Celtics-Lakers is the greatest NBA rivalry, and ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ gets it right

Boston, MA - 10/4/1991: Boston Celtics player Larry Bird talks to the media while a child waits for an autograph during media day in Boston on Oct. 4, 1991. (Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff) --- BGPA Reference: 170106_MJ_006
Boston Celtics player Larry Bird talks to the media during media day in Boston on Oct. 4, 1991. –Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff

No matter a particular NBA champion’s level of dominance, the argument regarding which single-season team is the greatest of all-time will remain a permanently parochial one.

Chicagoans will always believe it’s the 1996 Bulls. The Hollywood crowd would probably go with the deep ’87 Lakers. Sixers fans chirp about their ’83 Moses Malone-led behemoth.

In the Bay Area, it’s the current incarnation of the Warriors, and even if Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and their sharpshooting friends were to go 82-0 then run the table in the postseason next year, Celtics fans would still say the ’86 Celtics would beat ‘em in 6.

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Where there is no room for debate or regional bias is in the matter of the greatest rivalry in NBA history. It is the Celtics versus Lakers, argument over, next question. The franchises have combined for 33 championships (though five of the Lakers’ 16 came in Minneapolis). The Celtics have beaten the Lakers in 9 of 12 Finals matchups, but Los Angeles has won three of the last four showdowns, including the most recent in 2010.

Should anyone with a shallow sense of NBA history question this, they should be required to watch ESPN’s sprawling, nostalgic and relentlessly entertaining three-part “30 for 30” documentary on the rivalry that premieres Tuesday night. Any basketball fan worth his or her high tops will want to watch it without prodding.

Titled Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies, the network’s latest prestige documentary project airs in three parts, with the first two running for a total of three hours beginning at 8 p.m Tuesday. Part three, the two-hour conclusion, airs Wednesday at 8.

Donnie Wahlberg and Ice Cube are the provincial narrators who highlight the dichotomy of the Boston and LA fan bases. While they occasionally slip into hyperbole in telling a tale that doesn’t require any – Wahlberg describes Larry Bird as “the best basketball player the good lord ever created, and the reason he created him was to crush the LA Lakers” – they are welcome voices in a detail-rich series that emphasizes the rivalry’s ‘80s heyday but does not skimp on the other eras.

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Bill Russell’s career and life could and should be a compelling “30 for 30” series unto itself, but directors Jim Podhoretz and Jonathan Hock dedicate ample time to discussing his impact here, not only on the Celtics or the league but also in matters of race and culture. The films do not stick to sports – the Watts riots and the Boston busing crisis are mentioned in more than just passing – and the result is welcome context and perspective on the rivalry, the respective cities, and our country in a given moment of time.

Mostly, though, there is reveling to be found in the reliving. I’m always reluctant to share spoilers or pass along the best moments from a program yet to air, but there is a remarkable amount of footage in Best of Enemies that will be unfamiliar even to a Celtics junkie. That’s an achievement given how accessible Larry Bird and Magic Johnson highlights are on YouTube. The directors also have talked to virtually every living person of note who was involved in the rivalry, even in an ancillary way. The likes of George Gervin and Micheal Ray Richardson show up to offer context on the NBA prior to and during Bird and Johnson’s arrival.

There are some details that stuck with me after watching all three parts in one sitting — the utter brutality of the 1981 Celtics-Sixers playoff series, for one. The Celtics’ victory over the Lakers in the 1969 Finals was mind-boggling because of LA coach Butch van Breda Kolff’s decision to sit out Wilt Chamberlain – who had limped off the court earlier but deemed himself ready to return – in the final moments of Game 7. “Van Breda Kolff in all of his hysteria and his madness, said, ‘We don’t need him,’ and never put Chamberlain back in the game,’’ recalls Laker Tommy Hawkins. Imagine if that happened today, in this media culture. Stephen A. Smith’s skull would melt on live television.

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It’s also interesting to hear ‘80s Lakers such as Jamaal Wilkes talk about the effervescent Magic Johnson’s impact on reluctant leader Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. “It was a real quandary for the league,’’ said Wilkes. “[Kareem] was the face of the league, and he didn’t want to talk.” Nearly forty years later, Kareem is appearing on the The Bachelorette to give advice to the contestants. What a world.

For Celtics fans, that ’86 team remains the pinnacle, and their victory over the Houston Rockets gets plenty of plaudits here. But the real satisfaction in Best of Enemies is reliving the 1984 Finals, when the Celtics verbally and physically overwhelmed the Lakers. The gamesmanship was almost unfathomable in this era, when superteams form with no regard for past combat.
Cedric Maxwell, who to no one’s surprise is an absolute riot in the documentary, memorably flashed the choke sign to James Worthy as the Lakers stood at the free throw line late during a tied Game 4. I had already missed a free throw,’’ recalls Worthy. “Now I’ve got to deal with this [expletive] coming in with the choke signal.” Worthy missed. The Celtics prevailed in overtime and went on to win the series.

“We were not going to lose to the damn Lakers,’’ recalled M.L. Carr, a chief antagonist in ’84. “We had no respect for ‘em. None.

The feeling was mutual among the Lakers, who gained revenge by beating the Celtics in ’85 and ’87.

“You get to a point where you start to realize why it’s such a rivalry,’’ said Lakers guard Byron Scott. “We started to feel the same way as the guys who played the game before you felt. Where you really dislike that team.”

Those were the days, back when the best teams made for the best of enemies. This “30 for 30” is a delightful five-hour flashback to the heady, sweltering rivalry of the ’80s, and so much more.

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