There was none of the usual joshing or banter as the players warmed up for the seventh and decisive game of the Eastern Conference semifinal series in Boston last Sunday. The tension was thick, the faces grim, the mood more that of the National Basketball Association championship than of a preliminary round. During the preceding week, the series between the Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks had taken on almost epic proportions, a drama that went to the identities of the two teams.
For three seasons, the Hawks have been the team about to be, loaded with eager young talent, led by a star, Dominique Wilkins, who yearly adds maturity to his brilliance. This season they faltered, causing some to wonder whether they would ever make it at all.
The Celtics were precisely the opposite, the veteran dynasty widely viewed as on its last legs. The previous Wednesday, it seemed the legs had given out. As expected, the Celtics had won the first two games at the Garden. But the victories were tentative, not the decisive thrashings Boston fans expect. Then the Hawks took two in Atlanta, bringing the teams back to Boston even-all.
The Celtics were depending on the Garden, with its banners and legends, to revive their fortunes. After all, Atlanta hadn't won there in 13 tries dating back to 1985. But the dike finally broke. The Hawks won, 112 to 104. The Celtics looked methodical and flat, with nothing in reserve. They couldn't hold back the surging young Hawks, who gained confidence with every basket.
With less than a minute to go, Boston down by nine, there were still flutters of hope. Maybe Larry could do it. He has done the impossible so many times, people almost expect it. But this one was beyond even Larry Bird.
Fans were stunned. But also not stunned. For two years now, they have been hearing footsteps. First Len Bias, the No. 1 draft choice expected to pick up Bird's mantle, died of a cocaine overdose the day after the Celtics chose him. Then Bill Walton had more foot problems, followed by Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. This season Parish and McHale were healthy. But wasn't everybody talking about how they're ``getting up there''?