Don’t lecture Gene Kilroy about sports trilogies. He witnessed, from ringside, all three parts of the most famous one firsthand: the battles between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier between 1971 and 1975, including the third and final contest canonized in sport scripture as the Thrilla In Manila.
But even Kilroy, the Pennsylvanian of Irish descent who managed Ali’sbusiness interests from 1966-81, and the man Ali valued as a close friend, is excited for the sports world’s newest high-profile trifecta.
“[Cavs/Warriors III] is … the hottest ticket in town!” he yelled into the phone from his Las Vegas home. Just the night before, Kilroy sat in his living room — in amazement — as the Cleveland Cavaliers curb-stomped the Boston Celtics by 44 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
A boxing lifer, he’d seen slaughter before. But even to Kilroy, Game 2 was barbaric. He’d enjoyed watching Isaiah Thomas lead Boston to the top seed all season long. But the last time an Eastern Conference team defeated a LeBron James-led squad in a series was when the Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, beat him in 2010 en route to their second Finals appearance in three years. That was 2,575 days (and counting) and “two decisions” ago. This series was over, even by Game 2, and Kilroy’s mind was already fixated on June 1 — the 2017 Finals start date. In truth, the entire sports world has been anticipating this year’s Finals from the moment the Cavaliers did the impossible last year and rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors.
For nearly every decision Ali made, in and out of the ring, Kilroy was there. When Ali decided to take on Frazier for the first time in 1971’s Fight of the Century — a bout Ali was knocked down in, and lost — Kilroy was there. Kilroy was there when Ali avenged the loss in a unanimous decision, at January 1974’s Super Fight II. Kilroy walked side by side with the man known as The Greatest. Kilroy not only understands iconic sports moments, he’s lived them. And about this year’s NBA Finals, this third contest in a rare trilogy, he could not contain his jubilation.
After all, there is no precedent for the 2017 NBA Finals. James is the 15th athlete in any of the four major sports to play in seven consecutive Finals, and the first outside the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1950s and the Boston Celtics’ of the 1960s. The Cavs and Warriors enter basketball’s final frontier a combined 24-1 this postseason. Seven of the last eight MVPs will be on the floor: James’ four, Stephen Curry’s two and Kevin Durant’s one. The last five Finals MVPs are either James or the guy tasked with staying in front of him. And never before in NBA history have two teams met in three consecutive Finals.