The 2022 NBA Finals tip off on Thursday between the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors. Golden State might be the defining team of this era, the way the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers were in the 1980s. Thirty-seven years ago during one of their titanic finals series, the Celtics and Lakers were involved in a game known as the “Memorial Day Massacre.”
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In Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals, the Celtics blasted the Lakers 148-114 at the Boston Garden. It’s the fifth-largest margin of victory in NBA Finals history.
Lakers and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looked every bit of his age 38 self in that game. Arguably the greatest basketball player of all time looked cooked and the Celtics and their fans were pouring metaphorical dirt on his grave.
The Celtics’ general manager, the legendary Red Auerbach, said the Celtics would win the series because they didn’t have to double-team Abdul-Jabbar.
“That was motivation,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “To have your chief rivals say you’re no longer worth the trouble of guarding, you know, I had to do something about that to double-check myself to make sure that wasn’t the facts.”
What followed in Game 2 was a legendary throwback performance from “Cap.” Thirty points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks, in a 109-102 Lakers win to even the series.
When you’re an older great player, it isn’t that you’re not capable of being great any longer. It’s just harder to summon it consistently. At 38 that was already his 16th season in the league, and his 14th playoff appearance.
While the Celtics bulletin board material was certainly a catalyst for Abdul-Jabbar performance in Game 2 and the rest of the series. Something else happened before Game 2.
The 38-year-old six-time MVP, multiple-time champion, All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Star asked head coach Pat Riley if his dad could ride on the team bus with him to his game. Riley had a “no outsiders” policy on the team bus, not even family. But he made an exception this time.
A 7-foot-2 giant, one of the fiercest competitors in the history of the NBA, and arguably its greatest player in that moment needed his dad.
Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr. (Abdul-Jabbar converted to Islam and changed his name in 1971), known as “Big Al,” was a jazz musician and transit cop in New York city. But on May 30, 1985, he was just a father being there for his son as they rode the team bus to Boston Garden.
“It made an impression on all of us,” Magic Johnson recalled in 2015. “Pat was a stickler for rules — no outsiders on the bus — and it sent a powerful message when he made that exception. It was all about family.”
From Game 2 on the Lakers rode the Abdul-Jabbar bus to victory. He followed up his Game 2 performance with 26 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks in a Game 3 victory. The player that looked washed in Game 1, was looking like a prime 30-year-old MVP.
“What I remember most about that game was Kareem hitting this skyhook along the baseline from about 14 feet out,” said Celtics legend Larry Bird. “That did it. People forget that Kareem could pass out of the post as well as score. He was the difference-maker in the series.”
The Lakers went on to win the series in six games, and Abdul-Jabbar was named Finals MVP. The oldest recipient of the award in league history.