Ten … 9 … 8 … Slowly the clock moved toward zero. One side of the scoreboard read Los Angeles Lakers 114. The other side read Philadelphia 76ers 104.
Now if the clock would only move faster, we could start celebrating our NBA title.
Seven… 6 … 5 … I was always the type of player who believed the game was in doubt until the final seconds.But now I could see we were going to win. I could breathe a sigh of relief.
Four… 3… That’s when something strange happened: I smiled. It was probably one of the few times I ever broke into a smile on a basketball court. I knew that we were just a few more ticks away from winning
Two… 1 … 0 … What a great a feeling, an unbelievable feeling, to be on the court as the game wound down to zero. We had beaten the Sixers, four games to two, and we could finally pop the corks on the champagne.
The celebration would last into the night, but getting to this point took what seemed eons.
As the 1981-82 season began, I was in the middle of a contract dispute with the New Jersey Nets. However, I couldn’t even play since I was still recovering from offseason surgery to have bone spurs removed from my foot. There were times, standing around on crutches for months, when I thought my career was over.
But I got a call from the Lakers on Christmas Eve. They had just lost a key player, Mitch Kupchak, who blew out his knee. In the short term, they were hoping I could fill his void coming off the bench. In the long term, I think they were hoping I could help the team get headed in the right direction.
They had a bunch of other problems going on before I even got there. Coach Paul Westhead was fired and replaced by assistant coach Pat Riley. Magic Johnson was getting booed at the Forum and asked to be traded. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had sprained his ankle. It went on and on.
I signed a modest contract with the Lakers, and although I was happy to be back in the league and happy to be on a great team in the making, there were more rough times ahead. Since I hadn’t played in nine months, it took me a month or so just to get back into game shape.
Then I had to adjust to coming off the bench — I had been a starter my whole career. We were winning, but I was totally frustrated. I didn’t say anything. I just went out and played and did my job, but it was total frustration for me. I had won three scoring titles in the league and I felt that I had enough talent to be in the starting lineup.
I know it was a tough starting lineup to crack. We had three future Hall-of-Famers: Kareem, Magic, and me. Then we had a lot of other excellent players. Michael Cooper was a terrific defensive player. Just as the saying went, Jamaal Wilkes was smooth as silk.
Norm Nixon was a superb all-around guard. Kurt Rambis may have looked like Clark Kent with those glasses, but he was indestructible as Superman. He did the little things, like setting picks, taking charges, and diving for loose balls.
With Riley at the helm, things eventually got rolling again. We won 57 games to capture the Pacific Division, and we tore through the first two rounds of the playoffs. We swept the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs, and most of those games weren’t even close.
But the Finals were going to be different. The Sixers, who had disposed of the heavily favored Boston Celtics, had Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and Darryl Dawkins, among others.
We took the home-court advantage away from them in the first game, winning in the Spectrum. They evened the series in Game 2, but we were heading back to the Forum, back to where Showtime shined. We took Games 3 and 4 by double digits, and although the Sixers staved off elimination in Philly, we knew we were still in control.
Game 6 would turn out to be the game I’ll never forget, and I’ve played in some great games.
Once, while I was playing for an Italian team, we needed to beat a Greek team by 32 points to win an early-round, best-of-two series in the European Cup. I thought we had no chance, but we came out and played the best defensive game I’ve ever seen a team play.
With a few minutes to go, our lead was hovering at about 29 or 30. Everyone was wondering if we were going to do it. We ended up winning by 35 and going on to win the European title.
Another time, I was playing for the Buffalo Braves, and we went to Boston on opening night. They had a big championship banner-raising celebration before the game, but we went out there and blew them away. I scored 49 points.
But Game 6 of the 1982 Finals was something even more special. It was nip and tuck throughout the first half. We were up at halftime, but the Sixers kept the game close in the third period. Erving, especially, was hard for us to stop, but twice I managed to block his shot.
The first time I had some help from a few of my teammates as the Doc tried to drive on us. The second time, I swatted him cleanly.
Sparked by those plays, we pushed the lead out in the fourth quarter, but again, Philly cut it down to a handful with three or four minutes to play.
I think the basket that finally put the Sixers away came when I got a rebound and hit Jamaal for a breakaway layup in the final few minutes.
After that, it was only a matter of time before the clock ran down and the celebration started. All the while I kept saying to myself, “I can’t believe we’re going to win.”
Three … 2 … 1 … 0… It was a wonderful feeling to be on the court when the clock ran out.
Players were hugging, fans were cheering, and TV cameras were everywhere. Afterward, Magic was named Most Valuable Player of the Finals, but someone told me I finished second in the balloting by one vote.
I just said, “Oh, well,” and kept on smiling.