It happened to Dempsey in the rain at Philadelphia. It happened to the old Yankees when Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio all went. It happened to Joe Louis, Ali, the Green Bay Packers. It happened to empires, corporations, even civilizations, if it comes to that.
It happens to any elite force if it waits long enough.
It may have finally happened to the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics, like the New York Yankees, Notre Dame, Lombardi's Packers or Custer's cavalry, seemed as indestructible a force as the land provided. It was not a team, it was dynasty. It seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of gifted players who came out of a clogged pipeline. Cousy and Russell went--and Havlicek and Cowens came. Havlicek and Cowens went--and Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson came.
Red Auerbach, the general manager, it seemed, just had to rub the lamp and another genie popped out--and another banner went up in the rafters of Boston Garden. There are already so many there--16--you can't see the ceiling.
But, is the dance over for the Celtics? Has the music stopped, the balloons come down? Are they yesterday's champions? Are faded banners all they have left?
They can't beat the Lakers any more. It's become a mismatch. Dempsey fighting his chauffeur, Louis against a bum-of-the-month.
The question has been asked and answered, who's best? And the answer is, the Lakers.
Consider Sunday's match between the once-torrid rivals. The Lakers, almost contemptuously, opened a 20-point lead at the half. Then, the Celtics, calling on Lord knows what reserves of remembered pride and effort, turned the third quarter into an old-time Celtic rout and outscored the Lakers, 36-12, to retake the lead.
But, we're not talking about 12-minute basketball, or half-court basketball or slow-break basketball. We're talking the full-time, full-blown, full-court game. If the game goes 48 minutes, the Lakers win. They had a fourth quarter in which they outscored Celtics, 31-11, at one time before the coach called off the first team.
The Celtics, in the locker room later, were a pretty chastened bunch. They seemed to have accepted the inevitable. "They're better," conceded Larry Bird. "They're better," admitted the coach, K.C. Jones. "They're better," echoed the point guard, Danny Ainge, who broke the single-season three-point record in the game but finished 22 points behind the man he was guarding, Byron Scott.
It's no longer one of the great match-ups of sport. It's a rerun. It's a movie you've seen before. The guys in yellow-and-purple win.
What has happened? It wasn't always this way. It was not so many years ago the ball was in the other court. The Lakers had some pretty good players. But the Celtics had the pivotal ones. The Lakers never had the big-man-in-the- pivot. All the Elgin Baylors, Jerry Wests and Gail Goodriches in the world couldn't save them. Bill Russell managed to stuff the ball in their faces.
You need two things to win consistently in this league: the big man in the pivot and you need a guy whose nickname is "Magic" (or Mr. Clutch, or Big O) to bring the ball up court for him.
You have to think Sunday's game was a watershed game for Boston. They were like a retreating army which marshals itself for one last, all-out, magnificent charge to change the conduct of the war.
They were a light brigade, all right. For 12 brilliant minutes, the Celtic flame flared. Then, the Lakers methodically doused it with cold water. Their message was clear: this game is ours. We own it.
The Celtics can probably beat the Houston Rockets, if it comes to that. They can handle Detroit, Chicago. But they don't beat the Lakers.
The Celtics came to the Forum Sunday on a roll. They had just marched through Texas like men on horseback. Larry Bird was playing the best basketball of his career, flipping in 122 points in 125 minutes, averaging 40.7 points a game, burying 56 straight free throws. He was in the best shape of his life. He even had a hair cut and the word out of Boston was, the Bird was sick and tired of losing to Los Angeles.
The Celtics gave it their best shots. They got off the floor to carry the fight to their opponents which is the mark of a great fighter.
It wasn't enough. They even caught the Lakers in the bemused, self-congratulatory mood of a guy who thinks this is going to be easier than he thought. They even managed to get in a few sucker punches until the Lakers seemed to wake up and say "Oh? You want to fight, do you? Try this!"
So, a great rivalry has been turned into a Punch-and-Judy show. A melodrama turns into a sitcom. The Celtics are the straight men. Their role, in effect, is to say "No, how hot was it?" Five Ed McMahons.