In 1983-84 there was nothing bigger in the NBA than Magic Johnson…except league MVP Larry Bird. It was a rivalry renewed as the Celtics and Lakers met to decide the championship 30 years ago this month. It marked the first time the two stars had met with everything on the line since their famed duel in the 1979 NCAA Championship game. Game 7 of the 1984 Finals became the most watched NBA game of all time. There were famous steals, infamous hard fouls, overtime games and a general excitement with so many superstars on the court. Many basketball collectors love to chase items associated with what many call the greatest NBA Finals ever. Larry Bird-Magic Johnson memorabilia, like the great trophy tug-of-war signed photo at left, is part of the story but there’s plenty of variety in this rivalry for the ages.
The Lakers had an easy path to the Finals that year, while the Celtics got a scare from the Knicks. Bernard King was putting up huge numbers of points and it took seven games for the Celtics to get past New York in the second round of the playoffs. The Celtics then defeated the Bucks in five games, which was easier than expected as the Bucks had swept the Celtics in the playoffs the previous season. That set up the rematch fans had been waiting for since the days of Havlicek and Russell versus West and Chamberlain.
1984 NBA Finals One for the Ages
If there is one piece of video from the 1984 NBA Finals that everyone remembers it is Kurt Rambis on the fast break with Kevin McHale getting him with a hard foul. Often called a clothesline (and pro wrestling was big at that time with Hulk Hogan and the WWF), it sent Rambis to the floor but he quickly got up. In his haste to join in the festivities, Rambis ran into teammate Worthy and fell to the floor again. Larry Bird then tried to help Rambis up. Today it would be suspensions for all, but back then it was just part of the game.
Showtime was up and running to start the series as the Lakers won 115-109, taking home court advantage from the Celtics. The Celtics managed an overtime win in Game 2, with a great steal by Henderson, before Showtime was running at its top speed in Game 3, a 137-104 Lakers win. It was at this time that Bird called out his team, suggesting that children could play better, and they came through with an overtime win. The Celtics would win Game 5 in a very hot Boston Garden, the Lakers won Game 6 at home in the cooler Forum and then in the decider back in Boston it was Celtics 111 and Lakers 102.
Bird-Johnson Rookie Card
Collectors who are after a Bird rookie card are likely to also end up with a Magic rookie card, as they share the three-panel Topps card from 1980-81. That wasn’t the first time they were linked together, as they had met in the NCAA title game when Bird’s unknown Indiana State team went down to Johnson’s Michigan State. The Bird and Johnson rookie card, with Julius Erving also on a panel, sells for around $1,000 for a graded PSA 9. Quality, ungraded examples have been selling between $100 and $150 on eBay. Celtics fans who don’t like the Lakers, and Lakers fans who detest the Celtics, can find Bird and Magic rookie card panels on other cards from the Topps set that they share with different players, and those cards go for much less.
Bird rarely had Magic guarding him in the 1984 NBA Finals, and if that did happen on a switch then Bird took him into the paint and scored, as the Lakers assigned Michael Cooper to him while also using Worthy and Rambis. Bird showed off his versatility by scoring against them in different ways. According to Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive: The Story of My Life, “I took Cooper inside so much I wound up making more free throws than field goals in six of the seven games”. Bird led all playoff participants in free throws attempted and made, shooting 88% from the line. Bird also hit 42.1% of his three-pointers, as he took players like Rambis out of their comfort zone in the paint.
Bird’s averages in the finals were 27.4 points, 14 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per game and he was named the MVP.
Dennis Johnson’s ring
The Celtics had added Dennis Johnson via trade for one reason: to shut down elite guards like Magic Johnson. Maybe Magic had to work a bit harder in the finals but his stats remained high, as his playoff numbers were 13.5 assists and 18.2 points a game on 55% shooting while in the finals he went for 13.6 assists, 18 points and 56% shooting. In the Game 3 blowout win, Johnson had 21 assists, 11 rebounds and 14 points. Johnson could orchestrate the fastbreak, often finishing with a pass to Worthy for the dunk, or he could get the ball to Kareem in the post for a Skyhook or find Cooper or Byron Scott for the perimeter shot.
The Celtics beat the Lakers, earning rings like this 1984 NBA Championship salesman’s sample ring you can own for a cool $5,000, pricey but not as expensive as the player’s ring given to Johnson. He died of a heart attack in 2007 and in 2010, his ’84 Championship ring, consigned by family members, sold for $78,000 at auction.
Other Players’ Cards and Memorabilia
There is more than just cards of the two superstars to collect. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish completed Boston’s Big 3 while Magic got a lot of help from an old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a young James Worthy. Rookie cards of the Celts are cheap and NBA card of Parish is #111 from 1977-78 Topps when he was a Golden State Warrior. Kareem’s rookie card from 1969-70 Topps sells for around $150 to $250 in lower grades, while a graded PSA 8 sold recently for $2,276 on eBay. Worthy rookie cards from 1983-84 Star Company and 1986-87 Fleer are worth collecting.
The rest of the Lakers also have cards at much lower prices. Michael Cooper was their defensive star, a First Team All-Defensive that year, while Byron Scott was the young scorer off the bench. Bob McAdoo and Jamaal Wilkes were role players at that time, but earlier in their careers had put up a lot of points. Some L.A. fans will have Kurt Rambis cards, while others may buy replica versions of his distinctive glasses. Swen Nater, Mike McGee, Larry Spriggs and Mitch Kupchak completed their playoff roster.
Danny Ainge would later move into a starting spot for the Celtics but in 1983-84 he was a shooter off the bench. He has cards from both basketball and his days as a Toronto Blue Jay.
With McHale as their sixth man, the Celtics started Cedric Maxwell, Dennis Johnson and Gerald Henderson next to Bird and Parish. DJ’s rookie card is in 1978-79 Topps, #78, when he entered the NBA with Seattle. The Celtics used Scott Wedman and Quinn Buckner off the bench, along with M.L. Carr. Carr was a hustling player and also coached the team later during a time when championships were not expected, although they were hoping he could guide them to the top pick in the Tim Duncan draft. The hardest Celtics to find cards of from the 1983-84 team are Greg Kite and Carlos Clark, they rarely got into games but do have Star cards.
Star Company Sets and More
There were no major trading card manufacturers putting out wax packs during this time, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of cards.
The 1984 Star Company Celtics Champs set is a great place for collectors to start when looking for memorabilia associated with this historic Finals series. There are 25 cards in the set, and Red Auerbach and David Stern even make appearances. An opened, complete set sold recently on eBay for $31. Buying a sealed bag set for the Celtics and the Lakers from the 1983-84 Star Company issue will give acollector cards of those who played in the Finals. Cheaper alternatives are the Star cards from 1984-85 as well as the 1984-85 Star Arena sets for the Celtics and Lakers, both of which include most of the major players on the ’83-84 rosters.
The 1983-84 Lakers BASF set of 14 cards is another way for fans of the Lakers to accumulate cards of their team from that season. There is also a card of Calvin Garrett, who along with Eddie Jordan didn’t play in the postseason for the Lakers. The Celtics only used 12 players that year, as they avoided injuries and didn’t make any midseason signings or trades.
Many collectors focus on autographs or game-used memorabilia cards and recent card releases have provided those cards of players from the 1984 Celtics and Lakers. An appropriate– and inexpensive– card is the 1993-94 Hoops MB1 .
The Upper Deck Century Legends cards from 1999 and 2000 have a bunch of autographs from players who were in the 1983-84 NBA Finals with Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Wilkes and Magic. Newer Panini products have autographs of not only those stars but also Scott, McHale and Parish. Game-used jersey cards featuring players from the 1984 NBA Finals are around in large numbers, but a collector should try to find cards with several players on the one card like the 2-on-2 card from the new Court Kings release that has Bird and Parish next to Magic and Kareem.
There are ticket stubs, programs, newspapers and other items to collect from the series, most of which aren’t expensive.
If Bird and Magic saved the NBA then the 1984 NBA Finals were the turning point for the sport as ratings, revenues and exposure for basketball have been on the increase ever since. Lakers fans will want the cards from that time, and other memorabilia too, but for Celtics fans they are even more of a must-have.