The camera of the mind is out of focus. I picture Kirk Gibson and see Willis Reed.
I envision the ninth inning of the first game of the 1988 World Series and see the seventh game of the 1970 National Basketball Assn.'s championship series between the Lakers and New York Knicks.
I was there in Madison Square Garden as a member of the Times team covering the NBA playoff. It had come down to a climactic seventh game in which Reed, the Knicks’ powerful center and leader, was not expected to play because of a leg injury.
The Knicks without Reed would be no match for the Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The introductions had been made, the National Anthem played. It was almost tipoff time when some of the standing room only crowd began pointing toward the corridor leading to the locker rooms.
In a well-timed scene worthy of Broadway, out came Reed, limping on his injured leg but obviously intent on playing. The crowd went crazy. The initial murmur became a deafening roar. The Knicks pounded each other on the back. The big man would be playing, and it didn’t matter how well. The Knicks had delivered an emotional haymaker even before the first basket. The Lakers couldn’t cope with the sky-high team and the hysteria of the partisans. Reed and the Knicks emerged as NBA champions.
I see Reed when I try to focus on the comparably injured Gibson coming off the bench in the ninth inning of Game 1 and hitting that 2-run, 2-out homer off Dennis Eckersley for a 5-4 victory that had seemed destined to be a 4-3 loss.
Reed’s appearance may have been impact enough for the Knicks, though he went on to outplay the healthy Chamberlain.
Gibson had to do more than limp to the plate, and did. He provided one of the most dramatic moments in World Series history. He punctured the myth of the Oakland A’s invincibility. He proved Eckersley, the major league save leader, was human. He sustained the emotional edge that the Dodgers carried into the Series after their upset victory over the New York Mets in the National League playoff.
There were other scenes, other moments in the postseason:
The Dodger dugout exploding when Mike Scioscia hit his improbable home run off Dwight Gooden to tie Game 4 of the playoff in the ninth inning and Gibson winning it with his 12th inning homer off the scoreboard.
The incomparable Orel Hershiser kneeling by the mound after getting the final out of Game 7 with the Mets and looking skyward to offer thanks after striking out Tony Phillips for the final out of the fifth and final Series game.
The zany Mickey Hatcher continually putting a charge into the Dodgers with his attitude and accomplishments. Hatcher’s homers in the first inning of Games 1 and 5 of the Series provided pivotal leads, and his world record home run gallops pumped adrenaline through the entire team and will remain etched in memory.
But it was Gibson, with the crowd on its feet from the moment he left the dugout, who authored the most compelling and lasting scene, taking those off balance swings and ultimately hammering the home run that meant so much in so many ways.
Ironically, I almost missed it. Missed the frenzy of the crowd, the exhilaration of the Dodgers streaming from the dugout, the intense Gibson breaking into a smile as he neared the plate.
I had left my seat in the first row of the press box to head toward the clubhouses when Eckersley got the first 2 outs of the inning. But I stopped to watch his ensuing walk to Mike Davis from the back row of the box, and I was standing on a railing behind the back row when Gibson homered.
It was from that precarious perch that I watched the remarkable drama and wondered what more could Gibson do for a team that had already taken on so much of his aggressiveness, work ethic and competitive character. It was from that precarious perch that I thought about Willis Reed.