It's strange to think a Friday night stroll by the Celtics 32 years ago in Pontiac, Mich., could become evidence in a larger matter before the court of public opinion. One might suspect the statute of limitations had expired.
But the Michael Jordan documentary has spawned a full docket for Cold Case: NBA. The re-litigations continue apace.
The 1988 Celts got dragged into this when the Pistons — Isiah Thomas in “The Last Dance” and others in ensuing media interviews — sought to defend their own early walk-out against the Bulls in '91. The handiest weapon of defense was that, hey, the Celtics had done it to them.
But while Isiah is quite correct to point out that things were different in that era, Detroit's silent stroll by the Chicago bench was for a far more pointed reason than the Celts' slightly early departure.
Kevin McHale took the stand to offer his testimony, much of which I'm able to corroborate directly.
“First of all, you can see why the Pistons didn't like the Bulls,” the Celtic legend told the Herald. “The Bulls complained all the time. That's one thing that came across (in the documentary). Like, ‘This is not basketball. This is thuggery.' All that stuff. I thought the Bulls really disrespected what the Pistons were able to do.
“But, hey, when you kill the king, you can talk (expletive).”
On the other hand, the Pistons didn't so much dance on the Celtics' grave when they finally overcame the Shamrock Empire. Thomas has been quoted on these pages as having great respect for the Celts and learning from them. The C's clearly had issues with certain Pistons — the Robert Parish and Larry Bird retaliation assaults on Bill Laimbeer come to mind — but they were in no position to complain about mixing a little hockey with their hoops. Remember, the Lakers had been unhappy with the Celtics' borderline “Slap Shot” style a few years prior.
“We actually liked playing like that,” said McHale. “We didn't have any problem with the Pistons, really, until we got all beat up (with injuries). But their physicality never bothered us. I thought their physicality made us play better.”
The Celts were willing to deal with that, but there was a different kind of physicality they sought to avoid with a few seconds left on the clock on June 3, 1988. The C's were being closed out of the Eastern Conference finals in Game 6, and the venue was the Silverdome, a football stadium where a number of fans, perhaps buoyed by beer muscles, had adopted the persona of their heroes.
“Someone told us to get out of there before they stormed the court,” said McHale.
Security people guided the Celts off, as fans began invading the floor with three seconds left and the Pistons going to the free throw line.
“You had a really long walk to get out of there,” he said. “It wasn't like the Garden or other places. You had a hundred yards probably before you got to the entry way to the locker rooms.”
By contrast, the Pistons were at home in the new Palace of Auburn Hills when they breezed by the Bulls. No danger zone there.
But McHale also wanted to put things in context. While the NBA has become a more fraternal order in latter years, it has never had the formality of the NHL's post-series handshake line.
“I'm going to tell you this: of all the series that I played in all through the '80s, after a close-out game, unless you were walking with somebody you knew, you almost never said anything. You might congratulate them if you saw them later, but there wasn't a lot of talk, I mean, congratulatory or (expletive)-talking or anything,” McHale said. “You just kind of went in the locker room. Ninety percent of the series we won, I didn't talk to anybody. They didn't come up to me, and I didn't think they should.”
But there WAS a notable conversation on that night in '88. McHale and Thomas had a brief but meaningful chat.
“I knew Isiah from the Pan-Am Games, and Zeke and I have always been friends,” said McHale. “He said something to me, and I said, ‘Hey, man, look, it feels just as bad to lose in The Finals as it does to lose in the Eastern Conference finals.' I said, ‘This (expletive)'s not over with. You guys got another series to play, so don't celebrate too much.' I said that, then I walked off. That was just my advice to him as a friend.”
McHale also became friendly with Jordan later on. Kevin retired from playing in 1993 and went to work in the Timberwolves' front office two years later. He's watching “The Last Dance” with a more educated outlook than most.
“It's interesting to me, because part of the time I was playing, and then the latter part of it I was a GM, so I saw it from different sides,” he said. “They dominated the '90s; there's no doubt about it. They had the dominant player. And you kind of forget some of the stuff he did. You watch it and you're like, ‘Oh, my god.' His ability to individually take over games was just unreal. They had great shooters around him, and Phil (Jackson)'s system, the triangle, ended up working perfectly for those guys even though it was a bumpy road getting it going.
“But I enjoy it. Living through those days and seeing him from when I was a player and then in the front office, it's fun to watch it.”
It didn't take long for McHale to form a solid impression of Jordan.
“I remember the first time I saw him — just a phenomenal athlete and in constant attack mode,” he said. “He wasn't as refined as he was later on, but I remember that, no matter what the score was, he would just be pushing up. Danny (Ainge) and DJ (Dennis Johnson) and those guys, they didn't want to bring the ball up against him because he was like a one-man press. He had unbelievably quick hands, quick feet.
“From the little bit I got to know him early in All-Star games and stuff, I liked him. I liked his competitiveness. I like that he never quit. I didn't think he had a very good team around him in the early part of his career, and that kind of came out with the guys who were partying and all that. But then in that (1986) playoffs series, I was startled. That first game, he had (49), but it felt like we were going to win the game the whole time. And then the next game, it went overtime, and I remember after the game talking to Case (KC Jones) and I was like, ‘Man, we've got to double-team that guy and get the ball out of his hands. That guy's like a one-man wrecking crew.' In Game 3, we ran at him. We just got the ball out of his hands.”
The Celts won by 18 to complete the sweep, and Jordan had just 19 points on 18 shots. He had taken 41 attempts while scoring 63 in Game 2's double overtime affair. McHale remembers not bringing a change of clothes to Chicago for the third game of the best-of-five first round series:
“Everybody was giving me crap. Like, ‘What are you going to do if we lose?' And I said, ‘Well, I guess I'll smell bad.'”
McHale wasn't really going out on a limb. The '85-86 Celtics, renowned as maybe the best team ever, had won 67 games. The Bulls had won 30.
“I honestly never thought they had any chance of beating us,” he said.
He had a much different view of things more than a decade later as general manager in Minnesota. Jordan had become a multiple-time champion and even more.
“I remember (Stephon) Marbury and (Kevin) Garnett and those guys, they were literally really excited just to see him and play against him,” McHale said. “That's how big Michael was. I knew Michael from playing against him and golfing with him, and I liked the guy a lot. But you'd see the way our players looked at him, and that's what made me realize how much Michael was just an icon to that whole generation of guys. Then that's the way it was later with younger players and Kobe (Bryant). I had that feeling against Dr. J (Julius Erving), a little bit against Elvin Hayes and a little bit against Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) because I remember watching that Houston-UCLA game in the Astrodome.”
Now McHale is home in Arizona helping to boost ESPN's ratings, though there is one part of the doc that's made him a bit uneasy.
“You know, the guy that, to me, got beat up unduly — and the poor guy's dead; he can't defend himself — is Jerry Krause,” McHale said of the Bulls' embattled GM. “Jerry put a lot of good pieces together. I'd say, ‘Now Jerry would you stop with saying stuff like organizations win championships (not players).' He'd argue back, but I'd say, ‘We won three, Red (Auerbach) won 16, and Red would be the first one to tell you that players win.' So he would say some things that would just irritate people, but I felt bad for how he came across, you know what I mean? The guy just didn't catch a break, and he's not around to defend himself.”
I mentioned to McHale that the demise of his Celtics had been the basis for Krause wanting to get ahead of that demon with the Bulls in the latter '90s. It caused him to break up that club while it still had championship life.
“There's always that fine line, and Red was old school,” said McHale. “He was going to stick with his guys. If you bled for him, he was going to hang in there with you. Now, hell, the players leave first before you can even get a chance to trade them.”
Krause wasn't the only one who took heed of the way the Bird era fizzled with injuries and age.
“It affected Danny a lot,” McHale said of Ainge, who jumped to make the blockbuster Paul Pierce-Garnett trade with Brooklyn. “Danny was not going to wait for that.
“You realize that when you are in the middle of a run, you think it's never going to end. And I remember distinctly with the Celtics thinking that. From '81 through '87 we'd been in The Finals five times, and through our run we went to the conference finals seven out of eight times (and the year before he got to the Celtics, as well). But you know what? When that comes to an end, man, it comes to an end fast. You get a couple of injuries and, really, it's over. We were still able to win 50-something games, and the '91 season before we all got hurt, I really thought we had a chance to make another run. But, man, it just ends. So you see just how resilient Michael and Scottie (Pippen) were, how many games they were able to play and how they were able to keep their edge.”
It was clearly a different time to McHale — a time he thinks has largely passed.
“Back then there were the kind of fly-by-night teams that would have a little run for a year or two, but we had a long run, the Lakers had a long run, Detroit actually had a long run — they got to the conference finals a bunch of times,” he said. “But I just think it's harder now to have a really long run. You're going to see more of those two- and three- and four-year runs. But you're not going to see a decade.”
And after the abuse the Pistons took for walking past the Bulls 29 years ago, you're probably not going to see another exit, stage left again, either.