Life here on Earth is very different today than it was in December 1985, and naturally that’s how it should be.
Thirty years is a long time.
If there's no change we'd be in trouble.
But with that said here’s one thing that "now" and "then" have in common:Rocky Balboa on the big screen.
Rocky Balboa on the big screen.
This past November we had Creed, the story of Apollo Creed’s son on the road to becoming a professional boxer. In November 1985, we had Rocky IV, where Ivan Drago **SPOILER ALERT** beats Apollo to death, after which Rocky storms into Russia to avenge his friend and ultimately end the Cold War. The movie opened on November 27, but fittingly it was still No. 1 more than a week later -- on Friday, December 6 -- when the NBA’s version of Rocky IV unfolded in real time.
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The fight took place in the Boston Garden, which for these purposes is Soviet Russia. You know that old run-down cabin where Rocky stays while he's training? That’s the visitors’ locker room. That’s where Arnold “Red” Gorbachev used to mess around -- with the heat, with the water pressure -- and make an opponents’ life hell. Outside that locker room lied the court where Boston had gone 77-14 over the previous two-plus seasons and ruled every inch of parquet with a green iron fist.
On this night the role of Rocky was played by the Portland Trail Blazers, but don’t get too crazy because there’s only a loose connection. When Rocky went to Russia he was already a world champion. He was one of the most celebrated boxers of all time. Meanwhile in December 1985, the Trail Blazers were a mess. They arrived in Boston as losers of three straight and eight of their last 12 games. Their leading scorer (Kiki Vandeweghe) had already been sent home from the road trip with a leg injury.
These Blazers were like Rocky if he’d stayed up all night shooting vodka with Paulie.
But the #86Celtics were most definitely Ivan Drago. They were cold-blooded, genetically modified basketball murderers. They stepped into the ring that night with wins in nine straight and 16 of their last 17 games. Their leading scorer wasn't injured -- he was the league’s best player, in the midst of his third consecutive MVP season. He was Drago’s hottest asset. Call him Birditte Nielsen.
Actually, no. Don’t ever call him that again. But, seriously, this was one day before Larry Bird’s 29th birthday. He was two full years younger than LeBron is right now. He was in his absolute prime and the #86Celtics were out for blood. They didn’t just want to beat you, they wanted to embarrass you. They wanted to “break you” in a heavy Russian accent.
So, what happened?
Well, imagine if Drago had stepped into the ring against Rocky with a fully loaded diaper on under his shorts. Imagine the giant Russian looked a step slower, more awkward and uncomfortable with every movement. Now imagine Rocky was shot out of a cannon with his fists spinning like a pair of high-powered propellers -- because that’s how the Blazers handled their business.
They jumped out to an 8-1 lead. Then it was 18-7. With less than six minutes left in the half, Portland led by 18 (!) and there was no mystery to its success. The Blazers played better basketball. They tried harder. They were less selfish. They made fewer mistakes. They ran the Celtics up and down the court and beat them to every loose ball. They were simply a better basketball team than one of the best basketball teams of all time, and they weren’t intimidated for a second. Not even when Celtics came storming back.
Of course they came back. This is the NBA. These were the #86Celtics. Boston finished the first half on a 17-3 run and only trailed 56-52 at the break. The teams continued to exchange blows -- rapid fire, back and forth -- but with 3:30 left in the third Kevin McHale hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to two. On the next possession he blocked Mychal Thompson’s jumper. Bill Walton picked up the ball and tossed an outlet pass to Bird. Bird drove and hit a lay up “and one” to give Boston its first lead of the game, 75-74, with 2:56 left in the quarter.
The crowd erupted.
The Garden was the Garden.
Now this is where you figure that Drago would sense fear, take everything up a notch and slowly squeeze the life out of Rocky until he was lying in the ground next to Apollo; that this is where the Blazers might look at each other and say, “Well, that was fun for a while, but here comes the pain.”
But then again you’ve seen Rocky IV.
Led by Jerome Kersey, and with Bird mostly on the bench, the Blazers finished the quarter on an 11-2 run. They started the fourth quarter on a 14-6 run. They took Drago’s best shot and jammed it down his throat, on his turf, in front of his leaders and a nation of fans. The final score was 121-103, but the aftermath was uglier than that.
Bird finished 6-for-29 from the field.
“We got outplayed," he later said. “When I left the court, I remember thinking they were just better than we were that day.”
As a team, the Celtics committed 26 turnovers. They shot 19-of-30 from the foul line. Dennis Johnson fouled out in only 23 minutes. K.C. Jones earned his first and only ejection of the year. Bill Walton played 18 minutes and committed five turnovers. “I was a disgrace to the sport of basketball,” Walton said. “I was just running on empty: Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”
Portland was led by Kersey and Steve Colter, who each had 22 off the bench. Sam Bowie had 18 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks. Clyde Drexler (only 23 years old and on the way to his first of 10 All Star games) had 19 points, 6 assists and 5 steals.
"The Celtics proved they were human," Drexler said, before dramatically grabbing a microphone at center court and screaming, “and if they’s human . . . and you’s human . . . THEN MAYBE WE’S ALL CAN BE HUMAN!
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OK, the last part’s fake but the beginning is real. And it was real. That’s all it was. That’s all this was. Just a little reminder that the #86Celtics were a team of mortal humans beings prone to real-life human lapses. They didn’t come to play. And the Blazers made them pay. And unfortunately for the rest of the league, Boston spent the rest of the season returning the favor.
Final home record (including the playoffs): 50-1.