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The Kings of Pain
Five clutch NBA play-off performances by injured players
by rick olivares
The Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Bogut is out even before they can play Game One of their series against the Los Angeles Clippers. The big Aussie is out indefinitely after sustaining a rib fracture. The Warriors brass have given no timetable for his return.
Should G-State leapfrog past the favored Clippers – and the operative word is should – will he make a comeback ala Willis Reed? Now that would be something.
The NBA’s regular season is grueling 41 games at home and another 41 exhausting matches on the road. Teams all play to move on to the NBA’s second season… the play-offs. Once there, no one gets winded. Teams play tougher defense and everyone fights tooth and nail to defend their homecourt and to hopefully steal a game or two on the road. No one goes through the grind of a long season to just lose and pocket a few extra thousand bucks. After all, history doesn’t remember its losers except in the Hall of Shame. So if the Warriors advance and put themselves to win a crucial series who knows if Bogut will rise out of sick bay just to play?
But that is all speculation. What follows is a list of players who rose above injuries and illnesses, even against team doctors’ orders to give their team that extra lift with the game, the series, or the championship in line. And whatever the result, win or lose, they rode into the sunset with their legend and their place in history secure.
A gutsy performance
Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls 1987 Game 5 NBA Finals at the Delta Center, Salt Lake City, Utah
The situation: The Bulls held serve on the court via a game winning shot by Michael Jordan over the Jazz’ Bryon Russell in Game One (that foreshadowed his series’ clinching shot against the Jazz and Russell once again the following year) and a rout in Game 2 when the team was hitting on all cylinders. The Jazz fed off the energy of a raucous home crowd to even up the series 2-2 heading into the pivotal Game 5. Despite the loss, the Bulls’ still went into the game with guarded optimism. “We still have an opportunity to go one up on this series,” chipped in the Bulls’ do-it-all forward Scottie Pippen in the post-game press conference.
The night before, Jordan had a sleepless night not because he was seeing red because of Utah’s all-star combo of John Stockton and Karl Malone but because of some bad pizza. By daybreak, he was dehydrated. His sudden illness cast a pall of gloom over the Bulls’ locker room. Faced with the daunting task of trying to wrest back momentum before a revved up Utah Jazz and one of the League’s noisiest arenas, the Bulls received a measure of comfort that the King dressed up for the game. Keen basketball observers know that aside from crunch time, games like these usually find Jordan giving a superhuman effort.
But even on this day superhuman was an understatement.
With Malone having his way against Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley, Jordan kept the Bulls in the game with his big time shots and drives to the basket. Even at less than a 100%, there was no one on the Jazz who could stop MJ. Ominously, despite a weakened Jordan, the Jazz couldn’t put the Bulls away. “With our inability to blow the game wide open, we let the Bulls hang around,” confessed former Utah coach Frank Layden who was then the team’s GM. “In a situation like that, you know that Michael’s going to figure out a way to win.”
By halftime, the Jazz led only by four 53-49. The game was a tense back and forth battle highlighted by a gutsy performance from Jordan. With 26 seconds left in the game, Pippen posted up the Jazz’ Jeff Hornacek, a move that saw Stockton double down low. Fatal mistake. When no one rotated out to guard a wide-open Jordan straddling the three-point line, Scottie passed back out to Michael who stuck a three-point dagger into the hearts of the Jazz and their faithful. The Men in Red held on for the win. And in one of the most memorable scenes in NBA basketball history, a fatigued Jordan slumped against Pippen who helped carry him off the court as grateful teammates mobbed him.
In the post-game press conference, Jordan, who scored a game-high 38 points, told the assembled media horde that “I didn’t want to give up. No matter how sick I was, tired I was, low on energy I was, I felt an obligation to my team and the city of Chicago to give that extra effort.”
And that extra effort served the Bulls well because they were able to close out this unexpectedly tough foe on June 13, 1997 for their fifth Larry O’Brien trophy of the decade.
A dramatic entrance
Willis Reed, New York Knicks 1970 Game 7 NBA Finals Madison Square Garden, New York
Take some notes, Bogut!
It was a magical time for the world’s greatest city. The year before, Joe Namath led the Jets to its first and only Super Bowl victory. And those amazing Mets followed suit nine months later by beating the odds for their first World Series title behind Tom Seaver and company.
By then too, the ingredients for a champion Knicks team had come together. Former GM Eddie Donovan and then-GM/coach Red Holzman had shrewdly put together a cohesive team that put a premium on teamwork and had made a glorious run towards the championship.
They were up against the Los Angeles Lakers who were teeming with star power what with the nigh unstoppable Wilt Chamberlain manning the slot and a pair of terrific scorers in Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to complement the Big Dipper.
In the fifth game of the series at New York, the Knicks’ captain and center Willis Reed was forced out of the game because of a painful thigh injury. The Lakers proceeded to bury the Knicks by 16 points but yet still failed to put the resilient home team away who rallied for a win. “That was the greatest comeback in the history of basketball,” offered the rival Celtics’ superstar John Havlicek.
But that Game Five win was run on pure adrenaline. Returning to Los Angeles, the Stilt manhandled Dave DeBusschere and the emotionally-spent Gothamites by raining down 45 points and hauling down 27 rebounds to set up a game seven.
Reed had stayed home in New York and had two days of intense treatment. “I’ll play if I have to crawl,” said the Knicks’ captain through gritted teeth as took he cortisone and carbocaine shots to play in this ultimate game.
When the Lakers traveled one last time to the Big Apple they were expecting to close down the scrappy Knicks who have given them all they could handle. Without Reed, they’d have a field day in the lane.
When the teams ran out to the court for their warm-ups, there was an air of uncertainty amongst the restless Garden crowd. Five minutes before tip-off, Reed came out of the locker room dragging his right leg behind. The Garden erupted into one massive Bronx cheer as white-hankies waved all around. “Willis’ presence was a psychological lift for us,” beamed Walt Frazier who could have been the hero of that game (his stat line read a telling 36 points and 19 assists) had Reed not provided an emotional lift that turned the tide.
As Reed strode onto the Garden floor, Chamberlain smiled thinking that the Knicks’ center would be easy pickings. But when Reed nailed the first two shots of the game – his only points of the match and the Garden reaching a deafening crescendo, the Knicks caught fire and were up by 29 before halftime. The Lakers rallied but the lead was so huge to overcome that they ran out of gas in the fourth quarter losing 113-99.
“The courage Willis demonstrated was incredible,” graciously related teammate Bill Bradley who chipped in 17 points to the title-clinching win. “I had chills before the game. Willis not only played on one leg but he kept Wilt from hitting. Chamberlain had only 16 shots. Reed kept forcing him out and cutting his path to the basket.”
Summed up Holzman in the afterglow of the victory, “Willis rates with the greatest in courage. But that’s what you expect with him.”
The game face of Larry Bird
Larry Bird, Boston Celtics Game 5 1991 First Round Series Boston Garden, Boston, Massachusetts
In the early 90s, Boston and Indiana were headed into different directions. Boston was on what many didn’t know then was their last great run towards a title with its Hall of Fame frontline of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Indiana was still a few years away from joining the league’s elite but had a very good team with Chuck Person, Reggie Miller, and Detlef Schrempf to reckon with.
Their regular season matches were skirmishes and now in the first round of the Eastern Conference play-offs, it was escalating into a war. What everyone got was one of the most thrilling and memorable series in play-off history.
“We were young and inexperienced. We were fast and brash. We could push and score. Defensively we weren’t very good so we played with a style that we thought we could win with,” recalled Chuck Person who enjoyed a fierce rivalry with Boston’s Birdman throughout their career.
In the Rifleman’s first ever pro game, he went up against Boston’s Silent Assassin who told him to bring it every night lest he get embarrassed. Person took Bird’s words to heart and went extra hard at him every time they were on the court. During one game on a December night, Bird told Person that he had a gift for him. In the fourth quarter, after Bird nailed a clutch trey, he turned to Person who was seated on the bench and tersely said, “Merry Christmas.” Person seethed and swore revenge.
As Boston opened its 1991 play-off campaign with first-year coach Chris Ford and the Kids (Brian Shaw, Reggie Lewis, Kevin Gamble, Dee Brown, and Stojko Vrankovic) against the hungry turks from Indiana, everyone knew that it was going to be a shoot-out at the OK Corral.
The Celtics outlasted the Pacers in Game One at home with a 127-120 win. Bird notched a triple-double despite struggling from the field. The following game, Person strapped his team onto his back and scored 39 points to repay Boston in kind with a 130-118 win.
With a chance to seize control of the series in Indianapolis, the Pacers curiously dropped Game 3 at Market Square Arena as the Rifleman scored a measly six points! Although they evened it up with a nailbiting win in game four, facing Boston on a fifth and deciding game at Boston Garden was courting disaster and risking the ire of the ghosts of its fabled parquet.
Late in the second quarter, Bird crashed face first onto the parquet while in pursuit of a loose ball. He stayed down for an eternity as a hush descended down Celtic fans. When he got up and went to the locker room, the drama only intensified. Boston was up by 10 at that point but the lead joined Bird in the locker room as the Pacers rallied to tie the score 58-all at the half.
When Boston coughed up the lead 82-79 the tension was thicker than the smoke from Red Auerbach’s cigar. Recalled Larry Legend, “The doctor told me I probably had a concussion and he didn’t think I should go back out and damage my brain. I decided that this could be my last game so I better go out there and give it all I can.”
The crowd exploded when Bird came out of the tunnel as broadcasters wondered aloud about Bird doing a Willis Reed. When Bird came through the tunnel, Person thought to himself, “Well, here’s a second coming.” Bird missed his first couple of shots but soon got on a roll.
Late in the game, Person drove the lane with Bird the solitary defender. The Rifleman’s Cheshire cat grin turned into horror when Bird ripped the ball from his hands and ignited a fastbreak of their own.
But Bird’s heroics aside (32 points on 12-19 shooting in the finale for an 18.0 average in this series), Indiana made almost a miraculous comeback but fell short when he took a three pointer with Derek Smith and Bird in his face while falling away. Celtic point guard Brian Shaw who was fouled on the rebound play made good on his two free throws for the final points as the Celtics advanced to the next round with a 124-121 win.
The courage of Isiah
Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons, Game 6 NBA Finals at the Great Western Forum, Los Angeles, California
He has been called pound-for-pound the toughest player in the NBA. The description while apt for a boxer somehow fits the scrappy 6-foot-1 guard who grew up in Chicago’s mean streets. It’s his toughness that ultimately defined the Pistons’ Bad Boy image that still lasts to this day.
Despite his Hall of Fame career and the back-to-back titles he won with Motown in 1989-90, it is this one game in 1988 that best illustrates his toughness.
In 1988, the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who was in the twilight of his long and brilliant career), and Big Game James were on a mission to repeat. A feat unheard of since the 1968-69 Celtic teams of the great Bill Russell. The last team standing was the Pistons who had dispatched the Celtics after years of play-off futility. Both teams were hungry for a title.
After stealing game one from the Lakers on their home floor, the Pistons won two of the next three at the Pontiac Silverdome to go up 3-2. But clinching the championship in LA was going to be something else.
It was obvious that the Lakers’ title retention bid was in jeopardy. They never faced any team remotely like Detroit. With the team’s “D’s” – defense, depth, (Adrian) Dantley, (Joe) Dumars, and (Chuck) Daly, the Lakers found themselves trying to match the Eastern Conference upstarts macho for macho forgetting what got them into the NBA Finals for the seventh time in nine years – rebounding and running.
Detroit’s gritty half court game threw LA’s finely-tuned Rolls Royce offense into a grinding halt. In the pivotal Game 6, the Lakers led 56-48 early in the 3rd quarter when Isiah Thomas went into another zone skipping and hopping and exploding for 14 points. Said Magic Johnson of Isiah’s performance, “When Isiah’s skipping and hopping, that means he’s in his rhythm and he’s ready to take over.”
But with four minutes left in the quarter, Thomas came down awkwardly on Michael Cooper’s foot and crashed to the floor in a heap. He had severely sprained his ankle and had to be helped to the bench. But with the game and the championship within grasp, he pulled himself together and checked back into the game 35 seconds later. Even if hobbled on the court Thomas continued to torch the Lakers.
With a minute left in the game, the Pistons held a 102-99 lead. Just as the Larry O’Brien trophy and the champagne was being wheeled into the Pistons’ locker room, the Lakers came back with Byron Scott caning a jumper and Jabbar connecting on two free throws to take the lead 103-102. The Pistons would muff their final offensive and the Lakers had their swagger back. They closed out the Pistons in the seventh and deciding game but not without going through another war.
Thomas’ final stat line read an incredible 43 points, eight assists, and six steals all on a jammed pinkie, a poked eye, a scratched face, and a severely sprained ankle. Isiah and his team may have lost the championship, but his gritty and amazing performance ranks with one of the greatest performances in NBA basketball history. But perhaps even better, he won enough respect to last him an eternity.
The breaks of the (early) game
George Mikan, Minneapolis Lakers Game 6 BAA Finals, Minneapolis Auditorium, Minneapolis
In the nascent days of the NBA, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and the National basketball League (NBL) merged to give the fledging BAA what it needed to becoming a force in the American sporting scene...
In 1948, the NBL’s Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, and Indianapolis Jets joined the major market franchises of New York Knicks, Chicago Stags, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia Warriors. The Lakers’ George Mikan was the game’s biggest name and draw. In fact, when the Lakers traveled to face the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the game was billed as George Mikan versus the Knicks. While Mikan led the league in scoring with a then-whopping 28.3 points per game (that accounted for 1/3 of his team’s total output), he was aided ably by Jim Pollard (the father of current Indiana forward Scott), Vern Mikkelsen, and Slater Martin behind the coaching of John Kundla.
The Royals edged the Lakers by one game to earn a bye for the Western Division Championship as Minneapolis had to square off with Chicago for the right to play them and if ever move on to the BAA Finals.
With the agile Mikan at his best, the Lakers swept Chicago and Rochester in a pair of best-of-three series to book a trip to the BAA Finals against Arnold “Red” Auerbach’s Washington Capitols.
The Lakers looked to make short work of the caps as they zoomed to three successive wins to go up 3-0.
In Game 4, Mikan broke his wrist and the Capitols rallied to win the game and stay alive. Washington fanned the flames of their flickering championship embers when they won their second straight despite Mikan playing with a cast in his hand and scoring 22 points. But back in the friendly confines of Minneapolis, they ended any more miraculous comeback by the Caps by blowing them off the court with a sound 77-56 thrashing for their first championship. Mikan averaged 30.3 points in the post-season and was voted unanimously the MVP.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Game 5 1980 NBA Finals, Great Western Forum. After twisting his ankle that would eventually knock out for Game 6, the Lakers’ MVP gamely played on and held the Philadelphia 76ers at bay allowing LA to go up 3-2 before heading back East.
Four players who took a seat when their team needed them the most:
1. Wilt Chamberlain Game 7 1969 NBA Finals – In 1969, the Lakers were heavily favored to win their first title since moving to Los Angeles. They were up against old nemesis Boston who at this point barely made the finals on the strength of its old and battered line-up. But these were the 10-time champs and with Bill Russell manning the slot in the seventh game, his final NBA game, he was looking to go out a winner.
With six minutes to play and Boston up by nine, Chamberlain hurt his leg and asked out. Instead of folding, the Lakers pulled within one. Chamberlain asked LA Coach Bill Van Breda Kolff if he could return but was instead asked to sit. Breda Kolff assumed that the Big Dipper copped out when his team seemed on the verge of being blown out and wasn’t really injured to begin with. The Celtics won 108-106. The resulting controversy about Wilt’s resolve hounded him until his final days as a player who despite his enormous strength and awesome talent couldn’t win the big one.
2. Patrick Ewing, 1999 NBA Finals – In the strike-shortened season, the Knicks were up against the San Antonio’s Twin Towers of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. After injuring himself in the Eastern Finals against Indiana, Ewing sat leaving a young Marcus Camby to hold the fort along with the fiery Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston. Without Ewing and a hobbling Larry Johnson, New York had no answer to the Spurs’ Twin Towers. San Antonio romped away with its first title 4-1. Said the Spurs’ Mario Elie, “It’s scary to think what would have happened if they had a healthy Ewing and Johnson. It might have been a different series.”
3. Byron Scott and James Worthy, Game 5 1991 NBA Finals With their dynasty on its last legs after being put on the ropes by rising power Chicago, Scott and Worthy showed up in street clothes prior to Game 5 with the Bulls holing a 3-1 series lead. It should be noted that Michael Jordan was playing on an infected toe during the time but despite the pain, MJ gutted it out to lead the Bulls. AC Green, Sam Perkins, and Terry Teagle would rise to the occasion to complement Magic Johnson and Vlade Divac, but it was like screaming at a hurricane. The Bulls’ first title ended the Showtime era Lakers for good and ushered in the greatest dynasty the NBA has seen in three decades.
4. Jamal Mashburn Game 1 2002 NBA Eastern Semi-finals Charlotte Hornets vs. New Jersey Nets. Mashburn has had a history of choking during play-offs. He sat out the crucial Eastern Semi-final series with a mysterious viral infection. New Jersey won game one and bounced the Hornets in five games.