The following story about the 1985-86 Boston Celtics is excerpted from Back from the Dead, released last month by Simon & Schuster, and available here.
The team became incredibly close, on and off the court. We did everything together, including taking long bus rides all around New England for games, promotions, and events of all sorts. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz would jump on the bus whenever his schedule allowed and would move from friend to friend all up and down the aisle for the most interesting conversations about everything.
We opened the season on the road in the New Jersey swamps, at the Meadowlands. The game is worth mentioning for only two reasons: it was my first real game with the Celtics, and I was terrible. I could not do anything right, could never find any sort of positive rhythm or flow, and when we ended up losing—in overtime—I was the reason we lost. Larry wanted to know why we even bothered having me on the team. He was right. He always was. It was about this time when Larry would get so mad when I wasn’t able to get it done out there he would demand of K. C., “Coach, you can either take Walton out of the game or me. It’s your choice.” K. C. was a brilliant decision maker.
Fortunately, things got better as I quickly remembered how to play, and the team found its stride. Every one of our games, both home and away, became memorable for something; it was a unique team.
In our first game against Washington, as we’re getting ready in the locker room, Larry comes in, excited and animated as can be. He had just come back from his pregame shooting ritual, where he had witnessed Manute Bol, a quite tall fellow from the Sudan who was trying to make it as a pro basketball player. None of us had ever heard of him before. But Larry warned that whatever happened tonight to make sure that Manute didn’t block your shot, because if he did get you, ESPN and SportsCenter, still in its infancy, would never let anybody forget.
We had all played against some really tall guys before—Tommy Burleson and Chuck Nevitt—but Manute, at 7'7", was in a whole different league.
Sure enough, when I was in early, the ball was swung to me on the left wing about fifteen feet out, with the perfect angle for a bank shot. I was wide open, so I let it fly, only to have Manute—who was totally out of position under the basket at the time—take a couple of long strides and elongate endlessly to swat my jumper out of the air.
Larry went wild, and to this day he has never let me forget it.
Later, Larry called us all together and said that we all had to put $100 into a pool, and that the first one to dunk on Manute would get all the cash—$1,200.
When nobody was successful in throwing one down in Manute’s face the next time we played Washington, Larry announced that we were going to roll it over, and keep it rolling over until somebody did successfully throw one down on the big guy. And that each game would require another $100 contribution per man from our entire Celtic squad of twelve guys—until it happened.
Now, Washington was a terrible team we never had any trouble beating, but all season long nobody on our team could get a dunk on Manute, and the pot of cash kept growing. Kevin McHale was most intent on getting it done. Kevin was the second-best low-post player I ever played against—after Kareem. Like Kareem, Kevin worked endlessly on getting better position before he ever even received the ball. And also like Kareem—for the opposition it really didn’t matter anyway—they were both simply too good.
So one game, after the Manute money pool had grown quite large, Kevin just kept going at Manute regardless of what the game or play called for. Manute was blocking every attempt by Kevin, who remained completely undeterred. Manute might have set a record that night for most shots blocked on an individual opponent in any one game. Later, I came up with a defensive rebound and threw a long outlet pass to Larry, who was all alone at half-court, on the left side. There was nobody between Larry and our goal. But instead of driving in and making an uncontested layup, Larry stops, cradles the ball on his hip with his left arm, and points at Manute, who is still down at his own basket and completely out of the play. Larry is waving frantically for Manute to hurry back on defense so that Larry can go in and try to dunk on him. Manute was clueless to our little game within the game, but he dutifully hustled back, and when Larry came flying in, Manute sent him and the ball back one more time.
Our great coach, K. C. Jones, was up off the bench, extending his hands and arms as if to say, “What is going on here?”
We went on to win the game quite easily, but neither Larry nor Kevin succeeded that night. It was the Chief [Robert Parish] who finally got the throwdown in Manute’s face, and ultimately a very large sum of cash. Larry’s wager on Manute epitomized some of the brilliant things about that Celtics team. In every game, Larry found a way to make it endlessly interesting and entertaining—for us as his teammates, and for everyone in the crowd watching. And when he was in the building, all eyes were definitely on him.