Bill Walton Recalls His 1st Boston Celtics vs. LA Lakers Bloody Preseason Meeting and Michael Cooper’s Fingernails

Just how big were those Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers meetings in the 1980s? They were big enough that the NBA scheduled preseason games between the bitter rivals to get more action between the teams, who met just twice during the regular season.

Just how heated was that rivalry? Bill Walton recalled his first year with the Celtics when he faced the Lakers. In his first taste of the rivalry, he remembered a fight, a bloodied coach, and Michael Cooper’s fingernails.

The Boston Celtics signed Bill Walton as the final piece to the 1986 puzzle

Bill Walton is honored at halftime of the game between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 13, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. | Mike Lawrie/Getty Images.

The Celtics knocked off the Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals, but the Lakers outplayed them for most of the series. The following season, the Lakers got their revenge by defeating the Celts in six games, winning Game 6 in Boston. The Celtics needed more out of their bench. They needed someone to spell Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

Enter Walton.

Walton, the oft-injured center, came to the Celtics via trade before the 1985-96 season. He was healthy and eager as he had been in quite some time. He knew he had a chance to be a part of another championship after guiding the Portland Trail Blazers to a title in 1977.

Walton remained healthy in his first year in Boston, playing in 80 regular-season games. He averaged 19.3 minutes, playing his role to perfection. He contributed 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

The Celtics didn’t have to face the Lakers that year as the Houston Rockets sent LA packing in the Western Conference Finals. Boston topped Houston in the NBA Finals in six games.

Bill Walton remembers his first Boston Celtics vs. LA Lakers meeting

Walton had been in the NBA since 1974. After a heralded college career at UCLA, the Blazers made Walton the first pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. In his third season, he guided the Blazers to a championship. In his fourth year, he was named the league’s MVP, averaging 18.9 points and 13.2 rebounds. He missed three of the next four seasons with a foot injury.

On Sept. 6, 1985, the Celtics swing a trade for Walton, dealing former NBA Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell and a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers. He remembers his first taste of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry came during a preseason game in 1985.

“My very first Celtics/Lakers game was an exhibition game in 1985,” Walton told Brian Scalabrine for Celtics on NBC Sports Boston in April 2021. “There was four of them that year.

“In the very first one, on the opening tip, a fight broke out. It lasted for 20 minutes. Everybody was involved. K.C. Jones ultimately came back to the bench all bloodied and cut and scratched up because Michael Cooper would never cut his fingernails.

“His (Jones) clothes were all ragged, and he looked at me with this gleam in his eye and he said, ‘I love this game.'”

The NBA got as much as it could out of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry

Basketball fans yearned for those Celtics vs. Lakers meetings. The problem was that there were just two of them during the regular season. The NBA solved that problem by having the teams square off four times in the preseason in 1985. According to the LA Times, the first of the two preseason games that were played at The Forum was sold out. That was the first time a preseason game there had been sold out.

Even during the preseason, Cooper brought out his strong dislike for the Celtics.

“I don’t like them,” Cooper said, per the LA Times. “But I do respect them. You don’t have to like anyone, but you do have to respect a Larry Bird and a Kevin McHale and a Dennis Johnson.”

Walton’s first glimpse of the rivalry was crazy. The game was so intense that Lakers coach Pat Riley put Magic Johnson and James Worthy back into the game with three minutes left to preserve the 124-111 win. Riley admitted it was more than just a preseason game.

“This was not just an exhibition game,” Riley said back then. “It had a little more heat to it.”

The late Dennis Johnson said the rivalry brings out the best in both teams.

“We seem to stir up a high level of intensity in each other, whether it’s a preseason game or not,” said Johnson after the game. “For what they did last year, they are the best. I wish there was a way to change it, but I can’t. They earned it.”

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