1986 NBA Playoffs:  Chicago Bulls vs. Boston Celtics

by Mike Kerr

April 20, 1986 – That was the day that the NBA universe cracked, and Michael Jordan vaulted through the aperture into the position of the greatest player in the world, even without a championship, even without even winning that day’s game. His play was electrifying. The praise was unprecedented. Yet there was something else about that day. Jordan never should have played, and everyone tried to stop him. But he wanted to battle. He was an all-out competitor as he would demonstrate throughout his career.

That day was the second game of first-round playoff series against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. This team was Bird’s very best and one of the best teams ever. This was also before the Bulls had Pippen, Grant, Kerr, Cartwright, Rodman or any of them. Dave Corzine was their starting center. The Celtics (Cs) centers countered with future hall-of-famers Robert Parish and Bill Walton. The Cs finished the season two games shy of the all-time record for games won. The Bulls finished 37 games behind them in the Conference.

In the first game of the series, Jordan put up 49 jaw-dropping and this-can’t-be-happening points against nine-time All-NBA Defensive team guard, Dennis Johnson. He really hadn’t played in a year. He was advised not to try to comeback for this series. A broken foot had kept him sidelined since game three of the season. A 20% chance of re-injury, the team doctor said. And even if he rescued the Bulls, pushing them into the final playoff spot, they’d only face the u unbeatable Cs plus lose their lottery draft pick. “If they beat us, they beat us. But let them do it on the court,” he offered, respectfully. No one listened. Who? Oh yeah, he’s that phenom rookie from last year. The Celtics were 40-1 at home. They’ll crush him and the rest of the Bulls. Whatever shock these 49 provided, it escalated in game two.


MJ, with the entire Celtics team focusing on him, scored 63 points to go with 6 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots in a double-overtime loss. Still the most ever against that storied franchise. In a game of incredible highlights, the one that I remember occurred at the very end of regulation with the Bulls down two.

MJ was fouled shooting a 3 just as the game clock registered 00 (1:50:14) There was no red light because some fraction of a second remained. – In ’86, the clocks didn’t display tenths of seconds. – They cleared the court. He would only get two free-throws. That was the rule. He toed the charity stripe alone with 20, 000 Boston fans screaming, hooting and taunting him. Kevin McHale, in a rather classless move, jumped off the bench and exhorted the crowd to scream louder and walks onto the court between shots. Jake O’Donnell cautions him to stay clear of the free-throw line. MJ needed both to tie the game. The crowd was wildly excited about a potential choke. Jordan, with tremendous poise, sank both. The camera cut to Bird who grimaced. Overtime, and more of this kid. MJ was 21 years old. The Bulls then forced a second overtime and stayed even until a bench player (Sichting) hit the game-winner with seconds left.

After the game, Bird said, “He’s the best I’ve ever seen.” However, the quote that made the Associated Press was, “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan. He’s the most awesome player in the NBA.” And when questioned about a one-on-one match-up, he said Jordan “was too quick and jumped too high”. Larry was a few days shy of being named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the THIRD CONSECUTIVE year. HE was the most awesome player in the NBA. With these quotes, he, effectively said no, Jordan’s the best and I can’t beat him. Larry gave the crown away.


Everything shifted to Michael after that. What did he do today? How many points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks? Fans wanted to know everything about him. In an unprecedented and savvy move, he copyrighted his image. Everyone was using it to promote everything. Jordan with opportunity to leave the Bulls was determined to stay loyal and win with them.

That effort is a particular contrast to today. The current best player in the world is LeBron James who doesn’t approach the game the same way at all. He enjoys basketball and winning. He competes unless it’s just not possible to win. Why fight that? His choice for Miami wasn’t about winning (and certainly not loyalty). Players would have come to him. His current team, LA, isn’t about winning either. It’s a matter of business opportunities and another warm, beautiful and exciting city. He has often fantasized publicly about playing somewhere he likes with his best NBA friends. It’s like the playground on a summer day where you want to team up with your buddies.

In late-December, with LA holding a playoff spot, a muscle injury caused him to miss 18 games. The Lakers quickly dropped. No mad push from him coming back. He and Magic will figure out who they really need for next year. You’ll get an argument from his die-hard fans, but for my nickel, there have been a number of times in the playoffs when his intensity drops. He’s not going to win. He has his numbers. As a fan, I want to see the great battles like Jordan had and like Bird and Magic before him. Have to wait for someone else to come along.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2kV5q51C6s – Link to the entire game

mike kerr_edited

Mike recently retired from U.S. Veterans Affairs and committed to a new career as a writer. He is a member of the Historical Writers of America and has released his first work, The Legman, a historical novel set in 1969 Chicago. Born and raised on Chicago’s West Side, he earned his Master’s degree in Gerontology at Concordia University and Bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He now resides in Las Vegas, NV.


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