MILWAUKEE — In the tradition of Hoosiers, we bring you Bucks, the saga of a coach and the state that loves him.
The coach is a hayseed who wears tape on his shoes and ties shaped like fish. He runs charity projects for farmers. His boss is about to foreclose on his job, but on his way out the door, his team has rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie the mighty Boston Celtics.
And it's all true. This is your life, Don Nelson.
Thursday, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson proclaimed a day in his honor. Friday, which was--what else?--Nelson's birthday, his Milwaukee Bucks turned the Celtics around once more, coming from 12 points down in the third period and winning, 121-111, to tie their Eastern Conference semifinal series at 3-3.
They'll settle it Sunday in Boston Garden. Of course, the Celtics have never, ever lost a series after leading, 3-1, but they came out of this game even more battered than when they went in. Kevin McHale re-sprained his left ankle, the one with the previous sprain and the hairline fracture. Danny Ainge left the game with a dislocated right index finger, although he was back before they could put an ice pack on it. So right now, it's safe to say, life is barely worth living for Celtic fans in Massachusetts.
This was the fourth straight exciting game that these teams have played, with the continued rebirth of Sidney Moncrief, who scored 34 points, more than making up for four Celtics who had 20 or more apiece. The fifth Boston starter, Greg Kite, who replaced the injured Robert Parrish, went scoreless.
But when it was over, it was one man's night. The Mecca sellout of 11,052 stood for a solid five minutes after the game and screamed, "We want Nellie!" until he went back onto the floor, saluted the crowd with a raised fist and blew kisses.
"I've never done anything like that," Nelson said later. "It's a special moment for me. I'll remember it forever."
It was a special moment for a lot of people. Since Nelson's problem is with Buck owner Herb Kohl, the team took no official notice, preferring to mobilize the populace with a tried-and-true slogan, passing out "Yes We Can" placards. This one, of course, dates back to the mid-1970s and has been used by several teams, but news travels slowly up here.
One enterprising fan made his own. It said, "Nellie & Wis. Are Family." Nelson appeared on the floor just as the band was hitting the big finish to the theme from "Rocky." The ovation was thunderous.
And then they played the game. The Celtics ran off to a 50-35 lead, with Celtic Coach K.C. Jones even using his bench for a change, and those players responding. In one stretch, reserve forwards Darren Daye and Fred Roberts scored 13 of 15 Celtic points and that was when they were breaking the game open.
Or almost open. The Bucks managed to get out of the half down, 67-59, then watched the Celtics run and hide again in the third period. It was 86-74 when Nelson called time and went back to his little lineup: Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce, Craig Hodges, Paul Pressey and Moncrief. In other words, one 6-8 player and everyone else 6-5 or shorter.
They started pressing, which was the first effective defense they'd played all night, the Celtics earlier having used them like cones at a coaches' clinic.
The Celtic lead was still 91-85 in the closing seconds of the third period when Dennis Johnson tried to take the last shot. But Hodges tipped the ball away, Moncrief got it, went the length of the floor and made one of those patented, slashing moves to the hoop of his for a reverse layup at :07.
"The ball was loose, it came to me, I took it down and everybody parted like the Red Sea," said Moncrief.
Daye, under pressure, inbounded the ball to Jerry Sichting who was sandwiched by Pierce and Hodges and all but left for dead. Pierce came away with the ball, went right up, scored at :05 and was fouled. He made the free throw and the Celtic lead was 91-90.
Then the Bucks jumped on them in the fourth period. The Celtics tried running a couple of plays--significantly? where was Larry Bird?--for their lowpost terror, McHale, but he missed twice. By that time, Pierce had hit two free throws and Hodges had come roaring down the lane for a left-handed layup. The Bucks were cooking and by the time the Celtics slowed them down, they had a 104-94 lead.
The Celtics clawed back. With :34 left, it was 114-110 when Johnson blocked Moncrief's shot out of the corner. The ball was thrown upcourt to Roberts, who would have been home free except John Lucas tipped the ball away.
"He didn't see me coming," Lucas said. "It would have been an easy two.
"What we really didn't want to do was lose a game when they didn't have Parrish. That would really have gnawed at our stomachs through the summer."
Next time, they'll probably get to try it with Parrish. But that's another story.
When he was done blowing kisses, Nelson went to the interview room. His sleeves were rolled up, his fish tie loosened. He looked like a very tired, very happy sartorial disaster.
"Whew," he said. 'I'm very excited."
And you thought they don't make birthdays like that any more.