Larry Bird and I had completely different styles on and off the court. But when it came to competing, we were almost exactly alike.
We both were great competitors. And when the Celtics came to Atlanta to play us or if the Hawks went up to Boston, I knew it was going to be a special night.
Over the years, Bird and I went head to head many times, but the best showdown was in the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics looked like they were going to prove all those “experts” who picked them to coast through us right. They won the first two games.
You always focused on Bird, but they had a lot of good players, including Kevin McHale and Robert Parish on the frontline, and Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge in the backcourt, and they always seemed to have a real deep bench.
But we came back and won the next three games, and that underdog label got thrown out the window. We really had a lot of confidence going into Game 6 and we should have put the series away there. We had a late lead and just let the Celtics back in. We gave them the game.
So that sent the series to a Game 7 — the game I’ll never forget. Our team was loose going into Boston Garden. We had a very hard-working team. Guys like Antoine Carr, Kevin Willis, Cliff Levingston, and Tree Rollins were real big, physical guys who loved to bang under the boards.
They were real blue-collar guys. Then you had guys like Doc Rivers, John Battle, Randy Wittman, and Spud Webb, guys with a lot of talent.
Mike Fratello was a great coach and he brought everyone together and working on the same page. He knew that everyone brought a piece of the puzzle to the table and everyone laid it on the line every night for him.
About the only thing we didn’t have was a lot of great individual athletes. We didn’t have many great scorers. That’s one of the reasons I had to try to score so much, and one of the reasons I took so many shots.
When we played the Celtics, Larry and I were often trying to stop each other. Larry was known to talk a little trash, but we never said anything to each other during the game. We had the kind of respect for each other that when we played, we would just go out there and play hard and let our games do all the talking.
I used to love playing against Bird. We loved to go against each other. It was a great experience to have that competition level. We made each other play that much better, that much harder.
We’d just push each other and bring out the best in each other. I never wanted to be second best and I’m sure he didn’t, either.
Stopping him was hard because he was a smart player. If you thought you had stopped him, he had a way of finding the open man, but you never knew when the pass was coming. And he was dangerous from long range, so you couldn’t sit back and play off him. He was a deadly shooter from out there.
The Longest Shot
In Game 7, we were both in the zone. I don’t remember much about the early part of the game, but as the game wore on, it was like two gunslingers going at it. It was like a war. I’d come down on one end of the court and make a shot Bird would come down to the other end of the court and make a basket. It was back and forth, back and forth all night.
I was making all kinds of baskets that night. I pulled out everything I had in that game. I was making slam dunks, short-range jumpers, transition baskets, baskets off offensive rebounds, tip-ins, everything. It was just one of those games where I was able to take everything to a higher level.
Unfortunately, so did Bird. The game really reached a fever pitch in the fourth quarter. He ended up scoring 20 in the fourth and I had just about that many. This was the biggest game I had ever played in. Neither one of us wanted to lose.
Near the end, they had pulled in front. They had a two-point lead, but we had the ball. I got the ball with time running out and Ainge fouled me before I had a chance to put up a 3-pointer. He fouled me even before I had a chance to put my arms up.
I went to the line and made my first shot. But we still had a problem. If I made the second, we would have been down one with just a second or so to play. So I had to intentionally miss the shot and just pray that one of our guys could get a hold of the rebound with enough time left to put up a shot.
It was a long shot, but it was the only one we had.
The shot hit off the rim as I had hoped. We were all going for it, there were hands reaching everywhere, but Boston grabbed the rebound and time ran out. The Celtics had won the game and we were pretty heartbroken.
I finished with 47 points. Most people would be overjoyed with that, but I was pretty down about the game afterward. But in retrospect, we laid it all on the line and played as hard as we possibly could.
Anyone who saw that game and that duel Bird and I had that night will tell you it was one of the greatest games they had ever seen.
— As told to Chuck O’Donnell