Larry Bird’s Fight With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Took a Back Seat to the Clothesline in the 1984 NBA Finals

The Boston Celtics missed out on hoisting Banner No. 18 when they came up short against the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals. Instead of focusing on what would have been an NBA-best 18th banner, we’ll take a look back at Boston’s Banner No. 15.

That took place in 1984 against the rival Los Angeles Lakers. The rivals met for the first time in the championship round since 1969. The Celtics literally had to fight their way back into the series as the Lakers dominated play early and threatened to break open the series.

The 1984 NBA Finals was highlighted by Kevin McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in Game 4 and a heat wave in Game 5. Lost in the shuffle was a fight between Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Larry Bird called out his teammates after a Game 3 blowout in the 1984 NBA Finals

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots over Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics during an NBA basketball game circa 1984 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

The Lakers seized homecourt advantage from the Celtics with a 115-109 victory at the Boston Garden. They nearly took a 2-0 series lead, but Gerald Henderson’s late steal erased a two-point deficit with 13 seconds left. The game went into overtime, where the Celtics pulled out a 124-121 win.

The Lakers showed no mercy in the first game in LA, cruising to a 137-104 win. The lopsided loss didn’t sit well with Bird, who called out his teammates for being soft.

“Until we get our heads where they belong, we’re in trouble,” Bird said, per Jackie MacMullan’s book titled When The Game Was Ours.

“We’re a team that plays with heart and soul, and today the heart wasn’t there. I can’t believe a team like this would let LA come out and push us around like they did. We played like sissies.”

Bird’s speech may have been the reason for what transpired in Game 4.

Bird’s fight with Abdul-Jabbar overshadowed by McHale’s clotheslining of Rambis

The Celtics seemingly took Bird’s message to heart in Game 4. In the third quarter with the Celtics trailing 76-70 and in danger of going down 3-1 in the series, McHale tried to debunk Bird’s sissy myth. With Rambis driving to the hoop on a fast break, the Celtics forward clotheslined him as he went in for a layup.

Benches cleared and tempers flared, but McHale remained in the game. He also made a statement. the Celtics gained momentum and went on to win another overtime game, getting even in the series.

Lost in the game was what happened less than two minutes after McHale took down Rambis. Two of the game’s biggest stars — Bird and Abdul-Jabbar — went at it.

Abdul-Jabbar, possibly taking exception to McHale’s hard foul on his teammate, came down with an offensive rebound over Bird and wildly swung his elbow, connecting with Bird’s face. Both players went jaw to jaw, creating another bench-clearing scene. It was Abdul-Jabbar, who was more animated during the fight, yet he threw the elbow.

After the game, Lakers point guard Magic Johnson said both incidents sparked the Celtics’ run.

 “The incidents definitely helped them and hurt us,” Johnson said, per Sports Illustrated. “Now we know that if they have to elbow, smack us or slam us to win, they’ll do it.”

The Celtics went back home to take a 3-2 series lead in a heat wave with no working air conditioning at the Garden in Game 5. They went on to win the series in seven.

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