The Rivalry

It's hard to believe that 21 years have passed since the Celtics and the Lakers last met in the NBA Finals—but easy to remember all their great games and bad blood
June 08, 2008

THE SOUND seemed torise up from the earth's core, raw and raucous in its staccato intensity. BeatL.A.! Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.! Some say the chant started in Boston Garden in the1960s, but crowd behavior wasn't so organized back then, so it can be mostsafely dated to May 23, 1982, near the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conferencefinals. The Garden's denizens realized that their Celtics were going to lose tothe 76ers, and with the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers awaitingPhiladelphia in the Finals, they wanted to make their rooting preference clearto all of the nation. ¶ That most simple of battle cries endured, so much sothat fans in other arenas co-opted it when their local heroes played theLakers. But for true aficionados of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Beat L.A.! islike heirloom china, to be pulled out only for momentous occasions. And so ithas been packed away since 1987, the last time the teams squared off for thechampionship.

But now, with Game1 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'sultimate matchup, after a two-decade hiatus, is back—in high definition andsurround sound.

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

"I think thisis what America wants to see," says Magic Johnson, the former Lakers starwho has played a central role in the rivalry. He smiles widely. "I knowit's what I want to see."

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

So, more than anychampionship series in two decades, this Finals—the 11th time that thesefranchises have met with the title on the line—will be a remembrance of thingspast, a chance to reexamine old prejudices and look for new meanings. ForCeltics-Lakers was always about much more than hoops.

ALTHOUGH THEmajority of the viewing audience—as well as the players on both teams—willreference the 1980s, the championship rivalry actually began in April 1959,four months before Magic was born and when Bird was 212. The Lakers were basedin Minneapolis then and went down in four straight to a great Bill Russell--BobCousy team. But the intensity didn't really kick in until after the Lakers wentto Los Angeles in 1960. It would be a stretch to say that their move toCalifornia was as major a development as the cross-country relocation ofbaseball's Dodgers and Giants, but for the first time the NBA's reach stretchedbeyond the Midwest, lending a more professional look to a league in whichinterest had been largely confined to the Eastern Seaboard.

From nearly theirfirst moments in L.A., the Lakers were really good. Just not good enough. Sixtimes in the '60s Los Angeles had a splendid team, and six times it lost in theFinals to the even more splendid Celtics, three of those series going thedistance. 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 withWORLD CHAMPION LAKERS and put them in a net above the court, ready for releaseafter a victory over what seemed to be a dying Celtics team. (Russell, theplayer-coach, was 35 years old in what would be his last season.) "Thosef—— balloons are staying up," Russell reportedly told Lakers star JerryWest during warmups. Which they did, after the Celtics' 108--106 victory, theappropriate capper for a decade that established the teams' respectiveidentities: Boston was workmanlike, predictable and victorious; Los Angeles wastalented, tempestuous and second-best.

Lakers coach PhilJackson, then a gangly New York forward, felt L.A.'s pain. "Sixty-nine wasthe 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 founda way. They always found a way."

Over the nextdecade the Celtics-Lakers rivalry lay dormant as the teams never peaked in thesame season. But it kicked in anew in '79 when Bird and Magic famously assumedtheir respective leading-man roles on opposite coasts. For four seasons Larry'sCeltics 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. Afive-year-old Kobe Bryant was one of the interested viewers as the Celtics wonin seven. "I remember Kurt Rambis getting body-slammed," says Bryant,referring to the most memorable play of that series, when Celtics power forwardKevin McHale clotheslined his opposite number on a Game 4 fast break. (Now anL.A. assistant, Rambis had the primary responsibility of preparing scoutingnotes for this Finals because Boston was one of "his teams" during theseason.)

But even beforethey met for the title that year, the significance of Celtics-Lakers to theNBA's bottom line could not be overstated. It is an exaggeration to concludethat the rivalry saved the league, but without a doubt it ushered in an era ofunprecedented prosperity. The 1980 Finals, in which rookie Johnson led L.A. toa 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 hoopswas must-see TV. The NBA could begin to promote itself as a league with starappeal (Magic, Larry and, hey, that Chicago Bulls draft pick named Jordan willsell 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 sportcrossed over like the NBA of the '80s. In his superb 1989 film, Do the RightThing, a director known for living and dying with his hometown Knicks dressedone of his Caucasian characters, Clifton, in a Bird jersey and had another,Pino, worship Magic Johnson. Through those characters, Spike Lee illustratedthe paradoxes of the Bird-Magic couplet. Clifton is a Brooklyn native who makesan honest living and owns a brownstone in a black neighborhood, where hisCeltics jersey stands out. And Pino, despite being perhaps the most racistcharacter in the movie, is not afraid to acknowledge Magic's greatness.

The broadstereotypes of the superstars' respective playing styles were justthat—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 anold-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 manand was blessed with some of the finest hand-eye coordination of any athletewho ever lived.

Sure, there was anelement of truth to the juxtaposition of Showtime versus Slow Time and Funversus Fundamentals—the Lakers scored three points more per game than theCeltics did through the '80s. But L.A. also ran an intricate half-court offensedesigned 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, theCeltics had all but invented the NBA transition game with Russell reboundingand Cousy pushing.

Perception becamereality—or at least the popular story line. The dichotomy extended to thebenches: 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, aplain-speaking former defensive ace. It extended to the boardroom: Lakers ownerJerry Buss smoked cigarettes, stayed mostly hidden and chased young women(still does, as a matter of fact) while Red Auerbach, 17 years removed fromcoaching duties but retaining the title of team president, smoked smellystogies and remained relentlessly irascible. And it extended to the stands: TheFabulous Forum had Jack Nicholson, be-shaded, leering, redolent of sin. BostonGarden had Tip O'Neill, the New Deal Democrat, and a lotta red-faced guys fromSouthie.

Boston and L.A. metagain in the '85 Finals, the Lakers finding revenge amid the shouts of BeatL.A.! (Their 111--100 Game 6 victory marked the only time a visiting teamclaimed a championship in the Garden and still stands as Magic's favoriteCeltics-Lakers moment.) Then came '87, when L.A. closed out at home in six withBird's back and McHale's feet and ankles aching.

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

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

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

LAST WEEK theCeltics and the Lakers each trotted out their alltime leading scorers tosymbolically pass the torch to this generation. In the visitors' locker room atThe Palace of Auburn Hills last Friday night, John Havlicek (a Celtic from1962--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 andan exec from 1982--83 to '99--2000) had done the honors for the WesternConference champs. Bryant, in particular, could barely hold his emotions incheck. West was the one who had traded for him in '96, the one who believed inhim, the one who gave him his most important basketball lesson. "He told methat shots are easier to make in the clutch," says Bryant. "I neverforgot that." Kobe never seems so human as when he talks about West, whomhe still refers to as Mr. Clutch.

As eager as we allare to reminisce, though, bear in mind that times have changed—those intenselyadversarial feelings ain't what they used to be. Indeed, one of the darkmoments in Celtics history took place 16 months ago when an M-V-P! chant wentup for Bryant in TD Banknorth Garden. Bryant was on his way to scoring 43points in the Lakers' 111--98 victory on Jan. 31, 2007, which was also Boston's13th straight loss. (Jackson had a twinkle in his eye when he referenced thatmoment last week at an L.A. practice.)

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

For a leaguestarved for a meaningful rivalry, these Finals are destined to put forth muchjoyful noise.

NBA diehards couldn't have asked for anything more, ofcourse, but now even casual fans will look up from their fantasy baseball statsand NFL depth-chart analyses and note that SOMETHING SPECIAL IS GOING ON,something that hasn't happened in more than 20 years.

Pierce grew up in Inglewood in the shadow of the Forum."As a kid," says the Boston captain, "I HATED THE CELTICS."




Ian Thomsen has an opposing scout break down thestrengths and weaknesses of each of this year's finalists.


PHOTOMANNY MILLANABOVE (clockwise from top left): West passes to Elgin Baylor; Bird and Johnson; Wilt Chamberlain (13) battles Russell; Rambis; West; Kevin McHale and James Worthy; Auerbach; Johnson; Riley; Dennis Johnson and Byron Scott; Nicholson. BELOW (from left): Baylor scores on Russell; McHale clotheslines Rambis; Abdul-Jabbar shoots a skyhook over Robert Parish; Cousy (with ball) runs the fast break; Bird and Abdul-Jabbar; a Sam Jones jumper; Danny Ainge. TWO PHOTOSMANNY MILLAN [Seecaption above] TWO PHOTOSWALTER IOOSS JR.[See caption above] TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLER[See caption above] TWO PHOTOSSHEEDY & LONG[See caption above] TWO PHOTOSJERRY WACHTER[See caption above] PHOTOELISE AMENDOLA/AP[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT BECK[See caption above] PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOADAM HUNGER[See caption above] PHOTORICHARD MACKSON[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above] PHOTOMARVIN E. NEWMAN[See caption above] PHOTOPATRICK O'DONNELL[See caption above] PHOTOHY PESKIN[See caption above] PHOTOCARL SKALAK[See caption above] PHOTORHONA WISE/EPA[See caption above] PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (NOW)GREEN GIANTS Garnett (5) gives opponents pause, à la Russell (6). PHOTOLONG PHOTOGRAPHY INC. (THEN)[See caption above] PHOTOBRIAN BABINEAU/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (NOW)SHOOTING MATCHES Bryant (24) and Allen (20) could echo the epic backcourt battles of Havlicek (17) and West (44). PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR. (THEN)[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (NOW)RING ME Pierce (34), the longest tenured Celtic, seeks his first title; Bird (33) won three. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (THEN)[See caption above]