In the simplest terms, the matchup is still one of glamour vs. grit. The Lakers are Hollywood; the Celtics are a shot and a beer. The Lakers attract celebrities; the Celtics are the pride of saloons. Lakers fans show up late; Celtics fans show up irate.
The players who open the 2010 NBA Finals on Thursday night in Los Angeles are certainly aware that there is a rivalry between the two teams. But do they have anything more than a superficial understanding of the passion, the anger and the antagonism that has existed between the two franchises for half a century?
|It was personal back when Larry Bird and the Celtics took on the Lakers. (Getty Images)|
But there is little doubt that the rivalry between the current teams is more the result of the Celtics' victory over the Lakers in the 2008 Finals than anything that happened in the Bill Russell era or the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era.
And that is understandable. When one of the greatest NBA Finals in history took place -- the 1984 meeting between Boston and L.A. -- eight players on the current rosters had not been born. Nate Robinson was born on May 31 -- the day of Game 2.
The current group of players grew up watching Michael Jordan –- not Russell, Magic or Bird. The last time the latter two met for a title was 1987. Twenty-one years went by before the two franchises met again in 2008.
It wasn't that way in 1984. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the Lakers' 37-year old center at the time, and he had begun his career in Milwaukee playing against a Lakers team that had Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West. He knew about the rivalry before he became a part of it.
The 1984 Lakers were coached by former Laker Pat Riley and the general manger was West, who had played and lost in six of the Lakers-Celtics Finals.
Boston was coached by former Celtic K.C. Jones. Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach was in the stands at every game, joyously reminding the Lakers and their fans of his team's dominance and doing it as obnoxiously as he possibly could.
At that point, the two teams had met in the Finals seven times and the Celtics had a 7-0 record. It didn't matter that three of those Finals (1962, 1966, 1969) went to a seventh game and the Celtics won all three, but only by three, two and two points, respectively -- a grand total of seven points. That was the difference between 7-0 and 4-3. But 7-0 was reality and Auerbach -- who died in 2006 -- never let the Lakers forget it.
There was a real connection between the two franchises and their pasts, but there was an additional ingredient that made that 1984 series even more intense. It was the first Finals meeting of Bird and Magic, who came into the league in 1979 after playing in one of the most famous NCAA title games in history. They took their rivalry from college and added it to the 1984 series, which was played only 15 years after the last Celtics-Lakers Final.
The anticipation for the series was probably as great as it had been for any championship series, and from opening tip, the play was spirited and the rhetoric -- on and off the court -- was fierce.
The Lakers took a 2-1 lead in the series with a 33-point victory in Game 3 and Bird was so upset that he said the Celtics played, "Like a bunch of sissies."
In the next game, Kevin McHale made his infamous takedown of Kurt Rambis.
After that, Riley called the Celtics "thugs."
The travel was tortuous. Game 4 was played on a Wednesday night in Los Angeles. The schedule after that was:
Thursday: Cross-country flight to Boston. Friday: Game 5. Saturday: Cross-country flight to Los Angeles. Sunday: Game 6, which tipped off early afternoon in the West -- about 40 hours after Game 5 ended. Monday: Cross-country flight to Boston. Tuesday: Game 7.
Records of the sort are not kept, but Game 5 had to be the hottest game in NBA history. A heat wave had hit Boston and Boston Garden had no air conditioning. The temperature during the game registered at 97 degrees and someone claimed to have a thermometer that measured it at 105. Celtics fans came to games looking casual, but the heat led to varying degrees of undress. Poorly-attired reporters showed up in T-shirts and jagged homemade cutoffs -- a far cry from the coats and ties that have somehow infiltrated press row today.
Unlike today, there were no luxury charters at the time, so the players flew on commercial flights with commentators and reporters. Lakers public relations director Josh Rosenfeld even had impromptu press conferences on the DC-10 planes with Riley and Magic, and that delighted fans, who interrupted with questions.
|Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers finally beat Boston in the 1985 Finals. (Getty Images)|
Riley ended the series still irritated. The Lakers lost one game despite having the ball and a two-point lead with 15 seconds left, then lost another when they had a five-point lead with less than a minute left. They lost Game 7 in Boston by nine points.
The Celtics reveled in the victory -- the eighth series win for Boston vs. none for the Lakers. As McHale put it so colorfully, "It was a case of the Teamsters, the hard hats and the miners taking on the MDs in their Mercedes, the lawyers in their three-piece suits and movie stars of Hollywood and winning by getting their hands dirty."
That set the stage for the next season when the two teams again made it to the Finals. Because of the insanity of the travel in 1984, the league changed from the 2-2-1-1-1 format to a 2-3-2 format that is still used today. The Lakers not only won the 1985 championship in six games, but the deciding game was in Boston Garden. That delighted Riley, who snarled at the Celtics after the game.
"This is the start of the Lakers' mystique," Riley said as he stood in front of reporters with his shirt and slick hair soaked in champagne. "We broke the dynasty. There goes Boston -- the mystique, the con and the deception. When we get our championship rings, we're going to have a diamond set on a parquet floor. We never again will be humiliated and tormented like they did to us last year."
They don't make quotes like that anymore. When the Celtics defeated the Lakers in 2008, Paul Pierce said: "It means so much more because these are the guys, the Havliceks, the Bill Russells, the Cousys," Pierce said. "These guys started what's going on with those banners. They don't hang up any other banners but championship ones. And now I'm a part of it."
It's nice that Pierce expressed love for the Celtics, but where was the hate for the Lakers?
The numbers associated with the two teams will be repeated often in the next few days and by themselves, they tell a story of two great franchises. The Celtics have 17 titles and the Lakers 15.
But the frustration felt by the early Lakers is captured in the 9-2 lead Boston has in Finals between the two teams. In Game 7 of the 1969 Finals, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had hundreds of balloons put in netting above the court to be released when the Lakers won. The Celtics, properly insulted, won by two points. The balloons stayed in the rafters.
West was magnificent with 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. That was the first year a Finals MVP was named, and West was the first and still only player from a losing team that won the award.
He was in charge of the team when the Lakers lost in 1984. And he was able to celebrate when they won in 1985 and 1987 -- a time when the passion of the rivalry was much stronger than now.
Even though the current teams may not be aware of the particulars of the rivalry, they have added a chapter of their own by meeting in the Finals two years ago. They may not feel the intense dislike for the other team that was felt by their predecessors. They may not be capable of making this series as passionate, controversial or colorful as the series in the '60s or '80s.
But they know that because it is the Lakers and the Celtics, it's something special. And it is that storied history that refuses to allow it to be any other way.