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Passions stir anew as Celtics, Lakers face off for title

Celtic Kevin McHale's takedown of the Lakers' Kurt Rambis as he sped to the basket touched off a melee and became a defining moment of the 1984 championship series. Celtic Kevin McHale's takedown of the Lakers' Kurt Rambis as he sped to the basket touched off a melee and became a defining moment of the 1984 championship series.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / June 5, 2008

All he wanted was a hamburger. An NBA champion, a towel-waving supporting star for the Boston Celtics in 1984 when they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the league finals for the eighth time in as many tries, M.L. Carr made the mistake weeks later of stopping at a popular LA burger joint.

"I'll have a Fatburger," Carr recalled telling a man behind the counter.

"No, you won't," the man said. "I'm not serving you."

"Let me speak to the manager," said Carr, an African-American who had gone many years without being denied service because of his color.

"I am the manager," the man said.

The Fatburger boss then made clear to Carr that the snub was indeed about color: the green and white Carr wore for the Celtics.

In a bygone time before Bluetooths, Google, and skimpily clad dancers gyrating on America's most renowned parquet, there raged a visceral rivalry, a basketball blood feud waged by legends in mini-shorts who embodied the spirits of their wildly different cities and helped the NBA launch a golden era of prosperity with their star power.

Tonight at TD Banknorth Garden, men who were riveted by the drama as children, Boston's Paul Pierce and LA's Kobe Bryant among them, will become protagonists in a new chapter of the historic rivalry when the Celtics and Lakers open their 11th championship series amid the ghosts of playoffs past.

Their struggle for basketball supremacy, born at the dawn of the Space Age in the 1950s, evolved in the 1980s into a culture clash, with Larry Bird's Celtics epitomizing the lunchpail ethos of Boston's longshoremen and Magic Johnson's Lakers channeling Hollywood's celluloid heroes as they created a flashy, fast-paced, often-breathtaking rendition of the game famously known as Showtime.

"It was an all-out war," said Carr, whose anti-Laker antics - he called them "the LA Fakers" - prompted Angelenos to pelt him with beer and hot dogs.

Ten times between 1959 and '87, the Celtics and Lakers played each other for NBA titles, the Celtics winning the first eight, the Lakers the final two, the acrimony growing with each encounter.

"If it's overstating it to say it's the greatest rivalry in professional sports history, then it's the greatest rivalry in the history of professional basketball," said Bob Cousy, who helped launch the tradition by leading the Celtics past the Lakers for NBA titles in '59, '62, and '63.

After the rivalry's birth in '59, when the Minneapolis Lakers reached the Finals for the last time before moving to Los Angeles in 1960, the showdown became more than about two teams and two cities. It was East Coast vs. West Coast, LA's courtside celebrities (from Doris Day to Jack Nicholson) at the Fabulous Forum vs. Boston's working-class crowd in the musty old Garden on Causeway Street, the Laker Girls vs. Red Auerbach, the irascible Celtics coach and executive who vehemently opposed cheerleaders on the fabled parquet.

How fierce did the rivalry become?

"If one of those guys was on fire, I wouldn't have stopped to throw water on him," said Cedric Maxwell, who led the Celtics to victory in Game 7 of the 1984 Finals against the Lakers.

In the '80s, Bird and Johnson were blockbuster stars whose marketability the NBA artfully exploited to remake the league's deteriorating image and spearhead an unabating run of profitability. Their franchises became the NBA's cornerstones, the Celtics winners of a record 16 championships, the Lakers 14, their rosters rich with Hall of Famers.

In a conference call Tuesday, Bird and Johnson recalled the animosity that developed between the teams in the '80s. Bird said his teammates were particularly provocative, their shenanigans ranging from Maxwell clutching his neck in a choke sign after Lakers star James Worthy missed a crucial free throw, to Carr donning goggles to mock LA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Bird himself exchanging angry epithets on the court with the generally reserved Abdul-Jabbar.

"Some of it was just completely out of control," he said, "but they knew the history behind it all."

Bird and Johnson said the current Celtics and Lakers may not feel the same heat from the rivalry that inspired the previous generation, but they will grasp the significance of the tradition nonetheless.

"Trust me, when that ball goes up [tonight], they will understand," Johnson said. "It might not be understanding what Larry and I went through, but they will have their own rivalry because it's for all the marbles."

Two members of the Celtics family witnessed the rivalry from its infancy: Red Auerbach, who accepted nothing less than victory (he guided the Celtics to eight straight NBA titles from 1959-66 before he moved from the bench to the front office), and Johnny Most, the team's raspy radio voice and partisan firebrand. In the early years of the rivalry, they saw respect trump enmity.

In 1962, in one of the greatest games ever in a best-of-seven championship series, the Celtics and Lakers played into overtime before LA great Elgin Baylor fouled out after scoring 41 points. As Baylor departed, several Celtics left their bench to shake his hand - the kind of gesture neither team has made since.

For years, Bill Russell, Boston's franchise player, reigned as the rivalry's dominant figure until the Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1968. With Chamberlain flanked by Baylor and Jerry West, the Lakers appeared poised to topple the Celtics in the '69 Finals. Yet Russell and Co. prevailed again in a Game 7 classic, this one the last game of Russell's career.

Officially, Don Nelson won the game for the Celtics when his last-second shot bounced high off the rim and improbably dropped straight through the hoop for a 108-106 victory at the LA Forum. Unofficially, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke jinxed his team by ordering workers before the game to tuck thousands of balloons into the rafters for a victory celebration.

The ploy further motivated the Celtics.

"It was the kiss of death," Cousy said, "one of the dumbest things anybody has ever done before an important game."

Cousy said he privately felt sympathy for Baylor and West for their inability to win a championship series against the Celtics in their Hall of Fame careers. By the '80s, though, all the love between the teams was lost.

The Celtics and Lakers played three more times for the title, with Bird's crew winning another seven-game thriller in '84, the Lakers reversing their fortunes in '85 and '87.

Carr and Maxwell were the era's chief agitators, bedeviling the glamorous Lakers with a schoolyard brashness that personified Boston's blue-collar grit. They were mere witnesses, however, to the defining act of hostility: Boston's Kevin McHale horse-collaring LA's Kurt Rambis as Rambis sped toward the basket in the '84 series and slamming him to the court, triggering a benches-clearing melee.

"This wasn't just another basketball series," Carr said. "This was guys representing a city and tradition, and we just didn't like each other at all."

Most of them have since made peace.

"It's like the circle of life in the Lion King," Maxwell said. "The rivalry started out with mutual respect. Then we started to dislike each other, then hate each other. Now we're back to genuine respect."

Tonight, a new generation will extend the legacy, maybe even enrich the rivalry.

"It has evolved into a picture-book story," said Bill Sharman, who won four NBA titles with the Celtics from 1957 to '61 and coached the Lakers to a championship in '72. "I think the whole country, if not the whole world, is excited about seeing it unfold."

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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