The Unlikeliest Hero: How Greg Kite Flew over LA in Game 3 of the 1987 Finals for his Finest Hour

By Cort Reynolds

What the Hell Happened to Greg Kite, you ask?
It isn’t often when a player can shoot 0 for three from the field in an NBA championship series game and still lay claim to possibly being the MVP of that contest.

Or that a third-string center who was a career 49 percent foul shooter, never averaged more than 4.8 points a game in an NBA season and averaged 6.4 ppg in his college career could be the key player in a Finals game that featured seven of the NBA’s “50 Greatest Players” and eight Hall of Famers.

Yet Greg Kite overcame great odds to accomplish just that, however improbably. One might say that Kite defied the odds simply by playing in the NBA for 12 seasons with seven teams despite possessing extremely limited offensive ability.

But in his first four NBA seasons, the Boston Celtics made it to the championship series each and every time, winning the crown twice. Coincidence? Probably. But consider that in 1988, when Boston waived Kite, the Celtics failed to make the Finals for the first time since 1983, and never returned until 2008.

And in game three of the 1987 Finals, the unheralded Kite was arguably the most compelling reason that the Celtics won.

Going into that third game, Boston had its back to the wall. Los Angeles led the series 2-0 after a pair of lopsided home wins that had the Forum fans expecting a sweep of their hated east coast nemesis. About the only thing Boston had going for it was heading home to the Garden with two days rest after arguably the most grueling playoff run any team ever faced.

The Celtics were beaten down and beaten up. On top of consecutive seven-game basketball wars with Milwaukee and then Detroit played out over a brutal 26-day span throughout a heated May, Gang Green was severely hobbled by injury.

Top bench performers Bill Walton and Scott Wedman combined to miss 168 of a possible 184 regular season games that season due to injuries. Walton barely played in the post-season and Wedman did not at all.

Kevin McHale, who made first team All-NBA in his finest year, was playing valiantly with a broken navicular bone in his foot and a sprained ankle on his other foot. He missed two playoff games and came off the bench in two others.

“Boy, it’s fun talking foot injuries with Bill (Walton),” he joked to relieve the pain. But during the Finals he used a pool lounge chair from the hotel as a walker.

Robert Parish, at 33, was playing with multiple sprains of each ankle which forced him to miss game six of the Buck series. Danny Ainge sprained a knee midway through the seventh game vs. Milwaukee and missed the first three games of the Detroit series.

Larry Bird lost 17 pounds down the stretch of that season. Too proud to ask out of a game, he would grind his way though a record 1,015 playoff minutes in 23 grueling contests, an average of 44.1 minutes a game - at age 30.5 after a regular season where he played 40.6 minutes per night.

Dennis Johnson was nearly 33 and played 964 playoff minutes, an average of 41.9 per game. By contrast, Earvin Johnson played just 666 post-season minutes, James Worthy 681 and Jabbar 559 as LA played five less playoff contests as kings of the weak west.

Sleepy Floyd against the Lakers in 1987
So the Lakers cruised to the Finals by playing two sub-.500 teams and one 42-40 team, three clubs with a combined opponents’ winning percentage of just .479. Boston had played 17 brutal, halfcourt pounding games against Chicago and two 50-or more win teams in order just to get to the title series – including seven against the uber-physical Pistons in a mere 12 days.

On the other hand, LA had played 12 far less intense, fast-breaking contests as they ran their way to a free and easy 120.6 points a game amid the wide-open style of the wild Western Conference.

Included in their romp to the Finals were sweeps of 37-45 Denver in the first round (by 27.3 ppg), and 39-43 Seattle in the Western Conference Finals. In their lone series that went past the minimum and then only barely, the Lakers downed a 42-40 Golden State squad 4-1 in the conference semis by “only” 10.8 ppg.

Only a 51-point outburst in game four by Sleepy Floyd – including a record 29-point period - kept the Warriors from being swept.

Three days after Boston finally dispatched the pesky Pistons in game seven of their eastern finals bloodbath by a 117-114 count, the Celtics had traveled all the way across the country to play a rested, younger, hungry and healthy LA team.

Bird had played all 48 minutes of that seventh game vs. Detroit, scoring 37 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out nine assists. He shot 13-24 from the field and 10-10 from the foul line, yet had to endure the ridiculous, sore loser post-game comments by Isiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman that the three-time reigning league MVP was “overrated” because of his skin color.

Larry Bird watches Isiah Thomas shoot a layup
In fact, vs. the rugged defense of the Bad Boy Pistons, Bird averaged a typically impressive 27.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists a game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 94 percent from the foul line (47-50).

In the last three highly tense games, Bird tallied 36 ppg, shot 39-69 from the floor (57 percent) and a perfectly clutch 29-29 at the foul line while pulling down 30 rebounds and dishing out 20 assists. And his numbers would have been even better had he not been thrown out of game three in Detroit for throwing the ball at Bill Laimbeer after the Piston center and Dennis Rodman combined to tackle Larry brutally to the floor on a layup attempt.

Overrated – um, yeah righhhhht. Rival coaches Hubie Brown and Billy Cunningham, among others, strongly defended Bird against the baseless sour grape comments of Thomas and Rodman. Yet it was still a distraction for a team in need of no other issues.

For even after defeating Detroit, Bird and Boston had to deflect the senseless controversy while trying to prepare for the Lakers, with Larry even holding a press conference in LA to exonerate Thomas and say if the racial comments “don’t bother me, then they shouldn’t bother anyone else.”

Of course, 16 years later when Bird returned as president of the Pacers, one of his first moves was to fire Thomas as head coach and hire former teammate and assistant coach Rick Carlisle. Larry Legend has a long memory.

Meanwhile back in the red-hot early summer of 1987, Los Angeles had been resting and preparing for Boston back home for eight days after sweeping the Sonics 133-102 in game four of their relatively easy series.

The results of the first two games vs. the tired Celtics were predictable. LA averaged a whopping 57 fast break points per game as they posted lopsided victories by 13 and 19 points, scoring 133.5 ppg and shooting almost 59 percent from the floor against the tired, hobbled Celtics. The Lakers demoralized Boston with a dunk-fest, and defensive ace Michael Cooper bombed in a then-Finals record six triples in just seven tries during game two’s 141-122 runaway.

A prophetic LA fan tauntingly jiggled a marionette featuring a Celtic dummy replete with the words “Tired legs” displayed atop the home-made toy. McHale hobbled off the court to classless jeers as he re-aggravated the foot injury in game two as well.

As the series shifted across country to Boston for game three, things looked increasingly grim and even many of the Celtic faithful were simply hoping to avoid a sweep.

LA continued its up-tempo dominance early as an ice-cold Bird missed his first six shots while the Lakers raced to a 29-22 lead after the opening stanza. Things didn’t look promising.

With Parish now in foul trouble, Boston coach K.C. Jones reached deep into his bench and tabbed third stringer Greg Kite to replace the Chief. Walton had been ineffective in LA and the move to insert Kite was seen by many as a desperation move.

After all, Greg had played just 110 minutes in 15 post-season games to that point, with four DNPs, and would score just 17 points in 20 playoff games in 1987.

He was just a big body, an insurance policy practice player, a banger, a hack, a classic white stiff – right?

But the stereotypes about Kite were actually not that accurate. Although he was a very poor shooter, Greg was not that bulky, physical or immobile, and was actually quite flexible. He was double-jointed, ran the floor well, was fairly quick off his feet, and was a fine interior passer. Kite was also a very good rebounder and a tough defender who set good screens.

In short, he was a fine teammate whose only glaring weakness was bad hands and thus very little scoring ability.

Anyway, enter benchwarmer Kite for All-Star Parish. Almost immediately he made his presence felt on defense, on the boards and with his ability to run the floor much better than the injured Walton. He gave the weary Celtics much-needed energy.

Kite forced Laker Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jababr out of his preferred spots, made him miss hooks, and forced him to take tough turnarounds which he missed. Once when Jabbar tried to go by Kite on the right baseline, Kareem blew a fairly easy left-handed layup, then waited for the obligatory star foul call that did not come.

Kite crashed the boards and ran the floor with abandon, finally freed from the bench for quality, important minutes when his team desperately needed a shot in the arm from anyone to stay alive, even the least likely of lifeblood sources.

In one sequence, he rebounded Bird’s missed driving backhand flip layup try, missing a tip-in at first. He got back up quickly and rebounded again but on his second putback try, Jabbar hit him on the arm and got away with the foul as Kite misfired by putting the ball off the glass too hard. McHale’s tip follow was good yet disallowed for goaltending.

But Kite had inspired his team by outhustling and out-running the 40-year old Jabbar, almost 15 years his senior, in the June heat of the non air-conditioned Boston Garden. His offensive board work gave Bird and company extra chances to finally get untracked.

After their frigid start, Boston heated up in the second period, making 11 of 12 shot sat one point. Both Bird and Dennis Johnson caught fire, with Larry making six in a row in the quarter while DJ canned six of seven.

When the smoke cleared, Boston had erased a seven-point deficit and led 60-56 at the half. And much of it was due to Kite, who hadn’t scored a point. Yet when Walton subbed in for Kite in the final minute of the half, it was Greg, not the fan favorite Hall of Famer, who got a well-deserved rousing ovation.

Kite played so well that he actually earned a second half start from Jones, and he didn’t disappoint. He continued his strong work on the glass, screening, defending and running the floor.

Then came the biggest play of his career. As Laker Earvin Johnson sped downcourt on a Laker fast break, Kite hustled back on defense. Johnson double-pumped and scooped up a patented drive, a shot that he typically made and often drew a foul on too.

But not this time.

Because Kite had trailed the play and not given up. He flew in from the Johnson’s left side and easily rejected the Laker’s shot out of midair, slamming it to the parquet floor. He then completed the play by alertly recovering the loose ball before it could go out of bounds.

The Garden crowd erupted with joyous surprise and glee at the resounding block of a superstar by a third stringer. Greg Kite rejecting “Magic” Johnson?! Maybe the Celtics weren’t dead after all.

The box score doesn’t show it, but Kite also blocked another Johnson shot. When the 6-8.5 Laker guard posted up Ainge, Kite smartly came over to help, anticipating the Johnson bogart move and blocked his short shot off the glass just before it reached the backboard.

But because of Kite’s reputation as a non-leaping, pasty third string center – and Johnson’s reputation as the All-Star, the officials ruled it goaltending. Replays showed that Kite had time the block perfectly and blocked it off the glass instead of after it hit glass.

Yet Greg seemed to know his place in the NBA universe and thus did not argue the bogus call. Or maybe he was too pleased with how he had been playing to be that upset.

Later, he once again blocked a Johnson drive yet was called for his fourth foul on a questionable whistle. His fifth foul moments later on another Johnson drive was a hard foul.

But by then Boston had taken a solid, decisive lead. Despite the Laker refusal to fold as they made it interesting late, the Celtics would hang on for a 109-103 victory.

The win, unexpected by many who underestimated Celtic pride, postponed the coronation of the Lakers and prompted Ainge to slam the ball down onto the ancient floor at the buzzer, punctuating the gutsy triumph. And it clearly stated that despite being bruised and battered, Boston not only refused to be swept, they had a legitimate chance to win the title.

And even though Bird scored 30 and DJ 26, arguably the biggest reason why was Kite. His stat line looked like this: 22 minutes played, 0-3 FGAs, 0-0 FTAs, 9 rebounds (five offensive), two assists, one official blocked shot, one turnover, five fouls, 0 points.

Although his defense and board work were impressive, his intangibles - effort, energy, hustle and inspiration - went far beyond statistics.

And when the Celtics trooped off the floor after pulling within 2-1 in the third and final meeting of their epic trilogy of championship series in the 1980s, it was a sheepishly smiling Greg Kite who was interviewed by CBS afterward.

Fittingly so.

Less than a year later Boston released Kite. Greg was not out of work long and would go on to play eight more years for the Clippers, Hornets, Magic, Kings and Knicks before finishing up with Indiana in 1995, one game short of the NBA championship series when the Pacers fell 4-3 to Orlando in the eastern finals.

There was always a place in the NBA for a durable big guy who stayed in shape, played hard in practice and pushed the starters, kept his mouth shut, did the dirty work and was glad to have a roster spot.

In 1990-91 he even averaged a career-best 4.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in 27.1 minutes per game. Kite started all 82 contests at center for the second-year expansion Magic, who finished a slightly surprising 31-51.

And though Greg was seen as the prototypical hard-hat player in a league that celebrates smooth offensive-oriented players, for one day on June 7, 1987 in game three of the NBA Finals, he was a true star on the league’s biggest stage.