Editor's note: ESPN producer Scott Turken is a lifelong Pistons fan who remembers Larry Bird's legendary steal in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals (highlights here) a little differently than folks in Boston.
I still cringe when I hear Johnny Most’s gravelly voice scream, “Now there’s a steal by Bird!” It’s been 25 years, but it still hurts.
Larry Bird’s steal of Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass in 1987 is the ultimate buzzkill for a Detroit sports fan. I’ve seen it hundreds of times, and it still upsets me.
As a 12-year-old kid in suburban Detroit, literally sitting on the edge of my bed, I thought the Pistons had broken through. In the golden age of the NBA, Larry and Magic’s NBA, a team had to prove it could beat the king. If you couldn’t beat one of the two godfathers of the game, you couldn’t play for the title.
The Pistons had lost to the Celtics in the 1985 playoffs but had a chance to go up 3-2 in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals.
Isiah already was a great player in his own right. The six-time All-Star (and three-time All-NBA first-teamer) was in the prime of his career and had built a reputation for being clutch. In the 1984 playoffs, Zeke poured in a remarkable 16 points in 94 seconds of a game to force overtime against the Knicks.
With 5 seconds left, there he was, the team’s best player, on the most famous floor in the sport, with a chance to steal the game. He saw Bill Laimbeer -- his friend who co-captained the Bad Boys ship -- in the backcourt. One of the great passers in the history of the NBA, a man who had averaged 13.9 assists per game two years prior, threw a soft pass.
Bird not only made the steal, but threw a perfect pass to Dennis Johnson, who finished with the reverse.
Two and a half decades later, I can watch the “underneath to DJ, he lays it in” part. For many years, I couldn’t watch it. But with some perspective and time, that seminal play is not only one of the Zapruder film clips of the NBA, but also meaningful for what it stood for.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, somebody is going to be better than you.
Bird was better, and so was his team. He was one of the most natural and effective leaders in the history of American sports, and that moment epitomized everything that made him a legend: great basketball sense, feel for the game, flair for the dramatic and the ability to make the pass.
After the Pistons lost the series in Game 7, an immature and emotional Dennis Rodman asserted that Bird was overrated because he was white. Isiah was asked for his response, and he said he agreed with Rodman: “If he were black, he'd be just another good guy."
It didn’t matter which color of the spectrum you chose; in that moment, Bird and the Celtics were better, plain and simple.
And when I hear Johnny Most say, “What a play by Bird!” I can just smile and know my team was simply on the wrong end of an incredible sports moment.
On a spring night in 1987, in an instant, a legend beat the Pistons.
Why? He was just better.