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.