Bosom Warfare



This day sucks, even if this game is awesome. Nobody wants this piece, not even the people who asked for it. I apologize if it's rough in places, or sounds like it's for a different audience, but I wanted to do something with it and couldn't spend any longer on it. I went deep into the John Huston marathon on TCM last night. Probably needs an edit, but I hope it will find a home here, rough edges and all.

Tonight, the Celtics and Lakers renew one of the most hallowed rivals in pro sorts. Pro basketball's two most successful franchises are hopelessly intertwined, even if the rivalry has really been a one-sided one.The Boston Celtics have an NBA-best seventeen championships; in nine of those Finals, they beat Minny/LA. The Lakers have hoisted fifteen banners of their own, two of which came against the Celtics.

Between those 32 titles, and the parade of Hall of Famers that made them happen, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry was the lifeblood of the league's pre-Jordan history. When the Lakers won three titles from 2001-2003 as the Celtics foundered, things just didn't seem right. These Finals aren't just a rematch of 2008—it's the league going back to its source, as well as the only viable distraction from the legacy of Michael Jordan.

But these two teams don't just have a stranglehold on the game's history. They've also been cast, however inaccurately, as the great yin and yang of the sport. The Celtics, like Boston, represent teamwork, toughness, tenacity, and loyalty. The Lakers mirror Los Angeles, encouraging big stars with bigger personalities, mega-watt play, and a touch of melodrama. Celtics are selfless; Lakers have egos. Celtics respect tradition and worship the old magic; the Lakers are avant-garde assholes. And, most inimically, the Celtics are for white folks; the Lakers, African-American. Yet none of this symbolism sprung up overnight. It evolved over four decades, a streamlined, and selective, version of Lakers-Celtics tailored to fit conventional wisdom. The question is, how did we end up here? And what got lost along the way?

From 1957-1969, the Boston Celtics owned the NBA, falling short of a championship only in 1958 and 1967. Red Auerbach was repsonsible for much of basketball as we know it; Bill Russell pioneered hair-raising defense and applied athleticism; and Bob Cousy defined the point guard position with an array of no-look passes and trick dribbles. Actually, back up. Minneapolis had been the league's original powerhouse. Under John Kundla, they won five titles between 1949 and 1954. Russell may have revolutionized shot-blocking and rebounding, but it was Lakers big man George Mikan who proved that size mattered. Slater Martin was arguably the first dedicated ball-handler. In a discourse obsessed with fundamentals, and foundations, it's the Lakers who set the sport into motion.

Anyway, in the sixties, the contrast between Boston's all-for-one talent mill and the star system of Los Angeles made for a neat rhetorical trick. Auerbach had more than his share of great players. Besides Russell, Cousy, and Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, and John Havleciek all earned a spot in Springfield. We can debate whether the winning made them stars, or they were stars muted for the purpose of winning. Lakers Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were better all-around players than any single Celtic. Regardless, the fact remains that the Celtics were simply better than the Lakers during these years. Wilt Chamberlain came to LA in 1968, and even then, Boston came out on top. Incidentally, Wilt is as responsible for the Laker mythos as anyone, and he only showed up in town late in his career. Certainly, the austere West—universally admired by the Celtics—or the hyper-competitive Baylor didn't fit the bill.

When a single player, Russell, retired after the 1969 title, the Celtics went into hibernation. In 1972, the Lakers got their ring, but without Baylor. He had retired early in the season when his knees had made him a liability. The Celtics veterans had hung on as long as they could, with future Hall of Famers like Sam Jones coming off the bench well into their twenties; Baylor, one of the most prolific scorers the in NBA history, retired out of a sense of duty.

The Celtics rose again in 1974, winning it all behind berserker redhead Dave Cowens, the ageless Havlecik, and feisty guard JoJo White. They took another in 1976, a mini-dynasty in the midst of the NBA's most obscure, and tumultuous, era. As much as anything the Russell/Auerbach teams, these two titles brought into focus the Celtics mystique. Cowens proved especially important; his game was the polar opposite of a Julius Erving or David Thompson. As the league became "too black," the Celtics stemmed the tide. At the same time, in the mid-seventies, Boston became the site of bitter racial conflict when an effort to desegregate through busing lead to riots. Many white Bostonians saw themselves as being imposed upon by the federal courts in the same way that Erving or Thompson defiled the NBA.

The irony is that the Celtics had perhaps done more in the name of integration than any other NBA franchise, going all the way back to the drafting of Chuck Cooper in 1950. But that was the Celtics, not Boston, a distinction Russell is quick to draw throughout Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. Russell pulls no punches when discussing his experience as a black man in Boston. Calling it "a flea market of racism", he describes in wrenching detail the harassment and vandalism he and his teammates were subject to. The 1974 team, though, was as much a Boston team as a Celtics team. What mattered was that its values, and star players, resonated with the fanbase. The Russell/Auerbach teams, which had trouble selling out the Garden, were strip-mined for what suited the audience.

In 1979, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came into the league, having faced each other for the NCAA championship only months before. They would restore its popularity and its relevancy; their teams were the two best in the NBA, and seemingly locked in battle from the first day of Bird and Johnson's rookie year. Bird and Magic became the face of the league, a masterstroke that allowed fans to focus on either Bird or Magic, Bird and Magic, or the dynamic between the two.

Larry Bird was perhaps the only Great White Hope, in any sport, to actually make good on his promise. For fans made uneasy by the direction the game had taken, Bird's ascent made the NBA safe again. It was the Cowens Effect, but on a national scale. Titles in 1981, 1984, and 1986 proved a point not only about the Celtics, but about what brand of basketball worked best. The Lakers, with their up-tempo, exuberant game, larger-than-life point guard, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center, were cast as their foil. HBO's Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals devotes quite a bit of time to detailing how, during the eighties, Lakers-Celtics split NBA fans along racial lines. If anyone's keeping score, the Lakers came out on top in this round, with rings in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988.

The rivalry was compelling exactly because, through Bird and Magic, the sport found itself on solid ground; these two laid the groundwork for the product to move past the disjointed, dysfunctional seventies. The heart of basketball wasn't at stake; it was a testament to the strength, and unity, of Bird and Magic that allowed the illusion to flourish. They may have simulated racial strife, but it was all theater, seized upon by consumers eager to find meaning in basketball. That they turned the sport into that effective a canvas is why it makes as much sense to refer to them as one entity, rather than real rivals.

The same might very well hold for the Celtics and Lakers writ large. This year, we're expecting a Lakers-Celtics series that runs roughshod over all the old myths. The question is whether this is progress, or a failing of the rivalry.

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At 6/04/2010 1:58 AM, Blogger Tree Frog said...

My interest wasn't really piqued until your penultimate paragraph. You say that Bird and Magic were engaging in theater - can you develop that some more?

Do you have examples of them saying things that would express an awareness of the game being played by the media, the league and the players themselves? That'd be way more awesome than a well written if blase recap of the Lakers/Celtics rivalry that every sports site/magazine is running this week.

At 6/04/2010 2:15 AM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

Boston doesn't "represent teamwork, toughness, tenacity, and loyalty."

wv: ruffsy--nickname of a 1950s HBCU player

At 6/04/2010 2:35 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

TF, you're saying this is a "a well written if blase recap of the Lakers/Celtics rivalry that every sports site/magazine is running this week"? Weird. I must be reading the wrong sites.

At 6/04/2010 2:42 AM, Blogger Ben said...

@ tree frog--seems like the "theater" comment was getting at how magic and bird were playing out the racialized white v. black narrative that neither of them actually cared about. Their race was part of the story for people who cared about the evolution of the league from white to black, or maybe for people who projected larger societal problems on the league or vice versa, but obviously they just cared about beating each other because they wanted to win.

This might just be because I'm too young, but the constant need for people to frame this finals in view of the old celtics/lakers rivalry seems really forced and stale to me. Historical context is great and all but talking about where Paul Pierce ranks among the Best Celtics of All Time or whatever can't really tell you anything about this series. I felt the same way when these two teams played in 08, like talking about the history between these two teams, especially then, made no sense, since there had been no rivalry between them for roughly 20 years.

At 6/04/2010 10:15 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Nice piece. I think about the fact that some of the guys in this series were not alive even in 1987 - the last year of the true LA-Celtic rivalry before the C's went on a 20-year finals hiatus. The rivalry sells tickets and advertising, and has a certain cache. But all of the symbolism that was invented, even straitjacketed, around these teams in the 60s and then 80s, has no application to these teams. It never really fit, and it definitely does not now.

At 6/04/2010 10:19 AM, Blogger David Sankey said...

"This might just be because I'm too young, but the constant need for people to frame this finals in view of the old celtics/lakers rivalry seems really forced and stale to me."

Ben, I'm with you.
I think the other issue raised is, how relevant can an age-old team-based rivalry be in the post-Jordan era? We cheer for stars, myself included. I want to see Boston rout LA because I've identified with KG since my modest high school days as a mobile big. I want to see the Lakers lose because I'm put off by Kobe's tyrannical treatment of his teammates, who respond to his badgering like they suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. The media latches on to the rivalry by default, but only after touting superstars all season long, with nary a mention of a city's history or involvement. It's a complete flip in perspective and perception that feels inauthentic and out of touch to anyone raised on 90's ball. I think that applies to more than half of the players to many of the players as well. I can't imagine Rondo, Perkins, Gasol or Bynum caring a lick about anything that happened before 2008. Only the older guard feels that, and that feels right, as this is the twilight of their careers.

At 6/04/2010 10:38 AM, Blogger W2 said...

Things I feel and or know...

KG, Artest, PP, Ray, Kobe, and Gasol are each fighting for their individaul legacies as much as anything team or franchise related. I think each of these guys gets that.

But and or and, as a Boston fan I think it is impossible to not recognize that a player feels the influence of the past. Metaphysically the media, ex players, and fans bring it to the table.

Rondo might be the exception, as I think he is some interstellar dark knight freak out who is athletic enough to be an ice skater stuck in the body of Dr. J and Isiah Thomas's petulant child. He insists that there is no basketball past. Which is somehow appropriate because his greatest gift has been injecting the game with some freshness.

Ramble, ramble.

At 6/04/2010 3:16 PM, Blogger Ben said...

David Sankey, that is super on point and exactly what I was feeling but couldn't put a finger on. Thanks. This shift in narrative away from the superstar angle towards the team history/team rivalry angle is especially weird because the number 1 story that isn't related to the finals is the impending shift of league cosmology when all the various superstar free agents choose which team to make contenders. For a follower of the league as a whole the teams themselves are basically arbitrary--it's the players who get to decide which teams are relevant.

At 6/04/2010 6:08 PM, Blogger Tree Frog said...

Shoals, quit being a douche.

Ben, you're right on with everything you've said here. Amongst my friends, the history of the teams pre-Jordan (1988 or so) is something that we weren't sentient enough or not in existence to experience firsthand. It's all hoary old stuff that happened in a bygone era of short shorts and matador defense.

That following of the league as a whole is exactly what drew me to FD in the first place - the teams don't matter as much. Sloan giving Kirilenko just a taste of the ball each quarter is a better story to pay attention to.

At 6/04/2010 6:11 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Wait, for some reason when I read your comment last night, I thought you were saying this was like every other piece on the rivalry. That annoyed me. But looking at it again, I can see how I just might have misread it. If so, I apologize.

This history vs. NEW FUTURE stuff is really interesting, especially with this series promoted as history, and Kobe positioned as a being of history, and then LeBron raising hell just over the horizon.


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