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Boston Sports History: The 1980s

It was the 1980s in Boston. The time of Larry Legend and the Rocket, of Celtic dominance, Patriot emergence, the Magic Flutie and a whole new generation learning about Red Sox heartbreak. It was the era when the great city was on the national landscape as the setting for the great TV sitcom Cheers, a local bar where patrons could be regularly found rooting on—and often cursing—their sports heroes and local teams.

That era is captured on TheSportsNotebook, both on this page and the links contained therein. The eleven-year stretch from 1978-88 that formed a generation of Boston sports fans is captured below and there are links to 46 different historical articles. There’s a seasonal narrative for each season of the four pro sports teams that are heart of the Hub—the Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots. And a couple more on the rise of Boston College are included.

The era saw both championships and devastation, great teams and ones that fans might prefer to forget. But they were all a part of the great portrait that is Boston sports.

It’s all here—Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish leading the Celtics to three championships. A farewell from Yaz and the emergence of Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs adding up to October appearances for the Red Sox. John Hannah anchoring the Patriots’ offensive lines in obscurity until he capped his career with a magical Super Bowl run. Some final magic on the ice from Brad Park and the later emergence of Cam Neely and Ray Borque to start a new era of Bruins’ success.

So come on inside, read on, click the links and get the feel of what it was like to be a Boston sports fan in the 1980s…


Good times, hard endings.  The Patriots won the AFC East for the first time in franchise history, but went through coaching chaos and a playoff exit. The Bruins made the Stanley Cup Finals for the second straight season, but again lost to archrival Montreal. And no one had greater highs and lows  than the Red Sox, who roared out to a 14-game lead in the AL East in July, but suffered an epic collapse and lost a historic one-game playoff at Fenway to the Yankees. The only team that didn’t break hearts was the Celtics, who simply weren’t any good.


The Bruins were oh-so-close to finally knocking off the Canadiens, but one of the most infamous penalties in NHL history cost Boston in a heartbreaking loss of Game 7 of the semi-finals. The excellence of Fred Lynn kept another baseball season in Fenway lively. The Red Sox won 91 games, although they had to settle for third in the tough AL East. The Patriots posted their fourth straight winning season, but missed the playoffs. Only the Celtics were uncompetitive, as they spent a year waiting for the arrival of help from French Lick.


Larry Bird arrived and the Celtics were back. They won 61 games and had the best regular season record in the NBA. They came up short against the 76ers in the playoffs,  but the good times for pro hoops in Boston were back. And just in time. The Bruins and Red Sox won more than they lost, but it was apparent both had slipped from where they were at the end of the 1970s. The Patriots suffered hard luck—they went 10-6 in an AFC where no one won more than 11 games, but were frozen out of the postseason.


The Celtics took the next step. When they lost three of the first four against the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals, it looked like more disappointment was at hand. In an epic comeback, Bird led the Celts to three straight wins and on to the NBA championship. The Red Sox got a breakout star performance of their own—Dwight Evans had the best year of his career and the rightfielder finished third in the MVP voting. The Bruins were a respectable team but flamed out in the playoffs. And the Patriots? Well, the less said the better. 


The Red Sox were supposed to be rebuilding, but played well and introduced some players that would be important in the near future. The Bruins reached the second round of the playoffs, but blew a golden opportunity to advance deeper. In a strike year for the NFL, the Patriots snuck into  the postseason. But once again, the biggest story in Boston sports was the Celtics. Again, they faced the 76ers in the conference finals. Again, they fell behind 3-1 in games. Again, they forced a Game 7 on the Garden parquet. Alas, this time they came up short.


The Celtics were a playoff disappointment, losing the conference semifinals to Milwaukee in four straight. The Red Sox weren’t a disappointment, but neither were they good. The primary reason to go to Fenway was to say goodbye to Carl Yasztremski. The Patriots muddled along to a .500 season and missed a chance to sneak into the postseason in the final week. That leaves the Bruins, who were the one success story, reaching the conference finals. And in a rare display of college excitement, Boston College had a quarterback named Doug Flutie and got themselves a bowl matchup with Notre Dame.


Larry Bird had the best year of his career to that point, won the first of three straight MVP awards and by June, the Celtics were back on top with a seven-game Finals win over the Lakers. The city of Boston also had the Heisman Trophy winner—Flutie ran away with the award, authored magical moments and led Boston College to a top-five national finish. The Patriots had a roller-coaster ride of a season, missing the playoffs, but finding their head coach. The Red Sox rebuilt and showed promise, while the Bruins disappointed everyone in the postseason.


The Patriots as the centerpiece of Boston sports became commonplace in the 21st century, but it was a rarity in 1985. The franchise made its first Super Bowl appearance by winning three straight road games in the AFC playoffs. The Celtics rolled on to another 1-seed, another Finals date with the Lakers and a resounding rout of LA in Game 1. But with Larry Bird’s shooting hand injured they ultimately lost the series. The Red Sox showed flashes of hope before fading in August, while the Bruins were again a playoff disappointment.


It was the best of times and the worst of times. The Celtics  won their third championship of the Bird era, and did it with one of the greatest teams of all-time. The Patriots might not have returned to the Super Bowl, but they won an AFC East title. And the Red Sox? They surprised baseball observers with an AL East title. Then stunned everyone with a dramatic comeback to win the ALCS. And they were poised to win the World Series…until the most epic collapse in franchise history. Only the Bruins lacked a compelling storyline with another first-round dismissal.


The Celtics’ bid to repeat would be an emotional roller-coaster. Their first-round draft pick, Len Bias, tragically died from a drug overdose. On the court, the C’s struggled with depth and injuries. But the quality and toughness of their legendary starting five pushed them through some epic battles in the Eastern Conference and back to the Finals. But the Lakers were fresh, hungry and they won the title. Elsewhere, the Red Sox spent the season in a year-long hangover, the Patriots contended for, but missed the playoffs, and the Bruins again lost in the first round.


After a mostly nondescript decade, the Bruins were finally the toast of the town again. They returned to the Finals and only Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton could stop them. The Red Sox had a wild ride, a managerial change, a legendary winning streak and finally an AL East crown. The Patriots had themselves positioned for the playoffs before coming up short. And Bird’s Celtics saw their run atop the Eastern Conference come to an end, but not before Larry Legend authored one last magical moment—an incredible duel with Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the second round.