I was eight years old sitting on the couch next to my father for Game 2 of the Celtics first round series against the Bulls in 1986. It was in this game that I felt, for the first time, the feeling of helplessness that washes over a sports fan when his team comes into contact with something it cannot stop or deal with. I imagine this is how Mets fans felt when they ran into Orel Hershiser in the 1988 playoffs; how fans of every NFL team felt about the 1985 Bears; and how it must have felt to watch your team turn the ball over 25 times against Kentucky’s press in the 1990s. You get the feeling there is no way your team can get past this force through any skill of its own. You either need to get lucky or the force needs to run out of time.
I remember turing to my Dad, as young kids do, for reassurance. The Celtics are going to win, right Dad? The Bulls can’t beat us in Boston, right? This will all be OK, right? Michael Jordan, on April 20, 1986, reduced me to a blubbering mess.
I was a savvy sports fan for an eight-year-old, but I wasn’t ready for this. There were two truths I knew: 1) The 1986 Celtics would not lose at home; 2) A first-round series was a time for thinking about future match-ups, not playing long, stressful games. And there was a third popular truth I had probably heard a lot about: Michael Jordan was not a good team player.
And yet here was this man single-handedly torturing the 67-15 Boston Celtics, a team that went 40-1 at home. For God’s sake, he was making Larry Bird look silly on defense. This I could not deal with emotionally. Larry Bird was the best player in the NBA, at least to me. I understood there would be days when he wouldn’t shoot well or when another great player, maybe Magic Johnson or Dr. J, would outplay him. But I literally could not grasp the notion that another player could embarrass him.
It was horrible. I don’t even remember the game ending, to be honest. I don’t remember the Celtics winning, 135-131 in double overtime, and I don’t remember Larry Bird saying that MJ wasn’t really a human called Michael Jordan but was actually “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” (And, seriously, is that not one of the top 10 or 20 all-time sports quotes?)
I only remember the helplessness, the pleading with my father, the fear of this incomprehensible player.
You’re going to see the same lists of MJ career highlights everywhere this weekend as he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, so I won’t bore you with them here. I will say, though, that I will always be partial to the Flu Game—Game 5 of the 1997 Finals, when Jordan, obviously ill, somehow scored 38 points to lead the Bulls to an 90-88 win at Utah. That series was really, really competitive. Utah squared the series at 2-2 in Game 4–highlighted by one of the ballsiest passes you’ll ever see–and led by 16 early in Game 5. It was the first series of the Bulls six NBA Finals appearances I truly felt they could lose.
Michael ended up playing 44 minutes and nailing a three that put Chicago up 88-85 with 25 seconds left. Back-breaker.
After the flu game, I got a call a from a college friend of mine—a girl who didn’t much like sports and couldn’t believe my friends and I devoted so much time to them. I answered the phone by saying, “hello,” and she didn’t even offer the usual introduction. She went right to this: “Now I understand why you like sports so much.”
That was Michael. More HOF thoughts after the jump.
This HOF class, great as it is, is sort of depressing as a Celtics fan. Three of the 20 greatest players of all-time are going in, and everyone is remembering their greatest and most historically significant moments. Aside from that 63-point game—still an all-time playoff record—the Celtics don’t really factor into this discussion. Can you remember one Admiral or Stockton performance against Boston that truly mattered? Another game against Jordan’s Bulls that would ever appear on ESPN Classic?
The whole thing is sort of a reminder of how bad the Celtics were from the early 1990s until, really, 2008, with some playoff blips here and there.
Excluding the six Wizards-Celtics games during the Comeback That Never Happened, Jordan, Stockton and Robinson went a combined 68-25 against the Celtics after the 1986 season, according to player game logs for the three HOFers on Basketball Reference. From the 1989-90 season on, that record was 60-15. Ouch.
Still, this was the formative period for me as a basketball fan. I turned 13 in 1990 and was in my mid-20s when these guys retired. They are all involved in some of my best NBA flashbulb memories, all of which you probably know and remember fondly, too.
So sit back, watch the video clips and enjoy. Because at least we’re not fans of the Cavs, Knicks, Rockets (actually, they’ll get to watch some sweet Hakeem action from the 1995 Western Conference Finals) or Hawks. They’ll have to suffer the most forcible highlight memories this weekend. Enjoy!