Right now, in a darkened video room at NBA Entertainment in Secaucus, N.J., and at ABC's offices in midtown Manhattan, interns who weren't even born when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson first squared off in the NBA Finals are probably collecting clips for a trip down memory lane. Ah, there's the footage of Celtics forward Kevin McHale clotheslining the Lakers' Kurt Rambis on a fast break, both of them springing up to go at each other. That happened in 1984. There's a montage of the tight-lipped Lakers after they were beaten 148-114 in the famed Game 1 Memorial Day Massacre at Boston Garden, which motivated L.A. to come back to win the series in six. That was in '85. There's a sideline shot of Magic seesaw dribbling across the lane and launching what he later christened "the junior, junior, junior skyhook" to nip the Celtics in a dramatic, Finals-turning Game 4. That was in '87.
There's a long way to go, of course, but the idea of a Celtics-Lakers title showdown, which hasn't happened since the Reagan Administration, is the most tantalizing postseason prospect to come along in years for the league, its network partners and fans starved for a rivalry that evokes the NBA's glory days. It's a stretch to compare the contemporary versions of these storied franchises to those of the past, but stretching is what hype is all about, right? So the media need to start thinking of ways to get L.A. coach Phil Jackson to make a snide comment about the strategic chops of his Boston counterpart, Doc Rivers. Or seeing if 22-year-old Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo will hint that 33-year-old Derek Fisher, who plays the same position for the Lakers, is too old.
And for heaven's sake, someone should strap a microphone on Boston guard Ray Allen. He's already feuded with L.A. star Kobe Bryant ("Don't even put me and that dude in the same breath," Bryant said after exchanging elbows and taunts with Allen in 2004) and was the recipient of a nasty flagrant foul by forward Lamar Odom during the Celtics' 110-91 victory at Staples Center on Dec. 30. (Boston won both meetings this season.) It doesn't take much, after all, to rekindle past animosities. "Boston-L.A. would be riveting," says Magic senior vice president Pat Williams, "because old rivalries never go away. They smolder under the surface and, with the slightest ignition, explode."
It's difficult, of course, to get anyone in the league office to admit that a Celtics-Lakers Finals is more attractive than, say, Magic-Jazz. (You can feel the buzz from Epcot all the way to Temple Square! ) Earlier this decade, during the height of the Shaq-Kobe era in L.A., commissioner David Stern was asked what his ideal Finals matchup would be. "The Lakers versus the Lakers," he said. Stern took a lot of heat for that comment -- conspiracists have long insisted that the league smiles favorably upon the Purple and Gold -- and now tiptoes around the subject like a ballet dancer. When asked last month if revivals in Boston and L.A. had him juiced, the most Stern would say is, "Obviously, the Lakers and the Celtics have a special cachet because they're associated with the Finals." Asked last week to comment specifically about a potential Boston-L.A. denouement in June, Stern declined.
Network bosses, too, refrain from uttering their true feelings; nobody wants a barrage of favoritism charges from, oh, Detroit and New Orleans. But the league's jump in ratings (up 14% on TNT, 12% on ESPN and 9% on ABC) has spoken for them. While there are several reasons for the surge, the biggest one is the rise of the Celtics and the Lakers. "These are storied franchises and strong brands," says David Levy, president of Turner Sports, "and when strong brands come back, so do fans across the nation."
Indeed, one high-level ABC employee says, "Of course we want Lakers-Celtics. There's nothing else. There's no second-best scenario. That's it. We'd kill for it."
That's because a Boston-L.A. championship series would create new legends, with Kevin Garnett battling Pau Gasol and Bryant trading baskets with Paul Pierce. "I remember Bird calling out his teammates, Magic doing everything that Magic does," says Nets forward Richard Jefferson. "Nine or 10 Hall of Famers were on the floor in those series in the '80s. That was as good as it gets." Says Heat coach Pat Riley, who led L.A. to four titles in that decade, "There was never anything like Celtics-Lakers, because it was always in the Finals. It was for all of it." One of those Lakers stalwarts agrees. "Boston-L.A. would be a very, very interesting series," says coach Byron Scott, whose Hornets were battling for the West's No. 1 seed. "I just hope it doesn't happen."
Consider that a minority opinion.