In sports history, nothing can rival it
The Celtics and Lakers already have met more times to decide a major American sports championship than any two clubs have in any of our four major team sports, and now they are about to play for a 12th time. How could anyone not be at least a little bit engulfed in this history?
Where would Celtics history be without Selvy’s (Missed) Shot, Cooz’s Last Game, the Balloon Game, Henderson Steals The Ball, The Great Takedown, the Heat Game, the Great ’08 Comeback, and, of course, 131-92?
Where would Lakers history be without Elgin scoring 61, West scoring 40 again and again and again, Kareem’s ’85 Redemption, and the “Junior, Junior Sky Hook’’? Sure, the Los Angeles list is a bit shorter. The Lakers are 2-9 against the Celtics in Finals. Of course the list is shorter.
When this rivalry began, the Lakers were still in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. (Why they never changed the nickname when they headed westward in 1960 has never satisfactorily been explained.) The year was 1959, and the Minneapolis Lakers had no chance whatsoever against Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, Jim Loscutoff, and the Jones Boys, all of whom, save Loscy, are in the Hall of Fame (and Loscy has his name/No. 18 retired). All the Lakers had to offer was a sensational rookie named Elgin Baylor, and, as great as he was, that wasn’t enough to challenge the Celtics, who pulled off the first four-game sweep in NBA Finals history.
That mismatch aside, the rivalry we will celebrate for the 11th time encompasses three distinct eras, and it tells us a lot about how the NBA has grown and how spoiled we have all become. I mean, you don’t like a 9 p.m. EDT starting time? Back in the ’60s, if the game from LA was on TV at all, it would start at 8 o’clock PDT, which means 11 here. Don’t like it? Don’t watch.
Of course, not to watch was to miss seeing the greatest team-sport player in North American history. For the ’60s belonged to Bill Russell, who was undefeated against the Lakers and 9-1 overall in championships sought and won. The Lakers had Baylor, who merely invented modern offensive basketball with his astonishing array of pumps, double-pumps, and up-and-under moves that forever changed the concept of what shooting a basketball could entail. They also had Jerry West, the Logo, who played with a ferocity, dignity, and, of course, an extraordinary skill that earned him universal respect. Good Lord, even Johnny Most could not bring himself to utter a negative word about the man he called “Gentleman Jerry.’’
With the help of such accomplices as Rudy LaRusso (dubbed “Roughhouse Rudy’’ by Most, obviously unimpressed with Rudy’s Dartmouth pedigree), Dick Barnett, Frank Selvy, Hot Rod Hundley, Tom Hawkins, Leroy Ellis, Gail Goodrich, etc., Messrs. Baylor and West reached the Finals six times between 1962 and 1969, and six times they were turned back by the Celtics. The confrontations in 1962, 1966, and 1969 all went seven. The Lakers were in all three Game 7s, losing by 3 (OT), 2, and 2.
Seven lousy little points over 149 minutes. And there was no doubt in anyone’s mind what the ultimate difference in these two teams was. He wore No. 6.
“You had to change your complete game because of Russell,’’ lamented Fred Schaus, the losing coach in 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1966.
The truly legendary Chick Hearn broadcast all those games. “If Russell had been the Lakers center,’’ Hearn sighed, “they would have won the ballgames the Celtics did.’’
A year later, the Celtics would win in six as Cousy limped back onto the court with a sprained ankle to steady the troops in his final game. Two years after that, the Celtics smashed the Lakers in five, which was understandable since Baylor had a knee injury that would hamper him the rest of his career, and West likewise had a bad leg. Of course, Gentleman Jerry also averaged 40.
A gallant Laker team came from 3-1 down in 1966 to tie the series, but Game 7 was in Boston and there was no way Russell was going to lose what was going to be Red Auerbach’s last game. Neither team made it to the final series in 1967, but the league took a vote and decided to hold the Finals anyway. A year later, Boston defeated the Lakers for a fifth time in the decade, with John Havlicek scoring 40 points in the Game 6 clincher.
The next one really hurt.
LA had loaded up in the offseason, bringing in the inimitable Wilt Chamberlain to augment West and what was left of Baylor. The Majestic Three averaged a combined 70 points per game during the regular season, and they made the Lakers a clear favorite to win their first LA title, especially since their nemesis on the East Coast had barely qualified for the playoffs, finishing fourth in the East.
But guess who was waiting for them in the Finals? Yeah, that dastardly No. 6, plus his aged associates.
West asserted himself with 53 in Game 1, but LA won by only 2. It was indeed 2-0, LA, after the first two in the newly opened Fabulous Forum, and no team ever had won an NBA series after losing the first two games. The key was Game 4. LA led by a point, but the Celtics had the last shot. Havlicek and Larry Siegfried suggested an old Ohio State play that would involve setting a triple pick for 35-year-old Sam Jones, their best clutch shooter. He stumbled as he took Havlicek’s pass, but managed to get off a shot that bounced on the rim a few times as a certain purple-clad 7-footer watched with interest.
“He was just waiting there like a vulture to gather the ball in when it fell of the rim,’’ said Havlicek of Wilt. “But it fell in.’’
It all came down to a Game 7 in LA. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, a flamboyant fellow, had his building ready for the expected celebration. Havlicek somehow obtained a copy of the in-house itinerary, and he read it off to his teammates: the USC band, the balloons that would be released from the roof, the champagne, etc.
With Don Nelson making a fortuitous shot to put the Celtics ahead by a needed 3 with just over a minute to play, the Celtics won yet another title by a 108-106 score. West was distraught.
“Most years we played them, they were better than we were,’’ he said. “But in ’69, they were not better. Period.
“I don’t care how many times we played it, they were not better. We were better. Period. And we didn’t win. That was the toughest one.’’
Jerry West had scored 53, 41, 34, 40, 26, 39 and, finally, 42 (to go with 13 rebounds and 12 assists), and still had come up empty. No wonder he was so morose.
The Laker Girls pioneered the idea of mixing a little abstract sex and glamour into the NBA. The Celtics wouldn’t have a dance team for another 23 years. The Lakers had a guy named Dancing Barry who sashayed down the aisle each night in the fourth quarter. The Celtics were years away from a harmless mascot called “Lucky.’’ The Lakers warmed up to Randy Newman’s “I Love LA.’’ The Celtics stuck to an organist.
The Lakers had Magic.
The Celtics had Bird.
The Celtics had K.C. Jones, whose flamboyance was limited to singing a few songs at piano bars.
The Lakers had Pat Riley, who wore Armani suits, slicked his hair back, and introduced jargon such as “focus’’ and “skirmishes’’ and “hidden agendas.’’
And everyone hated everyone. Oh, it was great.
It was all different now. Boston fans regarded Laker fans as come-late, leave-early dilettantes who wouldn’t know a pick-and-roll from a pick and shovel. Laker fans thought Boston fans were get-a-life geeks who cared too much about what was only, after all, a game. Laker fans wanted to be oohed and aahed en route to victory. Magic was their man. Celtics fans wanted to see someone hit the cutter in stride. No frills. Larry was their guy.
“Back in the old days,’’ agrees the Los Angeles Times’s Mark Heisler, then, as now, a first-rate observer of the NBA scene, “it was sport for sport’s sake. It wasn’t a test of your culture.’’
But that was the backdrop of the 1984 Finals, which easily could have been an LA sweep had a) Gerald Henderson not stolen a foolish James Worthy pass and scored to send Game 2 into OT (eventually won on a Scott Wedman jumper) and b) Kevin McHale, acting completely out of character, had not viciously brought down Kurt Rambis on a sneakaway in Game 4. This display of aggression emboldened the Celtics and somehow unnerved the Lakers.
From the minute that series ended with a Boston Game 7 victory, Pat Riley began plotting revenge. He was a charter Celtics-hater from way back, anyway, and now he had become obsessed with those monsters in green and white.
“On the subject of the Boston Celtics, Riley was virulent,’’ says Heisler. Well, OK, then.
But there was still need for a final epiphany, and it came with what became known as the “Memorial Day Massacre,’’ a 148-114 Boston victory in Game 1 of the 1985 Finals. It took place on a Monday, and on Tuesday and Wednesday, Riley was merciless, making his team watch the tape over and over while questioning their testosterone level.
Taking all this the hardest was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had been ineffective in Game 1. He came out for Game 2 energized and determined, and when the LA win was over, he had scored 30 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, which matched his high total of the previous 10 years! Ten days later, he led his team to a Game 6 victory that gave the Lakers their first-ever series win over the Celtics and earned him the Finals MVP award.
“They are not the Fakers any more,’’ proclaimed M.L. Carr. “They are the Lakers. They are real, and have to be believed. They are the champs.’’
“This removes the most odious sentence in the English language,’’ said Lakers owner Jerry Buss. “It can never be said that the Lakers have never beaten the Celtics.’’
But the ramifications went further.
“All Laker history dates from those two days between Games 1 and 2,’’ maintains Heisler. “What took place then not only won them the title in 1985, but also set up the next two in ’87 and ’88.’’
The highlight of 1987 was Game 4. Leading, 2-1, the Lakers were outplayed by the Celtics for 46-plus minutes, trailing by 16 with just under 17 minutes to play, by 8 with 3:29 to go, by 6 with 1:50 left, and, finally, by 1 in the waning seconds. That’s when Magic Johnson made a left-to-right perambulation across the lane before launching a 13-foot hook over both Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for the game-winning basket.
“A junior, junior skyhook,’’ Magic called it. He could just as easily have called it a dagger in the heart of the Celtics, who would lose the series in six.
The Celtics had home-court advantage and went up, 2-0. Again, Game 4 was crucial. LA was up by 24 in the third before the Celtics made one of the greatest comebacks in their history. The Celtics won that game and pretty much established that they would not be beaten. But no one foresaw the shocking events of Game 6, when the Lakers capitulated after getting down by 20 at the half, losing by a 131-92 score that may very well serve as a motivational tool when the two resume play tomorrow night.
The dynamics haven’t changed since the Bird-Magic Era. The Lakers have the glam coach, 10-time champion Phil Jackson. The Celtics have an underrated mentor in Glenn “Doc’’ Rivers, who seeks no undue attention, makes no inflammatory comments, and shrewdly deflects all praise toward his players.
The fan contrast hasn’t changed a bit. If anything, it’s only gotten bigger. Boston fans still think LA fans are frauds (with the exception of the extremely loyal and eternally cool Jack Nicholson) and Laker fans still don’t understand why Boston fans care so much.
There is nothing in the NBA like it. Truthfully, there is nothing in sports like it. Red Sox and Yankees fans are essentially the same people. That is not the case here. We’re talking Pluto vs. Venus.
Orlando vs. Phoenix might very well have been a nice basketball series. But the league can have that anytime. It’s a lot more fun when it’s the Celtics and the Lakers. Welcome to Chapter 12.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.