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The Rivalry

The sound seemed to rise up from the earth's core, raw and raucous in its staccato intensity. Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.! Some say the chant started in Boston Garden in the 1960s, but crowd behavior wasn't so organized back then, so it can be most safely dated to May 23, 1982, near the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Garden's denizens realized that their Celtics were going to lose to the 76ers, and with the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers awaiting Philadelphia in the Finals, they wanted to make their rooting preference clear to all of the nation.

That most simple of battle cries endured, so much so that fans in other arenas co-opted it when their local heroes played the Lakers. But for true aficionados of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Beat L.A.! is like heirloom china, to be pulled out only for momentous occasions. And so it has been packed away since 1987, the last time the teams squared off for the championship.

But now, with Game 1 of the 2008 Finals set for Thursday night in a new Garden named for a bank, the chant will ring out again, proffering plangent evidence that the NBA's ultimate matchup, after a two-decade hiatus, is back -- in high definition and surround sound.

Celtics-Lakers. Lakers-Celtics. The series that sells itself.

"I think this is what America wants to see," says Magic Johnson, the former Lakers star who has played a central role in the rivalry. He smiles widely. "I know it's what I want to see."

It's what NBA commissioner David Stern, who wears his every-franchise-is-important diplomacy like one of his regal purple ties, wants to see too. For all we know, he danced a secret, celebratory jig after the Lakers and the Celtics reached the Finals last week by dispatching, respectively, the San Antonio Spurs in five games and the Detroit Pistons in six. In eager anticipation of the event, ESPN-ABC employees, already giddy about their 27% uptick in playoff ratings, have been pulling out the archival footage of Magic and Larry Bird (just as this publication did). Celtics and Lakers diehards couldn't have asked for anything more, of course, but now even casual fans will look up from their fantasy baseball stats and NFL depth-chart analyses and note that something special is going on, something that hasn't happened since Magic's Lakers beat Larry's Celtics in a six-game Finals that ended at the old Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

So, more than any championship series in two decades, this Finals -- the 11th time that these franchises have met with the title on the line -- will be a remembrance of things past, a chance to reexamine old prejudices and look for new meanings. For Celtics-Lakers was always about much more than hoops.

Although the majority of the viewing audience -- as well as the players on both teams -- will reference the 1980s, the championship rivalry actually began in April 1959, four months before Magic was born and when Bird was 2 1/2. The Lakers were based in Minneapolis then and went down in four straight to a great Bill Russell-Bob Cousy team. But the intensity didn't really kick in until after the Lakers went to Los Angeles in 1960. It would be a stretch to say that their move to California was as major a development as the cross-country relocation of baseball's Dodgers and Giants, but for the first time the NBA's reach stretched beyond the Midwest, lending a more professional look to a league in which interest had been largely confined to the Eastern Seaboard.

From nearly their first moments in L.A., the Lakers were really good. Just not good enough. Six times in the '60s Los Angeles had a splendid team, and six times it lost in the Finals to the even more splendid Celtics, three of those series going the distance. The most galling Game 7 loss for the Purple and Gold occurred in '69, when Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke ordered hundreds of balloons imprinted with WORLD CHAMPION LAKERS and put them in a net above the court, ready for release after a victory over what seemed to be a dying Celtics team. (Russell, the player-coach, was 35 years old in what would be his last season.) "Those f------ balloons are staying up," Russell reportedly told Lakers star Jerry West during warmups. Which they did, after the Celtics' 108-106 victory, the appropriate capper for a decade that established the teams' respective identities: Boston was workmanlike, predictable and victorious; Los Angeles was talented, tempestuous and second-best.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, then a gangly New York forward, felt L.A.'s pain. "Sixty-nine was the year we were supposed to get there instead of Boston," says Jackson, whose Knicks fell in six games in the Eastern final, "but the Celtics found a way. They always found a way."

Over the next decade the Celtics-Lakers rivalry lay dormant as the teams never peaked in the same season. But it kicked in anew in '79 when Bird and Magic famously assumed their respective leading-man roles on opposite coasts. For four seasons Larry's Celtics and Magic's Lakers were like twin planets on slightly different orbits; it wasn't until '84 that they first hooked up for a championship. A five-year-old Kobe Bryant was one of the interested viewers as the Celtics won in seven. "I remember Kurt Rambis getting body-slammed," says Bryant, referring to the most memorable play of that series, when Celtics power forward Kevin McHale clotheslined his opposite number on a Game 4 fast break. (Now an L.A. assistant, Rambis had the primary responsibility of preparing scouting notes for this Finals because Boston was one of "his teams" during the season.)

But even before they met for the title that year, the significance of Celtics-Lakers to the NBA's bottom line could not be overstated. It is an exaggeration to conclude that the rivalry saved the league, but without a doubt it ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity. The 1980 Finals, in which rookie Johnson led L.A. to a six-game win over Philly, had been broadcast by CBS on tape delay. But by '84, riding the success and appeal of the Celtics and the Lakers, playoff hoops was must-see TV. The NBA could begin to promote itself as a league with star appeal (Magic, Larry and, hey, that Chicago Bulls draft pick named Jordan will sell some sneakers) but one whose stars were also the ultimate team players. Sizzle and selflessness.

The rivalry, too, was like a river with tributaries that wound through the culture. No sport crossed over like the NBA of the '80s. In his superb 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, a director known for living and dying with his hometown Knicks dressed one of his Caucasian characters, Clifton, in a Bird jersey and had another, Pino, worship Magic Johnson. Through those characters, Spike Lee illustrated the paradoxes of the Bird-Magic couplet. Clifton is a Brooklyn native who makes an honest living and owns a brownstone in a black neighborhood, where his Celtics jersey stands out. And Pino, despite being perhaps the most racist character in the movie, is not afraid to acknowledge Magic's greatness.

The broad stereotypes of the superstars' respective playing styles were just that -- stereotypes. Magic, choreographer of the Lakers' get-it-and-go offense, couldn't jump over a pack of playing cards (ditto for Bird) and used an old-school, one-handed set shot that looked like something out of Hoosiers. Bird, hero from the heartland, attempted some of the worst shots known to man and was blessed with some of the finest hand-eye coordination of any athlete who ever lived.

Sure, there was an element of truth to the juxtaposition of Showtime versus Slow Time and Fun versus Fundamentals -- the Lakers scored three points more per game than the Celtics did through the '80s. But L.A. also ran an intricate half-court offense designed to get the ball inside to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Boston, for its part, was a better-than-average fast-break team; years earlier, of course, the Celtics had all but invented the NBA transition game with Russell rebounding and Cousy pushing.

Perception became reality -- or at least the popular story line. The dichotomy extended to the benches: L.A. coach Pat Riley, clothed in Armani and glistening with mousse, was a Hollywood foil to first Bill Fitch, an ex-Marine, and then K.C. Jones, a plain-speaking former defensive ace. It extended to the boardroom: Lakers owner Jerry Buss smoked cigarettes, stayed mostly hidden and chased young women (still does, as a matter of fact) while Red Auerbach, 17 years removed from coaching duties but retaining the title of team president, smoked smelly stogies and remained relentlessly irascible. And it extended to the stands: The Fabulous Forum had Jack Nicholson, be-shaded, leering, redolent of sin. Boston Garden had Tip O'Neill, the New Deal Democrat, and a lotta red-faced guys from Southie.

Boston and L.A. met again in the '85 Finals, the Lakers finding revenge amid the shouts of Beat L.A.! (Their 111-100 Game 6 victory marked the only time a visiting team claimed a championship in the Garden and still stands as Magic's favorite Celtics-Lakers moment.) Then came '87, when L.A. closed out at home in six with Bird's back and McHale's feet and ankles aching.

The whole world closely followed what turned out to be the final pas de deux of Larry and Magic. "I didn't have cable," says Jackson, then a CBA coach who lived in Woodstock, N.Y., "so a bunch of us drove to this little pizza joint and watched the games." An oversized seven-year-old named Luke Walton, son of Celtics center Bill, remembers going to school in suburban Boston coated in shamrock paraphernalia. "I wore green-and-white wristbands all the way up my arm," says Luke, now an L.A. reserve. In Inglewood, where he would attend high school just down Manchester Boulevard from the Forum, Paul Pierce, then a nine-year-old grade-schooler, got started in basketball by watching the rivalry. "As a kid," says the Boston captain, "I hated the Celtics."

Then, suddenly, it was gone, the glory days of Celtics-Lakers available only on video. That's how a young Slovenian named Sasha Vujacic, who was born in 1984, caught the fever. "Growing up, I did battles between Bird and McHale and Magic and Kareem," says Vujacic, now a backup L.A. guard. "They were icons, all of them."

More than that, their teams were iconic, pulling the league along through a competitive synergy. And soon after the rivalry went into a deep freeze, the NBA became defined by single-name personalities: Michael. Shaq. Kobe. LeBron. Did we even need teams? Had Don McLean written American Pie about the NBA, Bird and Magic would have been his beloved Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, and Jordan would have been the Jester, brilliant and dynamic, for sure, but robbing the game of an old-school genuineness. One could argue, in fact, that Bryant brought his young team to this stage only because he became less like a self-involved superstar and more like Larry and Magic.

Last week the Celtics and the Lakers each trotted out their alltime leading scorers to symbolically pass the torch to this generation. In the visitors' locker room at The Palace of Auburn Hills last Friday night, John Havlicek (a Celtic from 1962-63 to '77-78) presented the Eastern Conference trophy to his old club. One night earlier at Staples Center, West (a Laker from 1960-61 to '72-73 and an exec from 1982-83 to '99-2000) had done the honors for the Western Conference champs. Bryant, in particular, could barely hold his emotions in check. West was the one who had traded for him in '96, the one who believed in him, the one who gave him his most important basketball lesson. "He told me that shots are easier to make in the clutch," says Bryant. "I never forgot that." Kobe never seems so human as when he talks about West, whom he still refers to as Mr. Clutch.

As eager as we all are to reminisce, though, bear in mind that times have changed -- those intensely adversarial feelings ain't what they used to be. Indeed, one of the dark moments in Celtics history took place 16 months ago when an M-V-P! chant went up for Bryant in TD Banknorth Garden. Bryant was on his way to scoring 43 points in the Lakers' 111-98 victory on Jan. 31, 2007, which was also Boston's 13th straight loss. (Jackson had a twinkle in his eye when he referenced that moment last week at an L.A. practice.)

The citizens of Celtics Nation will want to banish the memory of that moment, and they will doubtless try to do so with the full-throated force of three syllables. But it won't be quiet at Staples Center either -- as the Lakers were finishing off the Spurs last Thursday, a chant rang out from the L.A. sophisticates: We want Boston! We want Boston! We want Boston!

For a league starved for a meaningful rivalry, these Finals are destined to put forth much joyful noise.

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