Of Larceny and Leprechauns

The leprechauns that legend suggests inhabited Boston Garden and lived to influence the outcome of basketball games didn’t do much for their beloved Celtics in 1978-79. They won all of 29 games. Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald crossed 30 that year and the young core behind them no longer was littered with future Hall of Famers.

Bob McAdoo led the Celtics in scoring. At 27, he should have been just entering the best years of his career. That’s what Dick Vitale believed, at least, and Red Auerbach was thrilled to accommodate Vitale’s desire to pair McAdoo with Bob Lanier as he launched a new era of Pistons basketball at the Silverdome.

Vitale’s infatuation with McAdoo altered the course of two franchises for years – and set the Celtics up as the team the Pistons had to conquer in order to win the first two NBA titles in franchise history. Auerbach merely turned the McAdoo trade into Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

Two NBA titles could well have been three – or even four – for the Pistons had history played out just a little differently.

The Pistons won the 1989 and ’90 titles by going 8-1 in NBA Finals against the Lakers and Trail Blazers. They were 30-7 in the playoffs those two seasons. That’s dominance. They came agonizingly close to winning the 1988 title, losing in seven games to the Lakers when two unfortunate events conspired against them in games 6 and 7.

In Game 6, it was Isiah Thomas turning his ankle amid an out-of-body experience that saw him drop 25 points on the Lakers in the third quarter. That essentially rendered him impotent for Game 7 – which shouldn’t have been necessary. The two Kareem Abdul-Jabbar free throws that won Game 6 should never have been awarded. Bill Laimbeer might have been guilty of breathing on Abdul-Jabbar as he soared for his trademark sky hook along the right baseline, but not of fouling him.

“We have the game won,” Pistons owner Bill Davidson told me two years before his 2009 death, “and I’m sitting there in the locker room with David Stern, waiting to accept the trophy, and Hugh Evans – I’ll never forget the official – called the foul on Bill Laimbeer. It never should have been called – never been called in the history of the game. My thought was I’ll go to my grave and this is the only thing I’ll ever get.”

Primed for a postgame title celebration, the CBS staging set up for an awards ceremony in the locker room and the champagne on ice, instead the Pistons had to prepare for a Game 7 two days later knowing their All-Star point guard would be subpar, at best, and perhaps unavailable.

But if that was agonizing, what had happened in Boston Garden the year before was a strange brew of emotions – stunned disbelief, abject helplessness, gnawing emptiness, unfathomable frustration.

The Isiah rolled ankle and the phantom foul on Laimbeer … well, breaks of the game. A common injury at the worst possible moment and a referee’s whistle that went the way of the home team – not to mention one of the NBA’s two glamour franchises – don’t exactly conjure images of the supernatural.

But the two things that had happened at Boston Garden in late May 1987 were straight out of the voodoo handbook.

The first was Isiah’s pass with five seconds left in a critical swing Game 5 the Pistons had won. He’d just knocked down a jumper with 17 seconds to go, giving the Pistons a 107-106 lead and, for the first time, the sense that they were about to overthrow this enormous, hulking specter of the Celtics and Boston Garden, where an emerging young power’s losing streak had reached an improbable 16 straight.

You’ve seen that pass a million times, courtesy of both TV replays and your mind’s eye. It came in the harried seconds after Dennis Rodman’s block of a Larry Bird layup – Rodman, the frisky rookie who began the season looking at times hopelessly overwhelmed, now trusted with the biggest moments of the craziest pressure cooker of a series – went out of bounds off the Celtics and all but iced Game 5.

What almost never gets mentioned: Bill Laimbeer inexplicably taking one-half step back – as if he couldn’t believe Isiah had rushed to inbounds the pass instead of calling timeout – as the ball was coming toward him, giving Bird just the opening he needed to force the most costly turnover in Pistons history and likely the most famous turnover in NBA history.

The second “I can’t believe that just happened” moment came four days later. It was a steamy Saturday afternoon, Memorial Day weekend, and Boston Garden wasn’t meant to be hosting basketball games that late on the calendar. It was stifling that day in the Garden, where even the rats that ran its dank corridors asked that the air conditioning be turned up.

The series had grown increasingly hostile. These teams loathed each other and made no attempt to conceal it. Robert Parish had been suspended for Game 6 after his roundhouse cheap shot on Bill Laimbeer amid the chaos of Game 5. (I was seated under the basket where the attack took place, not more than 20 feet from it, and was stunned when Jess Kersey, the official nearest the play, did nothing – not even a foul call – and later claimed he hadn’t seen it.)

Pistons GM Jack McCloskey called a press conference to blast the meek penalty. (In it, he showed a video that made it very difficult to believe Kersey hadn’t seen the play.) In fact, Parish was unlikely to play in Game 6, anyway, limping off twice in Game 5 with a sprained ankle. (Here’s a bit of trivia: The NBA’s chief cop then was Gary Bettman, now the NHL commissioner.)

Auerbach, who at least gave the strong impression he resented that these upstarts from Detroit were daring to threaten Celtic superiority, shot back at McCloskey, calling him frustrated loser and taking a shot at his coaching record that preceded his move to the front office.

The crowd in Boston Garden that series was vicious, launching purely vile attacks on Pistons players as they sat on the bench. My seat for Game 7 was merely feet from that bench, within easy earshot. I don’t know what they were charging for playoff tickets back then, but the crowd that occupied those prime seats looked far more longshoremen than the fund managers that take up those spots in the new Garden. But they couldn’t have been longshoremen; longshoremen would have blushed at the language they used.

The crowds for Lions games at the old Silverdome could get pretty rowdy, but that was mostly people who’d had too much to drink getting mouthy with other fans – perhaps fans of the other team who often took advantage of the availability of seats at the Silverdome and rubbed their success into the faces of envious Lions fans. This was different. Never seen anything close to what Celtics fans would scream at Pistons players from seats directly behind their bench.

At any rate, great game, Game 7. Late third quarter, Pistons up by a point, and the two players the Celtics had no answer for the entire series – Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson – knock each other out of the game diving for a loose ball from opposite directions, cracking their heads.

I’m not a superstitious sort, but I’m still convinced it was two leprechauns who shoved them after that loose ball.

That wouldn’t end that day’s craziness. We’ll revisit what came next in the next True Blue Pistons.