I left my friend’s place after Celtics-Bulls Game Six last night, exhausted and in a malaise. My memory of what had just transpired—usually crystal clear—was so clouded and fragmented, my thoughts so blurred, that I had trouble finding a subway station I’ve used countless times.
After making the 30 minute journey back home—during which I must have looked like a zombie to strangers around me—I watched highlights of the game. Actually strike that, the battle. Because let’s face it, this war of attrition was the closest mind-body struggle between two adversaries one will ever see outside of the ring.
There was Rondo and Hinrich’s undercard. The blood gushing from Pierce’s nose. Ray’s 51 points on the scorecard. Miller’s revenge. Salmons’ onslaught. Baby’s fadeaway. The ice in Ray’s veins. Pierce’s almost-steal and knockout of the challenger. Noah’s indescribable flurry to stagger the champs. Rose’s KOS (knock-out swat).
I watched all this for a second and third time, and tried to gather my thoughts. Wasn’t happening. Tried to sleep. Nope.
I turned on the TV, and what happened to be on HBO? A documentary of the "Thrilla in Manila" between Ali and Frazier. It was an intense and jarring recount of possibly the greatest fight ever. It was also the only suitable way to give some perspective to a mind-blowing basketball game.
It’s often too easy to get swept up in the moment, and everyone—from players to media to fans—is predisposed to this phenomenon from time to time. It’s human nature: when we witness something extraordinary, precedents and past-happenings become puny in comparison.
Typically though, upon reflection, the grandeur of an amazing occurrence in sports gets reduced once "the moment" has passed, nerves have settled, and rational thought has reentered the equation.
Let’s not mince words: Ali-Frazier III has stood the test of time as a seminal moment in sports that will never be matched. Just seeing Frazier, Frazier’s son, Ali’s team, writers and historians chronicling this epic fight, you can sense that wherever they were on that day in 1975, they have remained since in spirit.
For 14 rounds in sweltering heat, two of the world’s finest fighters waged a war that nearly killed them both. There is no more telling quote than from Frazier, who when asked if he would have risked his life to go out for the 15th and final round said, “Yeah.”
When the documentary ended, it was just after two in the morning, and I was finally lucid. I realized that Ali-Frazier comparisons get thrown around FAR too generously, and that there will never be a sporting event—in boxing or otherwise—than could garner such a comparison.
But as a metaphorical script? That’s a different story. That’s where Celtics-Bulls VI steps in.
Early in the fourth quarter Chicago went on a run, unleashing a series of blows that had the champs staggering (similar to Frazier’s middle-round assault on Ali). The Celtics took the Bulls’ punches, and returned in kind, with a crowd-silencing 18-0 run that turned a 10-point deficit into an 8-point lead (akin to Ali’s blistering sustained attack in rounds 12 to 14).
Naturally there are inconsistencies, no more significant than the fact that the champs lost the game whereas the champ won/survived the fight.
But a series of plays in the final minute of the third overtime truly gave this basketball game the feel of a heavyweight bout—epitomizing the desperate chaos that ensues in the waning seconds of the last round.
With the game tied, Pierce jumped a pass and knocked the ball into the backcourt, seemingly destined for some series-clinching thunder. But he stumbled at midcourt and the ball careened out of bounds, giving it back to the Bulls.
Then, after a defensive stand, Pierce had the ball back in his hands at the top of the key. He went to drive left, and feeling the double team coming, tried to whip a pass to Brian Scalabrine in the corner.
It was then that Joakim Noah let loose the proverbial final combination. First, he intercepted the ball and tapped it towards center court. Next, he picked it up and dribbled the rest of the floor—trailed by an exhausted Pierce the entire way. By the time Pierce caught up to the rumbling seven-footer, he had thrown down a tremendous flush and drawn the sixth and final foul on the C’s captain. He nailed the free throw to boot, putting the finishing touches on the finishing barrage.
So here we are, six games, seven overtimes, and one epic script into a bona fide first-round heavyweight basketball bout.
Game Seven is Saturday in Boston, a game that will double as the most significant affair ever contested at such an early juncture of the never-ending tournament that is the NBA playoffs.
Everyone who’s anyone will be there for the epic finale. Maybe even Kevin Garnett.
And I’m thinking he won't be in a suit.