It's March 15, 1992. George H.W. Bush is president, Desert Storm lies in the rear-view mirror, the economy looks shaky, and a fresh young underdog from Arkansas is poised to take over. But, if you live in the greater Boston area, the Portland Trailblazers are in town, and nothing else matters. Not politics, nor war—just Naismith's game in its purest form.
Portland and the hometown Celtics are two clubs that could not possibly be more different. The Blazers are young, exciting, and athletic. Led by the high-flying Clyde Drexler, they are riding a seven-game winning streak. Eventually, as we all know, they would tear through the Western Conference before being stonewalled by Jordan's Bulls in six games.
By contrast, the Celtics are aging, ailing. At age 35, Larry Bird is a shell of his former self, having battled recurring back injuries that would eventually force his retirement at the culmination of the '92 campaign. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the other two-thirds of Boston's legendary Big Three, are also in the twilight years of their respective careers.
Make no mistake, the Celts remain a formidable foe on any given night, but their glory days are no doubt behind them. Coming into that Sunday afternoon, Boston had dropped three straight, the most recent of which being a narrow loss to the middling New Jersey Nets on the hallowed parquet of the Boston Garden. What's more, Bird had been slowed by a nagging Achilles injury that threatened to sideline him altogether.
As the teams line up for the opening tip, No. 33 looks even more out of place than usual. Certainly, Larry had never been given the auspicious designation of being a physical specimen, nor overly fleet of foot, but on this afternoon it's worse. The abuse incurred on Bird during his illustrious career has clearly taken its toll.
But today, none of that matters.
Because he isn't 35 years old anymore. He's not at risk of being hospitalized due to his chronically aching back. He's not the second-leading scorer on a team struggling to win its division. And he's not the man that Portland's Buck Williams described before the game when he offhandedly quipped, "I think he's at a point now in his career where he gets very distracted when he has a hand in his face."
No, for four hours on this brisk March afternoon, he's none of those.
He's Larry Legend.
The hitch in his pained gait disappears. The grimace on his face when the swarm of Blazer defenders bump him, elbow him, and knock him to the ground morphs into a mask of vintage Larry determination. And when the fourth quarter comes around, he's still the most dangerous basketball player in the world.
Indeed, heading into the final frame of regulation, Bird has been electric. After a pair of nifty feeds resulting in Kevin Gamble layups, he's tallied 27 points, 10 boards, and seven helpers, en route to deadlocking the tilt at 94-94.
The Glide rises to the challenge, and the teams trade blows for most of the fourth quarter until the Blazers manage to amass a 118-111 edge with just 1:49 to play.
Cue the clips of the Blazers' bench. Danny Ainge is grinning widely, perhaps reflecting Portland's relaxed mood. Marv Albert and Mike Fratello make themselves busy reciting NBC's long list of credits and reviewing the shot of the game, a difficult triple from Ainge with a Celtic defender glued to him as the shot clock expired.
Little did they know that not only the shot of the game, but one of the most iconic buckets in regular season Boston Celtics lore, still lied ahead.
With 20 ticks left on the clock, Bird receives the pass at the elbow, where he has made his living for so many years. He spins baseline around Drexler, who finds himself as hopelessly ineffective at stopping Larry as Williams, Jerome Kersey, and any combination thereof, before deftly banking in a reverse layup in traffic.
Williams knocks down two from the charity stripe to put Portland right back up by five, at 122-117, but Bird storms back, cutting to the rack for another deuce with a measly nine seconds remaining. On the ensuing inbounds, Boston fouls Kersey, but he clanks both free throws.
As the Blazers call timeout, the crowd has worked itself into a frenzy, foreshadowing Bird's heroics, hysterically chanting, "LA-RRY! LA-RRY!" The game takes on a decidedly playoff atmosphere, and Celtics fans can almost taste it.
They know Bird won't let them lose. He can't.
The ball gets into Larry's hands with about four seconds to go, but he's still about ten feet beyond the arc with Drexler facing him up. He whirls, putting it on the floor with his right hand, and with Clyde glued to him, puts up an awkward, off-balance jumper that rattles around the iron before dropping through with two seconds left.
The Garden goes absolutely berserk. Their hero has done it again.
The rest, as they say, is history. Boston won in double overtime, and the final line on Bird included 49 points (which, at that time, was a record for points scored in a triple double), 14 rebounds, and 12 assists, on 19-35 shooting.
Larry Bird's body may have failed him in the end, but his magic had not—and will not—ever die.