Milwaukee Bucks in round one, matched up with Boston in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Dominique Wilkins (Hawks small forward): We thought we were going to win it that year. We really did. We felt good about the way we were playing, particularly the second half of the season. We just grew to have so much confidence in ourselves and each other that we believed we could have won.

Larry Bird (Celtics small forward): They were up and coming. They were young. They played together, and Dominique was the leader. They had the makings of a great basketball team.

Kevin Willis (Hawks power forward): We were a cohesive unit, and I think that’s what helped us get so far in that series to Game 7. We believed in one another, we believed in what we were doing. We were very, very confident that we could get this thing done.

Cliff Levingston (Hawks backup center): It was like traveling with a rock band that year. Our warmups were like a dunk contest. Everybody was at the game, and when we would go out with 15-18 minutes left on the clock before the game, it was full. We were putting on a dunk contest and everybody was all excited about the Atlanta Hawks coming to town, the high-flying young team. The Hawks fans were even more excited. On and off the court, whatever we did fans followed us. They flocked to us.

John Battle (Hawks backup guard): That series was always going to be memorable. It was a different sense when you were playing Boston. There was a different energy level you must rise up to. And not only you but it was the responsibility of the fans to rise up during their work hours, during their day to get to a different level to root for a team that is playing Boston.

Scott Hastings (Hawks backup forward/center): I remember beating them in the regular season and Tree Rollins, myself, and Doc Rivers had been to this bar out toward Marietta somewhere and this guy had a Celtics jersey. He told us if we ever beat them we could burn that jersey. So we came out after that game, went straight to that bar, ordered a pitcher of beer, got that shirt out, put some lighter fluid on it and torched that sucker right in the middle of the bar.

The Celtics took the first two games of the series in Boston by comfortable margins. After beating the Hawks 4-1 in the 1986 playoffs, it appeared a similar outcome was likely as the series shifted to Atlanta.

Mark Bradley (Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist): The Celtics had pretty much dominated the Hawks. They beat them badly in the playoffs in ’86. Two years later the Hawks weren’t expected to give them much of a series, and the first two games they didn’t. Then they came (to Atlanta) and everything changed. The Hawks won Game 3 on a day when the Celtics basically shot terribly and it was hard to tell if that was because the Hawks were good or the Celtics were bad. In Game 4 the Celtics played really well and the Hawks beat them again. That was the first time anybody really thought that the Hawks might actually have a chance in the series.

Bob Ryan (Boston Globe columnist): The Hawks win in Game 5 was not normal. Traditionally, the Celtics would win Game 5 in a 2-2 series.

Steve Holman (Hawks radio play-by-play voice and Boston-area native): We won Game 4 and went back to Boston. Everybody kind of pooh-poohed that we had won the two games in Atlanta, because they expected us to get killed in Game 5. And all of a sudden, Game 5, ‘Nique has a big game, Randy Wittman has a big game, Doc Rivers had a big game and we beat them. Shocked the world really -- people were stunned up there. In fact, I had beer poured on me. We were upstairs back then, the little booth upstairs, and there was a luxury box over us -- or what amounted to a luxury box there -- and I was doing my routine and this guy took a beer and poured it right over my head. I took a picture of the scoreboard that night with one of those throw-away cameras and I still have that picture.

In the course of interviewing the players, coaches, and journalists who participated in the oral history, two recurring themes came up that didn't fit in the narrative of Game 7, but are worth mentioning just the same.

One deals with the overlooked greatness of the career of Dominique Wilkins, and the other touches on the special bonds formed by the players on the 1987-88 Hawks team, bonds that remain to this day. Check them out.

-- Outtakes: Dominique Wilkins, Underrated Superstar
-- Outtakes: 1987-88 Hawks A Team To Remember  

Danny Ainge (Celtics shooting guard): When we lost Game 5, they certainly got our attention. I remember how quiet our team was in the locker room afterwards. They had beaten us in the Garden and going down to Atlanta in Game 6 there was not a lot of talk. It was all business. We knew what we had to do. Game 6 was probably the toughest one because you’re playing on the road in a packed house and they got all the momentum.

Mike Fratello (Hawks head coach): We were a good team. They knew we were good. You have to have some belief in yourself when you’re down 0-2 to the Celtics and you come back to take a 3-2 lead. That says something about the character of the players, the mental toughness, and the desire and effort it took to come back in that series. Everybody thought that series was over and that it was going to be a sweep.

The Hawks would return to Atlanta with the chance to close out the series and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the team moved to the city from St. Louis in 1968.

Battle: We won Game 5 and now we are going home thinking -- and this is a bad thing, but champions think like this -- “Let’s put them away. Let’s not go back to Boston. We have to put them away now.”

Doc Rivers (Hawks point guard): The city was absolutely on fire, which was really cool. You could feel the intensity. They were all pulling for us. I had never seen Atlanta like that for sports. It was nice to see. I remember going to the game that day and getting into the arena, that place was buzzing.

Holman: The Omni was as raucous as it had ever been. People were hanging from the rafters right from the start, all night. Even an hour before the game, people were in their seats. I remember people carrying a coffin around that said “KC Jones Retirement Party.*” It was great.

* Jones retired as Celtics coach after the 1987-88 season after leading the team to the NBA Finals in four of his five years at the helm.

NEXT: THE CELTICS FORCE GAME 7