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At midseason, the champion Lakers traveled east to see how they measured up against the Celtics, their old antagonists. Conclusion: Best-team-ever reports about the Lakers are premature, for sure


Kevin McHale'slong legs spill into the aisle of a DC-9 out of Boston bound for Indianapolis.He is squirmy. McHale knows that tomorrow night's opponent is the Pacers. Heknows there is a game the next night, too, but he's not quite sure where, oragainst which team. It's the time of the year when things get blurry.

"Hey," heyells at trainer Ray Melchiorre, "where are we on Saturday?"

"Atlanta,"comes the answer.

McHale settlesback. "I just put it on automatic pilot from October to April. Wake up forthe playoffs," he says. McHale leans over the aisle to see how a teammateis doing in a computerized chess game. Danny Ainge and McHale himself hadalready lost—"The thing totally psychs me out," says McHale—and nowBill Walton, the distinguished professor of hoops, is having a crack at it.

"Well,"someone says to McHale, "at least you know what day the Laker game is atBoston Garden next week, right?"

McHale ponders it."Next Friday? The 24th?"

"No that'sGolden State. You play the Lakers on Wednesday, the 22nd."

"Oh," hesays, shrugging his shoulders and smiling. "Well, it's easy to get thoseCalifornia teams mixed up."


KareemAbdul-Jabbar strides briskly through the concourse of Metro airport, his gazelevel so that it cannot be met by anyone less than seven feet tall, his headsmartly bonneted in a deerstalker hat, making him look as if he is sifting theclues that will settle this fellow Moriarty's hash once and for all. AsAbdul-Jabbar sweeps by a group of outbound passengers waiting to pass throughairport security, they turn to gape at him, and some actually begin to chasehim along the corridor. Down in the baggage claim area, the rest of the Lakers'star-studded firmament is causing a similar convulsion of awe, which is atleast one way to distinguish them from the luckless Golden State Warriors."Being on the road with this team is like traveling with Menudo," saysLaker publicist Josh Rosenfeld.

The defendingworld champions are greeted this way in almost every city they visit, the loneexception being Boston. During the 1983-84 NBA finals, a Boston newspaperprinted the name of the hotel where the Lakers were staying, and before Game 7,a mob gathered in the street outside the hotel and formed a gauntlet nearly ablock long. The Lakers' bus could move forward only inches at a time for fearof crushing a Celtic fan and touching off a riot.

The Lakers havegone to the NBA finals five times in the past six seasons. Three times theiropponents were the Philadelphia 76ers, but Boston, the Lakers' ancient rival,has always been special. "When we played Philadelphia it never felt thesame as with the Celtics," says Laker coach Pat Riley. "We have respectand disdain for each other."

Beginning withthis road trip the Lakers will undertake their first real test of the season,playing 11 games in 19 days—six of them against the top teams—after building a31-6 record, the best in the league. Wednesday's game in Boston could not havebeen scheduled more disadvantageously for the Lakers—the third game in fourdays on a northern tier trip: Detroit, Chicago, Boston. The Celtics, meanwhile,will have had three days' rest—at home.

This trip willalso be the first true test of the Laker bench, which was deepened over thesummer with the acquisition of veteran power forward Maurice Lucas and rookieforward A.C. Green, both strong rebounders. They replace Jamaal Wilkes andveteran Bob McAdoo. "It was a gamble because it broke up the chemistry of avery good team," Riley admits. "We won a championship with that team,so who's to say we made the right decision?" Still, with a bench thatincludes Lucas, Green, veteran center Mitch Kupchak and Michael Cooper, theNBA's best sixth man, the Lakers have so much depth that the question isalready being seriously posed whether this might be the greatest team everassembled. Forward James Worthy ponders this for a moment in the visitinglocker room of the Pontiac Silverdome, then shakes his head. "I'm not surewe'll go undefeated the remainder of the season," he says. "We're notunbeatable."

With starter KurtRambis at home nursing a sprained ankle, the Lakers must rely more heavily onGreen, the surprising rookie from Oregon State. Los Angeles got Green with the23rd pick in the first round. Several teams passed him up, perhaps because ofrumors that Green was a practitioner of religious chanting. "Nobody wantedto use a first-round pick on a guy who was going to be rolling in the aisle ofthe team bus speaking in tongues," says one NBA scout. Even Laker G.M.Jerry West asked Green about his religious convictions, advising him there was"a time and a place for that," according to Green. "It does seemironic," says Green, who insists he is just a devout Christian and hasnever chanted. "You'd think they'd want to hear a new rap, instead of thesame old personal problems."


It's two hoursbefore game time at Market Square Arena, but hundreds of fans ring the courtand watch, enraptured, as Larry Bird sinks long jumpers in his pregame shootingritual. The cackling laugh of Bill Russell, here to work the WTBS cablecast,drifts back to Bob Cousy, who will be handling a mike for WLVI-TV on theCeltics' local telecast back to Boston. Cooz smiles and waves toward Russ.Think about it: Can the Pacers really have a chance? They walk out on their ownturf, and there's Russell and Cousy, who count 17 NBA championships betweenthem, at courtside. Add another nine for coach K.C. Jones, who will be sittingon the Celtics' bench. Bird says of Jones, "If I was a coach, I'd coachlike him." And, of course, there's Bird, maybe the best player alive.Legend-in-residence Red Auerbach didn't make the trip, but if the Pacers take adeep breath they can probably smell his cigar.

Cousy has beenschmoozing about what it means to be a Celtic—loose off the court, bloodthirstyand arrogant on it. By that measure, guard Dennis Johnson is a perfect Celtic."D.J. is a master of joking around on the bench, then being able to turn iton the moment he steps on the court," says Scott Wedman, Boston's reserverifleman. Ainge and McHale are close, to being perfect Celtics. But thequintessential Celtic is Bird. "He holds opponents almost in disdain,"Cousy says.

Final score:Celtics 123, Pacers 105. The Celtics are now 29-8.


The young,muscular, feeling-their-oats Hawks have been pointing for days to this game asan opportunity to demonstrate their credentials as a contender, and at halftimethey lead the Celtics 70-48. Some of the Atlanta players—Eddie Johnson andKevin Willis in particular, say some of the Celtics—believe they have the gamewon and start talking trash. Label that fatal-vision. The Celtic mystique wrapsinvisible fingers around soft, vulnerable Hawk necks as the lead dwindles. With1:06 remaining and the Celtics ahead 108-107, Hawk superstar Dominique Wilkinsmisses the first of two free throws. Bird, stationed at the other end of thefloor, looks over at the press table and puts his hands to his throat, thechoke signal. He holds opponents almost in disdain. Wilkins also misses thesecond free throw. The Celts win 125-122 in overtime.

"This team'spersonality comes from Larry Bird," Walton says. "Never doubtthat."

No one does. Bynow Bird probably understands the magnitude of his stature within the BostonCeltic organization and NBA points beyond. Here's a guy, after all, who starteda whole generation of players drying their hands on the soles of theirsneakers, but still he's reluctant to talk about what it means to be LarryBird. With some prodding, however, he gingerly sticks a big toe into thetreacherous (at least to him) waters of public rumination.

"I guess I tryto carry myself in a certain way on the court," he says. "It's funnybecause nobody else in my family is like that. It's not that I don't haverespect for my opponents. When you lose that, you've got nothing. But traditionis important here, acting like a Celtic."

Earlier thisseason, there were whispers that Bird's best years (he turned 29 in December)were behind him. He had severe back spasms. Too many hustling miles had takentheir toll on his legs. Too many shots had worn out his right shoulder andelbow. After the embarrassing Christmas Day come-from-ahead double-overtimeloss to the Knicks. Bird was averaging 23.8 points and shooting just .446 fromthe floor. The Celts had lost five of their last nine. Bird hates to talk aboutit, but there was a reason.

"My back wasso bad in the preseason that, really, I almost counted out the whole year,"he says. "I could only shoot around for an hour or so, instead of my normalthree or four hours, and I couldn't run my wind sprints. So I got out of shape.Lately, the last month or so. I can feel myself getting back in shape, gettingstronger, and it's made a difference.

"I get knockeddown. I get stepped on. I dive for loose balls," says Bird. "I can'timagine not playing like that. I'm going to get hurt, yes, but it's a questionof to what degree. I think I can go on playing a long time like this." Hewipes his forehead with a towel. "I'm the type of guy who surprisespeople."


Kelly Tripucka'sbasket from three-point range just before the final buzzer gives the Pistons a118-115 victory on national television. Not as many people seem to be arguingwhether or not the Lakers—31-7 now—are the best team ever.

The Lakers departDetroit immediately for Chicago and, upon reaching their hotel, are met by acrazed-looking man in a Chicago Bears jersey. "This is the greatest forwardever to play the game!" the man announces repeatedly and at the top of hislungs as Worthy enters the lobby. When Abdul-Jabbar comes through the door, theman falls into step behind him and begins shouting, "This is the greatestcenter ever to play the game!" Abdul-Jabbar never stops walking, but hedoes finally tell the man softly, "I don't need a herald."


Lucas, whom theLakers obtained from Phoenix in August, brings to the team the most malevolentscowl in basketball, a face Lucas learned to make from a character who lived inhis neighborhood when he was growing up in Pittsburgh. "This crazy guynamed Philly Joe used to beat the hell out of me every chance he got,"Lucas says in the baggage claim area at O'Hare. "When he caught you tryingto sneak past his door in the projects, he'd call out in this real high voice,'Don't let me stop you!' Philly Joe was so mean he would make you shoot crapswith him, and then after you put your money on the ground he'd use imaginarydice. He would roll those invisible dice, then look at the ground and shout,'Seven!' He used to rob all the drug pushers in the neighborhood, and when hefinally got killed in a shootout with the police, all the pushers in town cameto the funeral home and turned over his casket."

Lucas arrived inLos Angeles with a reputation as a player who wasn't afraid to turn over thefurniture now and then himself, which may be why he has played for seven teamsin 12 years. He and Riley have already had occasional differences duringpractices, but the Lakers, who believe in better living through team chemistry,are unconcerned that Lucas might upset the delicate order that has made themthe closest thing to an NBA dynasty since the old Celtics. "Our core justwon't allow anybody to come in and disrupt things," says Kupchak. "Guyswho have been great players in their own right have had to adjust to what Magic[Johnson] and Kareem want, and their only goal is to win. Players who have notbeen able to follow the direction of the core were tolerated for a while, buteventually they had to go. That's why Spencer Haywood never fit in, and JimChones. Even Norm Nixon couldn't penetrate the core, and that's why eventuallyeven he had to go."

The Lakers apply arelatively effortless 133-118 Martin Luther King Jr. Day crush job to theBulls.


Justin Parish isfour today, and his father is taking him to a movie. Robert Parish, who byplayoff time should have about 500 fewer minutes on his legs than he did theprevious year because of Walton's arrival, is a fan of horror movies andsuggests A Nightmare on Elm Street.

"I don't thinkso, Robert," says his wife, Nancy Saad-Parish. "He's going to getscared, and you'll have to leave."

"How about it,Justin?" says Parish.

Justin insiststhat Elm Street is fine. When they arrive at the theater, however, the boychickens out. "We climbed over the rope to another movie," says Parish."Iron Eagle."

McHale steps outof his rented Delta 88 in downtown Boston, feeling all right. His sore leftAchilles tendon hadn't bothered him much at practice that morning, and he isstill buzzing over the virtuoso performance of that other big-time celebrityout of Hibbing, Minn., Bob Dylan, on a television special the previous night."You got to suh-erve somebody," McHale chants nasally in passableDylanese. He's also talking about the Lakers. "There's no one around herewho doesn't think we're better than the Lakers," he says. "Last year?Hey, we took them to six games with Larry having one arm."

McHale steps ontothe sidewalk to admire his parallel-park job. He notices a dent in theless-than-sleek rental and tries to knock it out with a fist.

Then he says,"How can anyone in America like the Lakers? They don't drive cars likeDelta 88s."

Wake-up calls had come at 6:45 this morning in Chicago for the 8:55 a.m. flightto Boston, with practice set for 3 p.m. The Lakers occupy the entirefirst-class section of the plane, and within minutes of takeoff all the playersare sleeping heavily, most with blankets or coats pulled over their heads sothat, from behind, the cabin looks like a small mountain range. As the team busfrom Logan airport approaches the Lakers' downtown Boston hotel, trainer GaryVitti works his way slowly to the back, whispering something in each player'sear. No one says a word, but the sharp crack of palms being slapped begins tobuild, until finally so much skin is being exchanged it sounds as if a fighthas broken out. Vitti's message is that practice has been canceled for theday.


Susan Walton ispumped for tonight's game. She appears at the breakfast table dressed in aLaker sweatshirt. Her husband, Bill, is mortified. "You'd better have thatoff when I get back," he says before leaving their Cambridge home for themorning shootaround. When he gets back, Susan is still wearing the shirt, soWalton searches for a can of black spray enamel to paint out the Laker logo. Hecan't find one. But he's awfully fired up.

Dennis Johnson islosing a battle of wits with his wife's cat, Penelope, The pet is determined toclimb into, hang from or turn over every object in the living room of thefour-story Johnson home in the Back Bay area of Boston. "This is what I doaround the house in my spare time," says D.J., "chase this damncat."

But his mind isn'ton the challenge, and the cat gets its way. Johnson sits on the couch cradlingthe TV remote. Leave It To Beaver flashes by, then Dynasty, then aforeign-language news show. "That boy gets in more trouble thananybody," D.J. says as Beaver reappears. But, in the end, nothing can holdhis attention. His mind is somewhere else.


The regular seasonis a horrifically long sorting-out process for most teams, but for the Celticsand the Lakers it is little more than a formality. The teams will almostcertainly meet in the playoff finals this spring for the third consecutiveyear, which means that they will have spent nearly seven months watching eachother warily, mostly from a distance. Every renewal of the rivalry resurrectsold passions and is eagerly anticipated by both teams. "We keep an eye onthem, just like they keep an eye on us," says Magic. "This year it'sLuke and Walton—that's what everybody is looking to see. Who got the best ofwhich deal. Things have changed since last season, and everybody wants to findout where they stand."

Tonight's gamewill be a reunion of sorts for Lucas and Walton, who were teammates on thePortland Trail Blazers' championship team of 1976-77. This may be the firstmeaningful regular-season game either has played since that team was broken up.Lucas and Walton both almost wound up with the Celtics this season, but therestrictions of the salary cap reportedly made that impossible. Lucas wasted notime making his presence felt in the rivalry after joining the Lakers. He gotinto a rumble with Parish during a preseason game that ended with Lucas pushingParish over a table. "That stuff doesn't have to happen tonight," Lucassays upon his arrival here. "But if it does I hope I'm in the middle ofit."

By winning inChicago, the Lakers avoided back-to-back defeats. They haven't lost two or morein a row since Jan. 16. 1985 when a losing streak reached four. This seasonthey have lost to Cleveland, Seattle, Golden State and Detroit, all teams withlosing records, and Riley worries. "The most difficult thing both teamshave to deal with is the notion that we're on a cakewalk to the finals," hesays. "Everybody thinks we're a lock, but staying one step ahead of theposse can be a draining experience."

When the game thateveryone has awaited so breathlessly finally gets under way. it becomesapparent that the Lakers' vaunted bench is also a diverse group—so diverse, infact, that you would not want to see its members playing on the same floor atthe same time against a team as good as the Celtics. During the first sixminutes of the second quarter, the Lakers shoot a dismal 2 for 11 and fall 16points behind Boston. "Everybody says our bench could be a playoffteam." Riley had said the day before, "but they don't complement eachother in any way, shape or form. They have to have a bailout guy playing withthem, so Worthy or Kareem will be on the floor with them at all times."Riley violates his own dictum just as the game begins to slip away from theLakers late in the first period, but the point will be rendered moot by Worthyand Abdul-Jabbar's combined 11-for-35 shooting performance in this game.

By the fourthquarter the Lakers are in total disarray, missing their first 10 shots of theperiod and letting the Celtics open up a 23-point lead. Magic is on the benchwith his right knee packed in ice for the final quarter. Once again the Celticmystique, which Riley says "can immobilize and debilitate you," seemsto have done just that to the Lakers. Boston is suddenly looking distinctlytough. "They are much different than they were at the end of lastseason," Riley says. "They took it to us—then away fromus—early."


Larry Bird likesto take the first shot of every game. "Why would we want to go and spot theother team two points?" he's fond of saying—only half in jest—but Parishgets the ball down low on the Celts' first possession against the Lakers andturns to shoot. Though Parish is a 7-foot center, he's guarded by Lucas, aforward three inches shorter. "I'd love to get more shots in theoffense." Parish had said, "but as long as we're winning and things areworking, I'm not going to say anything. We're tough to defend because ofMcHale. With those long arms and his height [6'10"], he may as well be7'2". He creates an instant mismatch." That's why Kareem Abdul-Jabbaris guarding McHale. And that's why Parish scores easily over Lucas. Bostonleads 2-0 10 seconds into the game.

About 10 secondslater Ainge has the ball on the left baseline. The day before the game, formerCeltic M.L. Carr had rumpled the hair of Ainge's son. Austin, at practice andsaid to the boy in a mock-serious tone, "I'm gonna take your daddy's job.The man can't shoot." Indeed, Ainge has been in a shooting slump, and histeammates have been riding him unmercifully. But he sticks the baseline jumper.Then he makes a 19-footer and a driving layup. With 4:30 left in the quarter hegets the Celtics a 22-21 lead with a three-point shot. Ainge is back.

Walton makes hisfirst appearance late in the quarter and promptly blocks an Abdul-Jabbar shot.Shades of 1977. Walton is playing with fiery determination balanced by thetextbook economy of his movements. Hands up, box out, go straight up on blocks,elbows out on rebounds, turn and square up before shooting. The Kareem block isonly the beginning. Celts lead 31-25 after one period.

In the secondquarter Bird makes a wild swipe at a pass and comes up with a steal. I'm thetype of guy who surprises people. Then Bird passes around Abdul-Jabbar throughan opening seen only by himself, and Parish slams down a dunk. "It shouldbe a rule that everybody gets to play with Larry Bird for a week," McHalehad said. At 6:50, Dennis Johnson taps in his own miss... for the second timein the game. Penelope the cat should see him now. Parish, strolling downMismatch Lane, hooks over Lucas. Celtics lead 57-49 at the half.

Third quarter:Bird hits a three-pointer, then from 20 feet twice, then from the baseline.Walton makes a reverse spinning dunk after grabbing an offensive rebound.Boston leads 88-75. A few more Walton blocks, and the Celts coast home to win110-95. The records: Lakers 32-8; Celtics 31-8. "The Mountain Man,"D.J. says in the locker room looking over at Walton, "was crazy."

Everyone hadcontributed—Ainge with his early bombs, Parish with 16 points and 11 rebounds,Dennis Johnson with a nut-tough 22 points. Bird with 21 points, 12 rebounds,seven assists and floor burns from at least half a dozen crash landings. EvenMcHale, though severely limited by a sore left heel (12 points on 3-for-14shooting), had gutted out 32 minutes of rugged defense, mostly on amissing-in-action Worthy.

But the nightclearly had belonged to Walton. In 16 marvelous minutes, the 33-year-oldredheaded Dead Head made his first contribution to Boston lore with 11 points,eight rebounds, seven blocked shots and at least three college-stylefist-wavings.

Two hours afterthe game, Walton sits with a dozen friends in a restaurant near the Garden,wearing a flannel shirt and a smile as wide as the Charles. The talk ispleasant, occasionally drifting to Joseph P. Kennedy II, the youngcongressional candidate on whose behalf Walton had appeared at a campaign rallya few days earlier. But now Walton's mind is far from politics. He whips outthe game stats. "Let's talk basketball," he says.

Late in theevening someone asks him how long it had been since he felt so excited about abasketball game. He smiles to himself and ponders the question. "A long,long time," he says finally.

It's mentionedthat Lucas had something interesting to say about his friend Walton'sperformance. "What'd he say?" says Walton.

"He said,'Well, we won't see that happening again.' "

Walton laughedand laughed.

McHale sits out the 135-114 romp over hapless Golden State as the Celtics runtheir record to 32-8.

Staggering home, the Lakers—playing without Magic—lose to the pathetic L.A.Clippers at the Sports Arena, the first time in 10 tries that their neighborshave beaten them. So much for avoiding back-to-back losses.

Make that three in a row as the Lakers, again without Magic, lose to Denver127-118. The Lakers' record is now 32-10, worse than Boston's. Best team of alltime?

The Celtics are on a roll. Walton has 19 points and 13 rebounds in a 105-103win over a stubborn Sixer team. Bird throws in three three-pointers in thethird period. Over the last 13 games, Bird has erased any doubt about who isthe best player in the league, averaging 26.2 points and shooting .530 from thefield. And the Celtics have won 12 of 13.

P.S. The Celticsand Lakers next meet Feb. 16 in L.A.

JACK McCALLUMwith the celtics and BRUCE NEWMAN with the Lakers



McHale eases into his Garden party mood, making a commercial in a Boston film studio.



Larry Spriggs and Green play pack mule for Cooper, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and Byron Scott.



In Detroit, Magic treats an aching knee, and Riley (right) contemplates his game plan.



Bird lightens up for the filming of a music video, in which he'll appear with Magic.



After brunch in their Chicago hotel, the Lakers repaired to a banquet room laid out so they could go through some dry runs.



In Cambridge, Walton gave his support to Joe Kennedy's bid for a congressional seat.



The bus ride from hotel to airport required a brief interruption of Kupchak's sleep.



Ronnie Lester, Lucas, Kupchak and Green got to Boston before their game faces did.



The Parishes (above) passed up a horror show; Spriggs, Green and Scott headed for a nightmare.



[See caption above.]



To get ready for the game, each team's superstar popped a few in his own way.



[See caption above.]



Parish (00) got the Celtics going early, but it was Walton (5) who lit the afterburners.



[See caption above.]



L.A. brought out the best in Bird, who, free of early-season woes, is as splendid as ever.



Though McHale had a poor shooting night, Boston packed plenty of rebounding power.