The Greatest Play in NBA History

It is so hard to believe how time flies. Two days ago, on May 25th, marked the 25 year anniversary of the day that “Larry stole the ball” against the Detroit Pistons to win the pivotal game five of the 1987 playoffs at the old Boston Garden for the Boston Celtics.

The win gave the Celtics a 3-2 series lead, and they would go on to win the hard fought battle in 7 games.

Sports Illustrated Cover from March 1986 that Larry signed

If you were an NBA basketball fan in what I consider the “Golden Age” of the NBA, this game, and that play were seminal moments that you just don’t forget. I remember exactly what I was doing, and where I was at when “the play” happened.

My wife, and 2 oldest sons, who were only 5 & 3 at the time, were on a vacation in Myrtle Beach. They had gone to bed by the time that the second half was in play, and I had settled in to hopefully somehow will my beloved Celtics to victory. My “circle of buddies,” Gary, Jim, and Chris, were watching in Ohio trying to do the same thing.

It was a great game throughout, that included Celtic center Robert Parrish dropping the Pistons Bill Laimbeer to the floor with a couple of well-timed punches that somehow the officials did not see.

The game came down to the final 20 seconds or so, when with time running out on the shot clock, Isaiah Thomas hit a jumper from the left elbow to give Detroit a one point lead.

I believe there were 13 seconds or so left as the Celtics called timeout. Everyone in the house, as well as those watching, knew the ball was going to be in the hands of “Larry Legend.”

After the T.O., DJ (Dennis Johnson), got the ball to Larry well out on the left wing. Larry hesitated momentarily, looking at the defense that the Pistons had set up. Suddenly, Bird drove hard to the bucket from the left, only to be met by what seemed like the entire Detroit squad. The shot was blocked, it headed toward the out of bounds on the side, and Larry was knocked to the floor in the process. The Celtics Jerry Schichting tried to save the ball, but the refs signaled Piston ball.

If you ever get the chance to watch this entire sequence, stop the tape right here, and watch and notice what everyone is doing. The fans & Schichting argue briefly that it went off of a Detroit player. Dennis Rodman is signaling Piston ball (as well as seemingly gloating). There is a shot of the Detroit bench as they are hooting & hollering. There are 5 seconds left, and the strategy begs for Coach Chuck Daly to call timeout to advance the ball to center court.

While the tape is stopped, focus on Bird. After getting knocked to the floor, does he mope or cry for a foul call? No, while on the floor, he is already calculating the situation. In what still cannot be explained to this day, Thomas hurriedly looks to get the ball from the official to try to inbound it to Laimbeer without calling the timeout.

Over the years, I have only seen this camera shot once, but it is a shot of DJ somehow contorting his body to reverse his path down the court to play defense, to heading for the Boston basket as he realizes Larry is about to create history.

Bird comes up off the floor, and drifts towards Laimbeer so as to not alert Thomas to what he is doing. Thomas lobs the ball over Schichting, and with a perfectly timed “interception move,” he steals the pass. If you look closely, as he turns to pass the ball to DJ, he is standing on his tip-toes so as not to step on the end-line. As he steals it, he is able to stop on a dime, pivot, and throw a perfect pass to a streaking DJ who lays it in with exactly one second on the clock, and the Celtics lead by one. Game over!

Seeing Bill Walton high-fiving his teammates on the bench also sticks out in my mind.

If you put everything into perspective, and realize all that Larry had to “think about” in those few short seconds, it is just evidence that in my opinion, it was the greatest play in NBA history, and it was performed by the greatest player in NBA history.

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