This production is NBA theater at its grandest
LOS ANGELES — Less than 30 minutes before Game 7 of the NBA Finals tipped off, an overexcited crowd outside the Staples Center believed anything was possible. Even that Lakers forward Pau Gasol would pose for pictures in front of the arena in full uniform. Fans of the Celtics and Lakers fell for 6-foot-8-inch Gasol impersonator Michael Fanter.
“They don’t know what to expect,’’ said Fanter.
No one knew what to expect when the Lakers and Celtics squared off for the NBA championship Thursday night — not the fans, the players, the league staff charged with managing game logistics, or the large media contingent ready to document history. The instant classic came down to the closing seconds and ended with the Lakers claiming the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a second straight season after an 83-79 win. But the game coverage beamed back to Boston, the trophy ceremonies, the obligatory postgame press conferences captured only part of the spectacle.
From the unpredictable to the unbelievable, the NBA Finals are wonderfully, wildly surreal behind the scenes. As Celtics fans go through the stages of grief, a different perspective may be cathartic. How long can you debate the difference a healthy Kendrick Perkins would have made and how many times can you rehash the last few Celtics possessions? OK, don’t answer that. There is more than an offseason’s worth of “what-ifs’’ to ponder.
Maybe it’s too soon to talk about NBA super fan Jimmy Goldstein and his Danish supermodel guest or to marvel up close at a two-acrobat hand-balancing halftime act. Maybe it’s not soon enough. Visiting the corridors, back rooms, and vomitories of the Staples Center won’t make the Celtics’ loss any less devastating. But at this point, a backstage pass to the Finals is better than reliving how the Lakers overcame a 13-point third-quarter deficit.
“I’m always in awe,’’ said NBA commissioner David Stern of how the league produces the Finals. “It’s an incredible undertaking, but that’s what we do.
“After so many years, it becomes incremental [with the increase in scope]. Sometimes you really have to step back to realize how huge it is.’’
Celtics fans can count themselves lucky to have been part of the spectacle. In the last 50 years, only 10 NBA franchises have played in a Game 7 of the Finals. That’s it. For better or worse, Celtics fans have had a rooting interest in the outcome of the ultimate game on eight occasions. Most NBA fans have never had that thrill.
Russell recounted anecdotes about playing a Game 7 in the Finals for the NBA’s traveling staff. He reminded his audience to stay focused, to play to their strengths, to have fun.
Courtside two hours before tipoff, Hirschheimer and his staff, which documents games for posterity, tried to do all of the above.
“We’re not vomiting yet,’’ said Hirschheimer, alluding to Russell’s famous pregame ritual. “But we’re driven by the fear of missing history, of missing that moment and not documenting it, of not coming through. That’s what drives us.’’
That fear drove most of the pregame activity in the Staples Center.
The Finals have stretched to Game 7 on 17 occasions, though just twice since 1994. Given the historical significance and rarity of full-length Finals, everyone at the Staples Center not playing or holding tickets tried to prepare for anything and everything.
With the possibility of the Celtics clinching in Game 6, a 30-minute trophy presentation rehearsal started 4 hours and 15 minutes before last Tuesday’s game. All the staging was put in place. Emcee Stuart Scott ran through his script with stand-ins for Stern, MVP trophy presenter Russell, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, and the MVP for blocking.
“We need to see the full-scale model,’’ said Kevin Dobstaff, NBA Entertainment vice president. “We never want to be caught off-guard. There are a lot of moving parts at the end. It’s the culmination of our season and we want to make sure it goes off as smooth as it can.’’
As the trophy presentation walk-through was going on, a flatbed golf cart left the Staples Center and entered a parking garage across the street. Inside a rented SUV, two 90-pound duffel bags and one smaller bag contained Celtics championship merchandise. The bags were loaded onto the golf cart and driven to a storage area inside the arena. At a security checkpoint, a Staples Center guard named Paul opened one of the large bags to reveal a T-shirt designed for a Celtics championship.
“I’m not too happy about that,’’ said Paul, who was not permitted to give his last name. “I’ve got no other comment, ma’am.’’
But that’s not exactly true. Paul walked away, then uttered some unprintable words about the Celtics merchandise. The Lakers championship gear arrived in the same fashion before Game 7.
“This is our championship,’’ shouted McGill as the Celtics entered halftime with a 40-34 lead. “We got this. Let’s go. Ray-Ray, keep shooting ’em, baby. KG, let’s do this. Keep up the good work, Doc.’’
Rivers nodded in McGill’s direction. Meanwhile, celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Arquette, and George Lopez didn’t quite know what to make of the diehard Celtics fan.
McGill won a bet with friends to walk the 218 miles from Boston to New York in a week, earning him courtside seats to the Finals games at TD Garden. When word of his walk spread, he got the ultimate fantasy gig as a special correspondent for CBS’s “The Early Show.’’ The job came with a trip to Los Angeles for Games 6 and 7 and prime access to the Celtics and Hollywood celebrities. The 27-year-old surf shop owner was an example of the instant celebrity the Finals can create.
“It’s been a pretty wild ride,’’ said McGill. “This is about as good as it gets, even though I’m in the lion’s den right now.’’
McGill jostled with actual entertainment reporters for position and celebrity interviews. Before tipoff and during halftime, celebrities paraded back and forth between courtside seats and the Chairman’s Room. The scene was something between a movie premiere and a high school reunion. The Celtics players, executives, and owners filed past in the background, mere extras in this drama.
National anthem singer Christina Aguilera walked past, entourage in tow, after her performance. Photographers waited for Leonardo DiCaprio to exit a bathroom. Nicholson flashed his trademark Joker grin. Lopez chatted with McGill.
“It’s been typical knock-down, drag-out Celtics-Lakers,’’ said Lopez.
Visiting locker room attendant Gavin Cain knows firsthand how rough this rivalry can be. The LA-born and -raised Lakers employee had the awkward job of assisting the Celtics during Game 7. He took player ticket requests to the will call window, set up soda coolers, and removed equipment after the loss to prevent it from becoming a target for frustration.
“I just keep telling myself not to fall,’’ said Christiano.
When the Lakers’ victory became official, the trophies went to the court and the merchandise staff distributed a limited supply of championship gear to the winning team and media members.
“When people see the T-shirts, hats, and towels, everyone wants one,’’ said NBA Communications senior manager Kristin Conte. “But it’s important for us to take care of the players, family, and team staff, the team’s media and national broadcasters. We get really good at saying no.’’
While the Lakers celebrated and fans tried to talk their way past security and onto the court, the Celtics attempted to make a quick getaway. With the trophy ceremony still going on, Perkins headed for the team bus with a white towel covering his head. Inside the locker room, Ray Allen was surrounded by dozens of reporters. No other Boston player was around.
As Allen talked, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walked into the Celtics locker room and said, “Anybody seen Doc?’’ The answer did not come quickly. The sight of the legendary Laker caught those not crowded around Allen by surprise. After a few moments, someone opened the door to the visiting coach’s office for the Hall of Famer.
Upon seeing Rivers, Abdul-Jabbar leaned in for a handshake and whispered a few sentences to him.
“I appreciate it,’’ said Rivers. “I appreciate it.’’
If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can walk into the Celtics locker room and offer consoling words to the Celtics coach, it is proof that almost anything can happen at Game 7 of the Finals. Almost anything.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.