For Larry Bird, the Price of a Championship in 1986 Was 2 Close Friends
In 1985, the Boston Celtics failed in an attempt to secure back-to-back championships for the first time since 1969. A year after beating the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games in the 1984 NBA Finals, the rivals squared off again in the championship round. The Lakers overcame an ugly Game 1 loss known as the Memorial Day Massacre and became the first visiting team to celebrate a championship on Boston’s home court.
The Celtics desperately needed a lift off the bench. They brought in the oft-injured but former MVP Bill Walton to help. Walton went on to play a key role in Boston’s 1986 championship by winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year honor. For Larry Bird, that championship was well worth it, but it cost him a pair of close friends.
Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics took a chance with Bill Walton in 1986
Bill Walton admitted he knew he wasn’t going anywhere with the Los Angeles Clippers. He wasn’t the player he was with the Portland Trail Blazers after missing three full seasons with a foot injury. He was now a role player, but the Clippers weren’t a team that was a role player away from winning a championship.
The Boston Celtics were.
Walton made a phone call to Red Auerbach to see if the Celtics had any interest in his services.
“I was told later on by Red and Larry that they were having a meeting when I got on the phone with Red,” Walton said in April 2020. “When I asked Red if I could please come and be on the Celtics, Red asked me to hold on a moment. While he put his hand over the phone and looked across the desk, Red asked Larry, ‘Hey, it’s Walton on the phone. He wants to come and be a part of the Celtics. What do you think?’
“Larry said, ‘Go get him, Red.’”
Walton played 80 games that year with Boston, more than any other season in his 10-year NBA career. He played his role to perfection, spelling both Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Walton played a significant role in guiding the Celtics to their third championship of the decade when they defeated the Houston Rockets in six games.
The following season, however, injuries caught up with him again, limiting him to 10 games in the regular season.
The 1986 title cost Bird two of his friends
Bringing in Walton was a serious risk. Not only were the injuries a concern, but bringing in Walton cost the Celtics veteran forward Cedric Maxwell and a first-round pick.
“As the world goes — and especially in the basketball world — you never get something without having to give something up, so the Celtics had to give Max up in order to get Bill Walton,” Bird said in his book Drive: The Story of My Life. “As much as I realized how unhappy Max had been the year before, and as much as I realized the truth was that he just didn’t want to play with the Celtics anymore, the thought of not having Max around was tough to take.
“When Max was on, he was a pleasure to play with. Anytime he played up to even three-quarters of his ability, we’d have no problem. The seventh game in ’84 against the Lakers was proof of what he could do. Most of all, I was going to miss him on the road.
“There were a million laughs with Max and a lot of great times — on and off the court. I knew we were going to miss him.”
Maxwell wasn’t the only player Bird was sad to see go.
“Max wasn’t the only guy I missed,” he said. “We signed Jerry Sichting of the Pacers as a free agent because we needed another outside shooter coming off the bench. The eventual price was Quinn Buckner.
“Quinn played less and less as the 1984-85 season progressed, and he knew there was a good chance he was finished as a Celtic. He said to me, ‘I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but don’t worry about me. We’ve always had a good time, and we’ll always be good friends.’
“I knew I was going to miss him. I learned more about the world from him than I ever learned in school.”