Sports Debate

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With the NBA playoffs in full swing, nba.com is running a series on the greatest playoff moments in history. They have a top 10, complete with video, and they are encouraging us to cast our vote.

I looked through the top 10, took out the “oldies” including “Havlicek stole the ball!” and Willis Reed’s dramatic entrance in Madison Square Garden, and I ended up with five I remember myself. These five featured three players: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan.

I wanted to ask our readers a couple of questions:
#1: Of these three players, who is the best “money” player of all-time?
#2: Of the following “top three” games (my opinion), which was the greatest game performance?

Here they are:

#1: MAGIC FILLS IN AT CENTER

Magic Johnson began his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers by leaping into the arms of team captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following a last-second victory over the Clippers on opening night. The Lakers’ center had to tell the exuberant rookie to calm down, there were still 81 games to go–and that was only the regular season. By the time the playoffs came, Abdul-Jabbar and the rest of the Lakers had caught Johnson’s enthusiasm, and they rode it to a Finals date against Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. The teams split the first four games before Abdul-Jabbar suffered a sprained ankle in Game 5, which the Lakers somehow managed to win anyway 108-103. Abdul-Jabbar limped his way to 14 points down the stretch. Game 6 looked like it would be a different story. When the team gathered at the airport for the flight to Philadelphia, Abdul-Jabbar stayed home. Not to worry, said Johnson, who boarded the plane and planted himself into Abdul-Jabbar’s customary front-row seat. He winked to coach Paul Westhead and then playfully announced to his teammates: “Never fear, E.J. is here!” Johnson’s confidence lifted his team’s spirits, and then he backed it up with one of the most remarkable games in NBA Playoff history. He began by jumping the opening tap in Abdul-Jabbar’s place, then went on to play every position on the floor at one time or another, from his customary point guard role to Abdul-Jabbar’s pivot spot. Johnson scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and handed out 7 assists as the Lakers stunned the 76ers 123-107 to clinch the first of his five NBA championships. After the game, he looked into the TV cameras and sent a message to Abdul-Jabbar back in his Bel-Air home: “This one’s for you, Big Fella!”

#2: JORDAN JOLTS JAZZ IN GAME 6

With Game 6 of the NBA Finals on the line, everyone in the Delta Center — Utah Jazz coaches and players included — knew the ball would end up in his hands. For the Chicago Bulls, too, it was another no-brainer. There was no play to call, no screens to set. It was simple: Get it to ’23’. That Michael Jordan is the go-to guy in the last seconds of any close Bulls game is the worst secret in basketball — and still it makes no difference. Further, the Jazz learned in heartbreaking fashion that the more there is at stake, the more pressure-packed the moment, the more unstoppable Jordan becomes. With Chicago trailing by three points in the final minute, Jordan first scored on a drive. Then he stripped the ball from Karl Malone at the defensive end. Finally, he buried the game-winning shot, a 20-footer with 5.2 seconds left, that gave the Bulls an 87-86 victory and their sixth championship in eight years. Jordan had overcome fatigue and finished with 45 points as he won his sixth Finals Most Valuable Player award, while reaffirming his status as the NBA’s best player. “Let’s face it,” said Bulls guard Steve Kerr. “We all hopped on Michael’s back. He just carried us. It was his game tonight. That guy was ridiculous. He is so good it’s scary.” Jordan shot 15-of-35 from the field and 12-of-15 from the line. He scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, including Chicago’s final eight over the last 2:06, carrying the offense as Scottie Pippen — hampered by a back injury — struggled. Jordan’s critical steal from Malone set in motion the Bulls’ climactic rally. “We’ve been trying to double-team (Malone),” Jordan said. “And (Utah’s Jeff) Hornacek was trying to, I guess, pick Karl Malone, and he never really cleared, which gave me an opportunity to go back. Karl never saw me coming, and I was able to knock the ball away.” Moments later, Jordan finished off the Jazz with a simple swish. With the clock ticking below 10 seconds, Jazz swingman Bryon Russell occupied Jordan’s path to the basket with tight one-on-one defense. But in an instant, Russell fell for a fake, slipped to the floor, and allowed an essentially wide-open Jordan to bury the shot and play the role of hero once again. “As soon as Russell reached, he gave me a clear lane. I made my initial drive, and he bit on it, and I stopped, pulled up and I had an easy jump shot,” Jordan said. “I had a great look, and it went in. Once it went in I knew from that point on, we’ve been hanging around long enough, it was the game-winning basket, and it was a matter of playing solid defense. Our defense has held us strong all series, we wouldn’t be in this scenario without the defense. All we had to do was play defense for 5.8 seconds, and I knew we could do that.” Said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan: “You can’t afford to give them second chances, with Michael Jordan out there, he was going to make the plays, he was able to do that and you live with that.”

#3: BIRD PICKS PISTONS’ POCKETS

The defending champion Boston Celtics were down and almost out. Playing the young, tough-as-nails Detroit Pistons in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, the aging Celtics were in danger of losing Game 5, which would have given the Pistons a chance to clinch the series at home in Game 6. With Boston down by a point and Detroit in possession of the ball in the closing seconds of the game, those famed Celtic leprechauns decided to make an appearance. As Detroit’s Isiah Thomas prepared to toss the ball inbounds from the sideline, Boston’s Larry Bird looked away from his man and stole a glance at Thomas. He saw the Pistons’ captain look toward center Bill Laimbeer in the low post an instant before releasing the ball. So Bird cut into the passing lane and stole the ball before it could reach Laimbeer’s hands. His momentum looked like it would carry him out of bounds, but Bird somehow managed to gather his balance at the baseline and turn toward the court, where he spotted teammate Dennis Johnson beginning his cut from the foul line toward the basket. Bird whipped a crisp pass to DJ who laid it in with one second remaining for a 108-107 victory. The steal was remarkable. Bird’s instinct and ability to turn it into the winning basket only compounded the greatness of the play. “Larry’s mind takes an instant picture of the whole court,” noted Bill Fitch, Bird’s first coach with the Celtics. “He sees creative possibilities.” The Celtics went on to win the series in seven games and advance to the NBA Finals for the fourth year in a row, where they would surrender their title to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

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3 Responses to “Sports Debate”

  1. Terry Austin Says:

    Jordan pushed off. (But got away with it. As usual.)

    I hated Bird when he was playing, but I have to admit he was really something special. I think that one gets my vote.

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Jordan gets my vote as the ultimate clutch player. The guy just wanted to win more than anybody I ever saw. Period.

    And not only did he want to win more than anybody else, he had the chops to make it happen. He really could just take complete control of a game (at both ends) when it counted, and do whatever it took for as long as it took in any facet of the game to make a win happen. Bird and Magic couldn’t do that.

    So I have to say Jordan. Or Smokin’ Joe from Slater, MO. Maybe Artis Gilmore.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Since you guys took Bird and MJ as the best, I’m tempted to go with Earvin. He did it in college and repeatedly at the professional level, but the truth is that his supporting cast was always better than either of the other two. I think his greatest performance was the game, “Magic Fills In At Center,” but overall, I guess he has to be discounted compared to the other two.

    So I’ll go with Jordan as the greatest money player of all-time with Bird a close second, and Magic a close third.

    But as to comparing the three games, I’m going with Magic.

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