Bird’s Steal

23:45 Tue 26 Apr 2011
[, ]

A key attraction that watching sports has for me is the possibility of witnessing a transcendent moment, by which I mean a moment where a player or a team does something incredible, possibly something new, possibly something entirely unexpected. I automatically think of Roger Federer when I consider this, but the realm of sports is full of examples.

It’s full of examples, and I seem to seek them out, to try to learn about them even in sports I’m not that interested in. That’s why I ended up discovering one of the most amazing plays in basketball history, even though I’m not incredibly fond of basketball, and definitely have no rooting interest for the Boston Celtics.

To understand it, or any of the many transcendent moments in sports history, you do need an appreciation and understanding of the sport, the situation, and the people.

We’ll take this one in reverse order: I of course knew who Larry Bird was, but when I first came across this, I didn’t know much more about him than “amazing shooter, Boston star, from rural Indiana, part of perhaps the greatest basketball rivalry of all time”. I didn’t know about his amazing court awareness, his creativity, or his deep determination to win. All of those characteristics come in to play here.

The situation was Game Five of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals—a best-of-seven series whose winner would go to the NBA finals. The Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons were tied two–two, so Game Five was effectively the first in a best-of-three. An obviously critical game, and with five seconds remaining, the Pistons are leading 107–106. On Boston’s last possession, the Pistons blocked a shot from Bird and the ball went out of play off of the Celtics, awarding possession to Detroit.

Under these circumstances, Detroit is more or less guaranteed victory. Basketball requires a team to take a shot at the basket after 24 seconds of possession, meaning the Pistons could just dribble around for five seconds and then win. Since Boston have to prevent this, their best chance is to immediately foul a Detroit player (stopping the clock), and, after the Detroit free throws presumably put the Celtics down by three, move the ball down the court in a small amount of time and heave up a desperation three-pointer to attempt a tie.

The odds of this all working out are poor, to say the least. The Pistons are leaving with a three–two advantage and a great shot at the NBA Finals, since they have a game coming up at home.

Larry Bird, however, is still trying his best. It’s critical to foul the player with the ball as soon as the ball is in play, because otherwise too much time will elapse. That means the Pistons have to get the ball to someone who’s not covered, and this is at least partly a mental game—exactly the kind of thing Bird excels at. Essentially, he fakes not covering one of the Pistons, Bill Laimbeer, baiting the Pistons’ Isiah Thomas into throwing it to him, and breaks for Laimbeer at exactly the right time.

His timing is so good, in fact, that he doesn’t just arrive in time to foul Laimbeer. He arrives in time to intercept the pass, and does. On the baseline, nearly falling out of bounds, he then throws a perfect pass to another Celtic, Dennis Johnson, who makes an easy basket.

108–107 Celtics. With one second on the clock. And no miracle for the Pistons, who lose by that score. They win in Detroit to force a Game Seven, but lose that and the series.

It was an amazing, almost impossible, turnaround, and even more amazing is the fact that while it was definitely lucky, it wasn’t a fluke—it’s the kind of thing that Larry Bird did. Perhaps never as outrageously as in this example, but it was definitely in character.

A transcendent moment, because it had to be Bird to change the outcome of that game. He’s not the greatest basketball player of all time, but I don’t think the players above him on that list would have been able to do what he did in that situation. A transcendent moment, because it feels like the path of fate being altered: the Pistons simply were going to win that game, no question, and instead Bird did something unbelievable to steal the win away.

Leave a Reply