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Lakers-Celtics rivalry much more contentious back in the '80s


LOS ANGELES -- I hate to sound like an old gasbag claiming that things were always better back in the day ...

But Celtics-Lakers in the 1980s was way more fun than Celtics-Lakers in the 21st century.

I know. I was there. And we had more fun.

Let's start with physical play. Everybody in Los Angeles thought it was a big deal when Ron Artest and Paul Pierce wrestled one another to the ground in the first minute of Game 1.

Big deal. In 1984 Kevin McHale damn near decapitated Kurt Rambis on a breakaway in Game 4. McHale's takedown changed the series. The Celtics were down, two games to one, and had been thrashed in Game 3 in the Forum. The McHale clothesline brought the Celtics to life and made the Lakers timid (it also resulted in a major rule change).

Cedric Maxwell put it this way: "The Lakers had been like little kids, running across the street without looking. After that play, they were like people who push the 'cross' button, wait for the signal to cross, then look both ways before stepping into the street.''

Ah, Max. He was one of the great taunters of all time. When James Worthy missed a free throw during the '84 finals, Max crossed the lane and put his hand to his throat. The choke sign. Max could teach today's players a thing or two about taunting your opponent.

There was commotion at the Staples Center last Friday when Pau Gasol made an innocent, accurate statement about Kevin Garnett. He said that KG "lost some explosiveness. He's more of a jump-shooter now ... ''

Smacktalk. That's nothing compared to 1984 when M.L. Carr called the Lakers "Fakers.''

Garnett might have been a little peeved at Gasol's remark, but today's Celtics and Lakers doesn't have the passion and emotion we witnessed a quarter of a century ago. In those days, the C's and Lakers really hated each other.

The 1980s Lakers always thought the Celtics were playing dirty tricks. They thought Red Auerbach was behind all of it. When the Lakers were awakened by a fire alarm in the middle of the night in their Boston hotel, Lakers coach Pat Riley suspected Red. There was no air conditioning in the old Boston Garden and Game 5 of the Finals was played on a humid, 95-degree night in Boston.

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Riley said Red had the heat turned up in the visitor's locker room at the Garden. In the middle of Game 5, a Celtic victory, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went to the bench for a break and sucked on and oxygen mask.

After the Celtics lost game 6 in Los Angeles, Maxwell told Dennis Johnson, "Let's kill them on Tuesday. Let's kill those freaks.''

When the Celtics won Game 7 back at the Garden, the never-gracious Auerbach said, "You guys were talking about a dynasty the Lakers had. But what dynasty? Here's the only dynasty right here. This team.''

In a book by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer, former Laker Michael Cooper admitted, "They (Celtics) don't talk so much anymore, but they did in 1984. And I'll tell you, they backed it up. They were the Muhammad Alis of basketball ... you do a little talking to see where the opponent's heart is, try to intimidate 'em.''

A lot of that hated went away when Auerbach died. Red would have made today's Finals more fun. He hated Phil Jackson and he hated the idea that Jackson might someday win more championships than Red.

"The guy picks his spots pretty well,'' Auerbach said when Jackson won with Michael Jordan in Chicago, then won again with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Tall Phil finally went ahead of Red last spring. Jackson has 10 championships as coach, Auerbach nine.

Trust me when I tell you that if Red had known this was going to happen, he would not have retired from the bench at the age of 48.

Jackson tried to throw some fuel on the grill late Sunday after L.A.'s Game 2 loss. He said he didn't like the officiating. But he had nothing but praise for Rajon Rondo and the Celtics.

Even today's Finals format is less interesting than it was in 1984. That was the last year that the NBA went with the 2-2-1-1-1 rotation. That meant a lot of coast-to-coast flights in the final week of the series. Bird loved the old system and was angry in 1985 when the NBA switched to the 2-3-2 format.

"We had to fly after a game, all night, then practice the next day and play the next night,'' said Bird. "That's what basketball is all about.''

The teams flew on commercial aircraft in those days. So when the Celtics flew back home after the first two games of the 1984 Finals, they were joined by Jack Nicholson in first class. The in-flight movie was Terms of Endearment starring Jack as Shirley MacLaine's next-door neighbor astronaut.

Tell me that wasn't more fun?