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Region revs up for an East-West rivalry reborn

'Beat LA' chant reverberates as Celtics seek title

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 1, 2008

Expect Jack Nicholson to be flying into Logan Airport while Celtics fans from Chatham to Chicopee to Charlestown revive their "Beat LA!" chants. Television executives are salivating over a matchup that has not played out in more than two decades. In today's editions, a headline in the Sun Star Cebu in the Philippines reads: "Are you ready? It's Celtics vs. Lakers."

A rivalry that used to be as fierce as the Red Sox-Yankees smackdowns has returned. The Celtics are back, and a region's passion for basketball is reborn.

"It's like being a kid again," said John Pedone, a 40-year-old Falmouth lawyer who stood outside the TD Banknorth Garden yesterday, chomping on a cigar and wearing a half-dozen pins on his shirt that showcase Celtic legends. "It's great to have the rivalry back. The parade is coming."

Two of the most storied basketball franchises in history, the Celtics and Lakers, combined, own nearly half the National Basketball Association championships.

In the 1960s, it was Bill Russell and Bob Cousy taking on Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. In the 1980s, it became Bird, McHale, and Parish against Magic, Kareem, and Worthy.

It was East Coast versus West Coast, blue-collar grit against Hollywood glitz.

"It's the clashing of cultures," said Tommy Heinsohn, a former Celtics coach and starting forward on teams that won eight titles in nine years. "LA is a different approach to the world. I don't think there's a Freedom Trail out there in LA."

The intensity of the rivalry was encapsulated in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The winners were to face the Lakers, and after it became clear the Celtics were going to lose to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Garden crowd erupted into chants of, "Beat L.A.!"

"I cracked my last bottle of champagne at 6 o'clock this morning," said Marty Joyce, a 44-year-old stock broker from Winchester who has had season tickets since he was 9. "Déjà vu doesn't cover this. It really doesn't."

The pro shop inside the Garden was packed yesterday, with fans scouring the racks for banners, foam fingers, and boxer shorts - anything emblazoned with a Celtics logo. Shirts promoting the new "Eastern Conference Champions" were being pulled out of boxes, and "Beat LA" shirts are scheduled to go on sale Tuesday.

"This is the most fun I've had with my clothes on in years," said Annie Oppedisano, a 54-year-old with neon green frames on her eyeglasses who bought a flag yesterday to put outside her home in Malden. "To have waited for so long - 21 years ago when we lost to LA, it was a killer. We can't wait to beat LA. To beat them, well, I can't say bad words. But beat them bad."

Mark Kostegan, a 52-year-old from Reading, remembers sneaking into games in the 1980s because he knew a security guard at the Garden. Yesterday his 9-month-old grandson was in his arms, wearing a tiny Paul Pierce jersey.

"All these years later, not only are we in the finals, but it's against LA," Kostegan said. "I mean, this is the way it's supposed to be. The Lakers and the Celtics. It's glory days again. Break out the Bruce Springsteen."

Boris Chervinsky was leaning on his taxicab outside TD Banknorth Garden.

"Everyone who's a Celtics fan dreams about this," said the 54-year-old cabdriver from Newton who emigrated from Russia about 20 years ago. "All Boston fans will keep this in their memory for many years."

But a whole generation has grown up without the rivalry. They do not know about Kevin McHale clothes-lining Kurt Rambis in 1984. They recognize Danny Ainge in a suit, not wearing number 44.

Take Steve Mendonca, a cook from Tewskbury who was born in 1986 - the last year the Celtics won an NBA title. He knows the Celtics glory years only through the VHS tapes his father preserved. He was wearing his dad's green Celtics shirt yesterday, vintage 1986, hoping to find some tickets for Game 1.

"This has been a long time coming," Mendoca said, bursting into a wide grin. "We definitely need this - just to stick it to LA again."

"We're going to turn Kobe Bryant," Pedone said, "into Kobe Beef."

"It's pretty exciting," said D'Amonté Lloyd, who is 7 years old. "Just like in the old days, when Magic was with the Lakers."

Ken Leyva, a 33-year-old from Hardwick, was wearing a Danny Ainge jersey and a hat paying tribute to Celtics patriarch Arnold "Red" Auerbach.

"Last time they were in the finals," he said, "I was in seventh grade."

The playoffs were the topic du jour yesterday for a group of about two dozen teenagers shooting hoops at Garvey Park in Dorchester. None of them was even alive the last time the Celtics were playing for a title - but now the teens are clinging to each game.

"All I know is the stories my father told me," said Matt Skinner, a 15-year-old freshman at Archbishop Williams High School who yesterday morning made a trip to the South Shore Plaza to purchase a Celtics playoffs shirt. "It's awesome that we're finally in the finals again."

But amidst all this adulation, there is also a nagging sense that fans shouldn't get too giddy. That maybe this is too good to be true.

"I don't want to jinx them and get too happy," said Diane Smith, 41-year-old from Lynn. "We've got to calm down a little bit."

Still, the city's on the top of the sports world. And it feels good.

"All we need now," said Chad Bouchard, a 21-year-old window washer from Danvers, "is for the Bruins to do good."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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